The Promise of Arab Youth: Gone Today, Here Tomorrow

By Paul Salem | Vice President for Policy and Research - The Middle East Institute | Jul 07, 2015
The Promise of Arab Youth: Gone Today, Here Tomorrow

After the latest attacks in Tunisia, Kuwait, Paris, and Sinai, attention is focused once again on the threat posed by the radicalization of youth. Indeed, Arab youth do represent a threat—to the established order. They came out in their millions in 2011 to demand freedom, dignity, and jobs, and these demands will not go away. They have been pushed back out of the public space by older institutions reviving fights between state authoritarianism and dreams of a caliphate, and indeed some youth, out of frustration, will radicalize and turn to violence. But polls and research tracking youth opinion show that the majority still favors a democratic, pluralist future. And although it is hard to see a path from today’s headlines to a better Mideast future, it is important to remain engaged with the youth of the Arab world. While they might be sidelined politically, they are still very active in civil society, online, in the arts, and in other real and virtual public spaces. Generational change is slow but often inexorable. Although Arab youth may have lost today’s battle to hardened forces of yesterday, it is their values and choices that will shape the future.

In some ways the challenge of youth is a modern phenomenon. In pre-modern days children were married off soon after entering puberty and were given adult responsibilities in local rural society. In today’s world the period between leaving childhood and entering adulthood—characterized by getting a job, getting married, and starting a family—can stretch for many years. This period is especially long and difficult in the Arab world because of high unemployment, massive housing deficits, and a general sanction against sex before marriage. Young men and women in many Arab countries often remain in this highly frustrating situation from their teens into their thirties. Add to that a general ban on politics and high levels of repression, and you get a sense of the enormity of the challenge.

In the first half of the twentieth century, youth were seen as the hope of the nation and the engine of change and new leadership. The revolutions and coups in the Arab world of the 1950s and 1960s were led in the name of—and often by—a young generation rising up against the corruption and lethargy of the old. But later, youth came to be seen as a problem, even a threat.  Governments sought to manage the threat through control of schools, universities, media, and civil society, and through the institution of military conscription and an extensive intelligence apparatus.

But with the growth of satellite television and then the development of the Internet and social media, a new virtual public space emerged over which the state had little control. The state worried about satellite television but thought that the Internet and social media was an innocuous space where young people could occupy their time chatting and watching YouTube videos. State authorities did not appreciate that the Internet and social media was actually a real space for shaping public opinion and mobilizing for public action.  We saw the results of that in the first phase of the Arab uprisings.

It is not only states that feel threatened by the empowerment of youth. Patriarchal society itself, as well as religious authorities, are shaken by this large sector of society that is not well integrated into the social structure and that is part of a growing globalized youth culture. Patriarchal and religious movements are especially alarmed by the equal empowerment of women within this group. We see radical movements literally trying to beat women back into submission.

But the concerns of youth are still very practical. In a recent opinion poll interviewing youth from 16 Arab countries,[1] unemployment remained at the top of their list of priorities. Half a million new young people enter the Arab job market every year. The challenge of growth and job creation will remain the key strategic goal for the region for the coming decades.

On the political level, between 2011 and 2014, polled youth listed the absence of democracy as the number one obstacle facing the region. But 2015 results are cause for concern. After the disappointing experiences of attempted transitions in six Arab countries, only one of which has succeeded, a full 40 percent of youth polled now responded that they didn’t think they would ever see democracy take hold in their countries. Also, respondents now list ISIS and terrorism as the number one obstacle facing the region. Indeed, the old narrative that the only choice is between radical Islamists and authoritarian states seems to have regained ground among the region’s youth.

But other data point in different and interesting directions. An examination of online data in the Arab world shows a definite and continuing trend toward liberal values and ideas, as Ahmed Benchemsi has shown in a recent article on this site.[2] In Egypt, if we put aside media institutions and music celebrities, the 10 most followed Twitter accounts are those of liberal commentators such as Bassem Youssef and Amr Hamzawy. In Saudi Arabia, six of the ten most watched YouTube channels are satirical shows produced by rebellious Saudi youth; these videos have gotten over 900 million views so far.

So while the traditional public spaces and the arenas of armed conflict are still dominated by authoritarian states or armed radical groups, the virtual space, where most youth spend a good deal of their time, is dominated by other ideas and other values. ISIS recognized the power of social media early on and does most of its recruiting online, but radical websites still attract only a small minority of youth—albeit a dangerous and impactful minority, no doubt.  

Generational change is slow in making itself felt. Indeed, some of the generational preferences of the youth of the United States of the 1970s only made it into law and Supreme Court decisions this past May. This Arab generation reared its head in 2011 and was quickly beaten back by older state institutions and Islamist movements. But it has not been defeated; indeed, it cannot be defeated. It lives online and in vigorous civil society groups and communities throughout the Arab world. In its majority, it does not favor the continuation of the old authoritarian political order, nor the rise of a new form of radical religious repression. It has not found how to translate its vast numbers into actual political power, nor how to change the system without either bringing it all crashing down or triggering a violent backlash.  But the old order cannot sustain itself indefinitely, and the attempts of radical Islamists to escape the present by proposing an even more repressive and patriarchal future will fail. The powers of the present still represent the accretions of the past, but the future is being forged among the youth of today. Their day will come again.

From a policy standpoint, this perspective means that engagement with, and investment in, the vast array of activities and initiatives that Arab youth are engaged in are the best investment for a better long-term future. Although youth movements per se might not be able to win an election or end an armed civil war in the immediate future, the values, choices, activities, networks, and relationships that they foster today—online, or in civil society, or through other means—will gradually shape the values and society of tomorrow’s Arab world. And while Washington and other capitals are forced to deal with immediate crises and sitting governments, they should be aware that the conflicts of today are part of a decaying old order, and that elements of a new order that was glimpsed briefly in 2011 is gestating below the surface. The transition might still take years or decades to see itself through, but the arc of history will bend not in favor of sustaining twentieth-century despotisms or championing medieval inquisitions, but in favor of those youth that envision—and bravely work for—a more open, democratic, prosperous, and tolerant future.


[2] Ahmed Benchemsi, “Don’t be Fooled by Appearances, Liberal Values are Spreading in the Arab World,” The Middle East Institute, December 9, 2014, http://goo.gl/dbVcFM.