Arab Youth: A Narrative of Polarization

To begin the launch of her book, Talking to Arab Youth: Revolution and Counterrevolution in Egypt and Tunisia, Nur Laiq quoted the wife of Hosni Mubarak, the strongman leader who ruled Egypt for over three decades. “’Oh, it’s just kids who are holding up traffic; it will pass,’” she said of the early protestors in Tahrir Square. Then, after a pause, she added, “The Mubarak regime fell a few days later.”

During the October 24th event, cosponsored by the government of Switzerland at the International Peace Institute, two young activists from Egypt and Tunisia joined the author to discuss the findings of her book and recent developments in the region. Ambassador Paul Seger of Switzerland made opening remarks, and IPI Senior Adviser Youssef Mahmoud moderated the event.

Ms. Laiq framed the genesis of her book with three questions: How sustainable are youth ideas? What is their capacity for organization in politics and civil society? What does their discourse and activism tell us about the future of the transitions, and how stakeholders might best engage with them?

These questions seem particularly crucial considering the Arab youth’s sheer demographic weight; 70 percent of the population across the Middle East and North Africa are under 35 years old. However, since the first successes of the Arab Spring, the speakers seemed to agree, the young people in Egypt and Tunisia have splintered both in their goals and means to achieve them.

“The youth swing back and forth between acting as the vanguard of the revolution and protecting its interests and protecting the interests of the political groups they belong to,” said Ms. Laiq. “This is where the narrative of polarization sets in.”

In her research, Ms. Laiq said she conducted over 150 hours of interviews with 70 youth activists, including young politicians from a spectrum of different parties, media collective members and bloggers as well as some older representatives of the political elite.

“Youth are losing their laser-like focus on their own aspirations and goals of political and socio-economic justice,” she said. “They’re being pulled in different directions by the politics of polarization.”

Legacies of the Past

“The power of state institutions in both countries provides a daunting challenge to youth, who are particularly interested in issues of transitional justice, reforming the police and the media,” said Ms. Laiq. She noted that over eighty years of state propaganda has created fear and distrust of entrenched political actors in the region, and that many youth, “even post-revolution, continue to view politics as a dirty word.”

“In this sense,” she said, “the youth have been unable to avoid the legacies of the past and are deeply affected by the polarization in both Tunisia and Egypt.”

A discussant at the launch, Salma Bouzid, a former journalist with Tunisia Live who covered the post-revolutionary economy and social entrepreneurship, spoke about the “instrumentalization of youth” in which millions were organized and utilized to empower political fractions only to be completely shut out of the implementation of policy-making and governance.

“How can youth cope with political parties trying to influence them and play with them like puppets?” Ms. Bouzid said. “We are aware that our only powerful tool is keeping the street pressure.”

“Most young people don’t read any print media or watch TV channels because they feel they are so biased,” Ms. Laiq said. “Information travels across horizontal lines—not vertical—in both senses of the word: in terms of the medium of Facebook and Twitter; and also horizontal in terms of the news not being dictated top-down, but rather being written and reported from youth to youth.”

However, the second discussant cautioned against pigeonholing this huge block of the population. “I think it’s really misleading if we’re measuring the opinions of the society on social media,” said Sameh Awad, co-founder OREED (I Want), an Egyptian NGO that focuses on civic engagement. “Remember, we’re talking about a country where more than 40 percent are illiterate. They don’t have access to electricity, not to [mention] Internet.”

Mr. Awad closed his brief remarks with those of a former member of the constitutional committee who resigned in frustration mere weeks before the foundational document was finished: “’It pains me that Egypt is slipping from our hands while each party fights a losing battle. I call on the youth, those who sparked the revolution, to work on leading the scene, to work on fighting the true enemy of the revolution, which is the madness of polarization.’”

Bending the Arc

The panelists discussed several ways the Arab youth can and are trying to move forward: many people are focused on local grassroots civil society activism; many engage youth in other parts of the world to cross-pollinate ideas and support.

Mr. Awa said there has been “a wave of entrepreneurs arising on the economic and social fronts.”

Ms. Laiq suggested that negotiation workshops be held at universities to harness the idea of mediation as a tool to resolve the competing issues in a transition period. Also, she added, if a national dialogue actually happens then youth should have a representative quota, as they do in Yemen where it is 20 percent.

The discussants agreed with the author’s ideas, but acknowledged that there is of course no set path to a successful political transition.

“Will they have the political savvy and stamina to institutionalize their presence in both politics and civil society?” Ms. Laiq asked.

“Youth have been the revolution’s moral tribunes, but they’ve been instrumentalized by other actors such as the military and political parties,” Ms. Laiq said. “This is, however, a familiar story of transition, and it’s something that has been seen in Latin America, Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe as well.”

The author said many revolutions in these regions took years or even decades to play out, but that “eventually those activists went on to succeed in bending the arc of their countries toward democratic consolidation.”

“Even if revolutions are reversed,” she concluded, “they open the discourse and start a negotiation and a renegotiation of culture, politics, history, and the state itself.”

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