Arab Youth

Can one be optimistic about the future of the Middle East? Not if you read the newspapers. What if you read the work of knowledgeable scholars? Then there might be more cause for optimism. Juan Cole has argued that a watershed divides the older generation of Arabs from the youth of today. The older generation is poorly educated and often illiterate, largely rural, and religiously observant. Fundamentally conservative, they have accepted a “complacent, stagnant and corrupt status quo” in politics and the economy. Younger people, Cole argues, are better educated, more concentrated in urban areas, more familiar with all kinds of technology, and less religiously observant than are their parents and grandparents. In Egypt, half the population is less than 25 years old. They are also un-employed and under-employed at “Depression-era rates.” On the one hand, this gives them serious grievances against their own society. On the other hand, it leaves them with a lot of free time for complaining, talking, organizing, and demonstrating.   Their familiarity with social media magnifies these tendencies. Cole argues that these sorts of young people played an important role in the “Arab Spring” uprisings that brought down authoritarian rulers in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt.[1] Cole focuses in particular on “left-liberal youth living in towns and cities” whom he sees as forming a credible opposition to both traditional authoritarian governments and to Islamic fundamentalists.

There are objections to Professor Cole’s optimism. For one thing, if you track the historical background to the “Arab Spring,” you can see a rising wave of public discontent. In early 2003, there were demonstrations opposing the American attack on Iraq; in 2006, came Youtube videos of Egyptian secret police abusing suspects in custody; in late 2008, there were demonstrations over the first Gaza war between Israel and Hamas; and in early 2011, video of Tunisian police firing on demonstrators started the ball rolling for the “Arab Spring.” The trouble is that these were equal parts anti-Western (US, Israel) and anti-authoritarian.

Second, the concept of rootless, estranged young people is an umbrella category. Estranged young people looking for a cause don’t have to choose left-liberal progressivism. Young people in the Thirties flocked to Nazism with as much enthusiasm (and in greater numbers) as they did to the International Brigades that fought for the Spanish Republic. Jihadists shelter under the umbrella just as much as do progressives. A familiarity with social media is no vaccine against Islamism. Both ISIS and Anwar al-Awlaki could master modern social media as well as can the progressive young people of the Middle East.

Finally, faced with a choice between Islamists governments elected after a “revolution,” and a return to the old order under the auspices of a military-economic elite complex, the progressive young people celebrated by Professor Cole seem to have opted for the latter. Now that the old order is back in power, the young progressives appear to have come in for as much repression as has the Muslim Brotherhood.

However, the real question is not what mistakes were made by the young people studied by Professor Cole, but what they have learned from those mistakes. They will get another chance. The fighting in Libya will—eventually—burn itself out. The al-Sisi government doesn’t appear to have any solutions for the deep social and economic crises of Egypt. ISIS is going to give radical Islamism a bad name in many quarters. The older generation will gave way to the younger generation. Time is on their side.

[1] Juan Cole, The New Arabs: How the Millennial Generation Is Changing the Middle East (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2014).

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