The Youth Are Revolting: A New Generation of Politics in the Middle East?

Article excerpt

0n February 18, 2012, just over a year on from the first major demonstrations in Yemen's Change Square, 26-year-old photojournalist Ebrahim Al Sharif announced he was going to run for the presidency, under the banner "The First Youth President in the World."

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"My desire is to become Yemen's next president and this is irreversible," said Ebrahim, boldly ignoring the fact that the upcoming elections were not open to contestation. Vice President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi was sworn in as president on February 25, after receiving 99 percent of the vote on the single candidate ballot.

The same week, in Egypt, 33-year-old Amr El Beheiry was released after over a year in prison and cleared of assault charges. Branded by the military court that sentenced him--purportedly without witness or lawyer--as a "thug of the revolution," Amr was severely beaten by the authorities. When he was arrested, it was the first time that he had been to a protest. His case prompted the emergence of Egypt's "No to Military Trials for Civilians" campaign, led by activists who were with him during the protests.

Thousands of others like Amr remain in detention. In Bahrain, an 18-year-old Kuwaiti national, Ali Feifel Sahad al-Ali, was jailed by the police for participating in an "illegal gathering." His family were denied access to him, and Amnesty International released a statement warning of the risk that he might be tortured. In Syria, seven-year-old Julnar was shot through her bedroom window in Horns as she called down in support of her protesting neighbors below.

The patterns and outcomes of the uprisings that have torn across the Middle East in the past 20 months--ousting the autocratic leaders of Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen, executing Libya's Colonel Gaddaffi, and prompting prolonged and violent clampdowns in Syria and Bahrain--have varied considerably country to country. But one noticeable similarity has been the huge numbers of young faces in the crowds; they are young men and women writing the slogans, shouting the loudest, and often bearing the brunt of the brutalities.

Ebrahim, Ali, Julnar, and Amr are far from the most prominent names or faces from the revolutions, but illustrate some of the hopes, desires, and fates of the millions of other young citizens involved across the Middle East, of an emerging generation who exist in stark contrast to the octogenarian leaders that pepper the region.

From Apathy to Agency?

For a long time, Middle East citizens, particularly the youth, had been characterized as apathetic and passive by Western and Arab analysts alike, who cited low voter turnouts (67 percent of young Egyptians did not vote in the 2010 elections), inability and lack of will to mobilize, lack of interest in politics and an assortment of cultural specificities. In 2009, Belgian-Egyptian journalist Khaled Diab asked: "Do the Egyptian people possess some kind of socially innate antibody against mass protest?" It resonated with Edward Said's 2003 forceful call to Arab populations: "Why is there such silence and such astounding helplessness? ... How can a region of almost 300 million Arabs wait passively for the blows to fall without attempting a collective roar of resistance and a loud proclamation of an alternative view? Has the Arab will completely dissolved?"

As the world watched, millions of young people thronging to the streets in January 2011, showing not only strength and determination, but also an ability to organize and in some cases overthrow, scholars have been rushing to fill this analytical void, offering various theories for youth-heavy nature of the Arab Spring. Young Arabs were suddenly an exciting new force to be contended with.

Some argue that it is a case of demographics: the Middle East is experiencing an enormous youth bulge, as around 60 percent of the region's population is under the age of 30. In Egypt and Syria, this is closer to 65 or 70 percent, and in Yemen, 75 percent are under the age of 25. …