Tahrir’s Legacy: Opportunities and Hazards for the Future of Youth Movements in the Middle East

Young Egyptian men with painted faces protest in Tahrir Square on February 1, 2011 during the Arab Spring demonstrations that led to the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak (User Ahmad Hammoud, Flickr Commons) Nearly four years after the Arab Spring, hope for democratic reforms in the Arab world has been all but shattered. The recent verdict to exonerate former President Hosni Mubarak of all remaining criminal charges against him in what appeared to be a flawed legal process dominated by prosecutors and judges originally appointed by Mubarak himself has come to represent a complete reversal of the Arab Spring uprisings that ended his presidency. While the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has changed, in some cases for the better, its broader trajectory is unclear. Millions of young men and women who spearheaded massive peaceful demonstrations in 2011 are still eager to talk about new politics. But with the exception of Tunisia, a reversion to the repressive tactics of the past and heavy-handed policies enacted by the military-led Egyptian government, coupled with continuing political tensions in Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, and Syria, have cast dark shadows over the optimistic fervor that had, until recently, swept the region.

The phrase “demography is destiny” may be an old and somewhat overstated adage, but the importance of demographic realities cannot be ignored. Two-thirds of the MENA region’s population today is under eighteen. This demographic faces one of the highest unemployment rates in the world. At around 30 percent, the region ranks among the worst for youth unemployment. It also suffers from high population growth and poor education. Thus, many of the young people who played a significant role in prompting revolutions that swept the Arab world have been left frustrated at the lack of genuine change in their circumstances.

It would be far too facile to conclude, however, that the 2011 Arab upheavals were caused simply by the youth bulge. Rather, as Juan Cole noted in his 2014 book, The New Arabs: How the Millennial Generation is Changing the Middle East, a combination of bleak employment prospects, elitist power structures, and repression contributed to the revolutionary movement.  This explains why youth demands during the Arab Spring coalesced into four basic aspirations based largely on secular motivations—change, bread, liberty, and social justice. It is important to remember that these uprisings were driven as much by causes relating to economic justice and security as they were by demands for liberty. Despite the fact that the prevailing mantra in Egypt’s Tahrir Square was Hiya thawrat karama(“this is a revolution of honor and dignity”), underlying socioeconomic causes of the revolution were decades in the making and led young protesters to take to the streets.

Fresh scrutiny of empowered regimes’ failures was demanded both by the secular orientation of protesters’ demands and by the all-too-familiar language of human rights and personal dignity that characterized the newfound desires of the youth population. In Tunisia, former President Zine El AbidineBen Ali was forced to flee when the country’s youthful population staged huge demonstrations using both new and old modes of communication to topple his regime. Likewise, during Egypt’s vibrant April 6th Youth Movement, social media and the Internet played a significant role in mobilizing opposition to Mubarak. This Youth Movement, however, was quickly sidelined by the military, which accused its members of accepting American funding. In Iran, the youth-led “Green Movement,” emerged during the country’s disputed 2009 presidential elections. Although subsequently quashed by the regime, the Green Movement split the foundations of the Islamic Republic to its core. Hooman Majd aptly captured this development in his 2010 book, The Ayatollah’s Democracy: An Iranian Challenge, writing that “Iran suffered political fissures in 2009 precisely because the establishment (and most anyone in the opposition could be considered a part of the establishment) has split so openly, not because dissidents had burst onto the scene.”

Despite these past successes, the prospects for future youth empowerment in the MENA region are less than promising. Some may form coalitions or seek realignment with nationalists and Islamists, options that appear most practical. Others may stay out of the power structure and fight the regime from the inside. Still others may go underground and use violent means to fight the ruling regime—a possibility that will carry dire consequences both for those countries in which it occurs and for the region at large.

The combination of a suffocating political climate and rising unemployment rates in the aftermath of the Arab Spring uprisings have caused great concern and disillusionment on the part of youth who see little or no hope for the future. Given the region’s high youth unemployment rates, poor economic conditions and local job prospects, discrimination, insufficient investment in work-related skills, and exclusivity of access to tertiary education, a massive brain drain is all but inevitable. One recent study showed that an astounding 26 percent of young people aged 15-29 across the MENA region have expressed a desire to leave the Middle East search of better educational and career opportunities.

Unemployment rates throughout the MENA region are depressingly high, and are having a significant negative effect on youth. Youth unemployment rates for 2011 in Tunisia (42.3 percent), Palestine (35.7 percent), and Egypt (29.7 percent) mean that, despite having successfully won the right to free and fair elections, young people still cannot earn a decent living or support a family. Absent these necessities and disillusioned by poverty and disenfranchisement, young people have increasingly gravitated toward radical ideologies and militancy.  Disappointment with the long-term results of the Arab Spring has made them vulnerable and easily animated by propaganda cultivated by radical groups like the so-called Islamic State. This explains why in a country like Tunisia, where positive moves toward democracy have enabled young people to express their dissident views, a disgruntled minority of nearly 3,000 young people—according to an October 22 article by David D. Kirkpatrick in the New York Times—has traveled to Syria and Iraq to join the terrorist group. Rather than being driven by religious belief, these individuals are instead determined to confront the underlying structural conditions of their societies that have left them with little hope for positive change.

These factors also underscore a key point in the controversy over democratic reforms in the Middle East today—the fact that many leaders obstinately refuse to admit the need for socioeconomic change. Political reforms are unlikely to be sustained over time if they are not shored up by social and economic development. This theory has yet to be discredited, which may explain the absence of government policies that tackle the structural societal problems causing inequality, exclusion, and disempowerment. Unless the Arab world’s leaders put effective economic policies in place to address the structural problems their countries face, their bankrupt politics are certain to lead to more instability. For these reasons, the regimes in power must prioritize economic development programs to improve quality of life and create jobs and opportunities to give the young hope for the future. A recent report by the United Nations Population Fund drew attention to the needs of girls and young women in particular, including an absence of sexual and reproductive health services. Both the risk of homicide and income inequality have also increased, in part because of the youth bulge. The pressure cooker of Arab societies, which exploded during the Arab Spring under conditions of economic insecurity and suffocating repression, has been defused for the time being. But this is unlikely to prevent steam from flaring up in coming years.

It is true that, without effective economic policies to address widespread societal grievances, the legitimacy of ruling elites will eventually be undermined and their political survival threatened. But the culture of peaceful mass protest has increasingly called into question not only the credibility of these authoritarian regimes but also the motivations of their outside patrons. Young peoples’ frustration therefore extends to the Western governments that have supported these regimes in the past, and have continued to do so since the 2011 uprisings. Consequently, the future of democratic reforms remains problematic.

The toughest challenge for the youth movement to overcome, however, will be to establish institutionalized—rather than informal—means of political participation that can be sustained in the long term. This will be especially crucial as their societies continue to undergo rapid change. Transitioning toward democratic change without well-established and supportive civil society organizations is likely to worsen socioeconomic and political conditions. Moving forward, MENA youth should deploy organizing assets and techniques aimed at building these institutions. Political freedom must be accompanied by a civil society that is literate and densely connected if it is to be protected and sustained over time. It will be equally important to work toward enlisting allies from the broader segments of the population, including journalists, lawyers, academics, labor unions, peasant unions, NGOs, and even public sector officers if youth intend to transform the nationwide protests of the Arab Spring into sustainable and collective action in the long term.