Insights into Arab Youth Today

When I visited Cairo this week for the first time in nearly a year, the changed mood among young and old alike hit me in the face like the hot and dusty wind coming off the Egyptian desert.

When I visited Cairo this week for the first time in nearly a year, the changed mood among young and old alike hit me in the face like the hot and dusty wind coming off the Egyptian desert. The desire to achieve the full gains of the revolution was still there, but so were concerns that new burdens and constraints were starting to overwhelm the capacity of the human spirit—even Egyptians’ almost super-human spirit—to keep moving forward towards a new Egypt that offered its citizens democracy, dignity and reasonably priced food and fuel.

Here and across the Arab world, I have sensed a similar trend when speaking to youth and adults. The adults tend to slip more quickly into a perplexed, disappointed and questioning mood about the real gains of the revolution and the difficulties that now define people’s daily lives—less security, higher prices, more unemployed, long lines at gas stations, power cuts every day, power-grabbing governments, and others. Young people voice the same concerns, but they also insist on persevering with their determined push to achieve the full gains of their revolutions, knowing that the process of change takes time. Perhaps because they are young, and their lives are mostly ahead of them, they must succeed so that their own adulthood is not plagued by the police-state, consumer-defined, mind-controlled, apolitical emptiness that has been the fate of their parents’ generations.

These kinds of anecdotal perceptions that journalists and others describe are always questionable for their accuracy, but now we have some important new research that documents more accurately the sentiments among those young activists that were largely responsible for instigating and defining the first three revolutions in the Arab world in early 2011 in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. One of the big questions that has hovered across our region in the past two and a half years—next weekend will mark the 2.5 years mark after Mohammad Bouazizi set himself on fire in Sidi Bouzid—has been how those young Arab men and women who challenged and then changed their former autocratic regimes, would react if political events did not fulfill their desires for freedom and dignity.

We now have some solid answers to this important question, in the form of a new study that was released in Cairo this week that provides valuable insights into the political and social sentiments of youth across those three countries. Entitled “The Revolutionary Promise: Youth Perceptions in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia,” the study conducted in May-December 2012 by the British Council and the John Gerhart Center at the American University in Cairo identifies country-specific trends and conditions while also noting similarities among youth perceptions across the region (the full report and an executive summary are available on the respective websites).

The study confirms that young activists are largely disappointed by many aspects of the conditions in their countries, including formal political parties and institutions. You would be disappointed, too, if only two of the 164 police officers indicted for the deaths of 841 demonstrators in Egypt were sentenced to prison by now. Yet these young Arabs continue to use the new public spheres that they created—in civil society, on the street, in the communications world—to achieve the full promises of their revolutions. Many of them define those promises in ways that far transcend merely the end of dictatorship and creating a functioning democracy, to include the central demands for “social justice,” citizen empowerment, equitable access to food and social services, more social trust and less polarization, and a voice in the shaping of the state and its values and policies.

Most interviewed youth felt marginalized and neglected—the “sacrificed and untrusted generation,” as a Tunisian researcher described her cohort of frustrated young activists—as they saw themselves excluded from the new governance systems that emerged after the first rounds of elections and political reconfigurations across the region. Youth broadly mistrust the formal media and political parties, and therefore spend time these days creating alternatives.

They persist in finding how they can impact society and keep up the pressure to achieve the full revolutionary promise through civil society activism, human rights organizations, direct street action (as opposed to only social media activism), student unions, and other vehicles for achieving two overriding goals: making their voices heard in the context of safeguarding freedom of expression for all, and finding the route to translating the “populist street legitimacy” they helped create two years ago into new government policies that serve all citizens equitably.

Young citizens in our region two years ago shattered old autocracies and created new rules for public power and legitimacy, but they have not yet been allowed to share in the continued shaping of new governance systems or national values. They are now reassessing all the joy and bitterness of these complex experiences, and will persist in their determination to make the transition from activist youth to full citizens.

Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. You can follow him @ramikhouri.

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