Three and a half years ago, the world was mesmerised by the huge crowds of young people who gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to demand an end to Egypt’s boring police state. We watched in horror as the Interior Ministry sent camel drivers to attack the protesters at one point. We couldn’t take our eyes off the protests as they spread from one part of Egypt to another and then from one country to another in the area. Before it was over, four presidents who had been elected for life would be overthrown, and others would be besieged in their palaces.
About 42 months later, most of the Middle East and North Africa have given up on the young people’s hopes for more personal freedoms and an end to political and economic stagnation. Instead, some Arab countries have had counter-revolutions, while others are in the middle of civil wars and fights between their own people, making scenes that look like they belong in the movie Mad Max. But keep this in mind: the Arab uprisings of the past three years were led by twentysomethings who still have a long way to go before they are fully grown. Don’t give up on them yet. They haven’t even started to change the area yet.
Since Tahrir Square has only been full of protesters and hope for a short time, it is important to be careful when judging these large movements. During the Prague Spring of 1968, for example, a young dissident playwright named Vaclav Havel went on Radio Free Czechoslovakia and became known as Soviet tanks closed in. After the Russians took over, he couldn’t put on his plays anymore, and 42 months after the Prague Spring was put down, he was working in a brewery. He became the first president of the Czech Republic only after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.
After three and a half years of the French Revolution, a pro-royalist Catholic peasant revolt was about to start in the Vendée, south of the Loire Valley. More than 100,000 (and maybe as many as 450,000) people would die in the resulting civil war with the republicans.
Getting ready for a new future in the Arab world
There are, of course, many reasons to be worried about the Middle East in the short and maybe even medium term. In Egypt, Ahmad Maher, a leader of the April 6 Youth who was known for his blue polo shirts and cheerful attitude, went from advising the prime minister on cabinet appointments in the summer of 2011 to being sentenced to three years of hard labour in prison for protesting without a permit in late 2013. Other important revolutionaries from 2011 like dissident blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah and leftist activist and organiser Mahienoor El Masry are also in jail. So are a lot of journalists, including three from Al Jazeera who were given sentences of seven and ten years for doing the most basic reporting you can imagine.
When it comes to youth revolutions, on the other hand, it’s a good bet that most of their best results won’t come for at least 20 years. The young Arabs who started the revolutions that led to the current unrest and civil wars are very different from their parents and grandparents. They live in cities, are more educated, know more about the media, and are much more connected than their parents and grandparents. It’s also a bit less religious, though nationalists and people who follow political Islam are still very divided.
Also, keep in mind that the median age of the world’s 370 million Arabs is only 24. That’s about half as old as Japan or Germany, which are both getting older. India and Indonesia also have a lot of young people, but Arab youth have it worse because their countries don’t invest much and have very high unemployment rates. That is, they are ready to move.
As a category, “youth” will always include a wide range of people, but it’s the self-aware activists who act in the name of their generation who start youth movements. In modern Arab history, not all age groups have started organisations based on their own hopes and complaints (as some of the Baby Boomers did in the 1960s in the United States). But Arab youth who were born roughly between 1980 and 2000 and came of age in the 21st century have started a lot of different movements based on their generation. Some of these movements are called April 6 Youth, Revolutionaries Libya 17, and Reunion.
During the short time they were popular, they often self-consciously referred to themselves as “youth” and made demands in the name of their “generation.” “The people want the fall of the regime” and (especially in Egypt) “bread, freedom, and social justice” were two of the most well-known. Many of these groups are now banned by counter-revolutionary generals or by the secret police, which is on the rise again. Other groups have died out because of the rise of paramilitary forces and militias, which are the exact opposite of engaged youth movements and are harmful to their values of being open-minded.
Even if they were banned or put down, though, their contributions to politics in the area should not be overlooked. And where they are still around, they are important. In the summer and fall of 2013, for example, youth groups in Tunisia joined forces with the country’s largest labour union to put pressure on the government, which was led by a party of the religious right, to step down so that new elections could be held and a new constitution could be written with ideas like equal rights for women.
Three Things the Arab Spring Did Well
In 20 or 30 years, the 20-somethings in Tahrir Square, the Casbah in Tunis, or Martyrs’ Square in Tripoli will become politicians like the Havels of the Middle East. We have to wait for that. We can at least try to figure out what their moves have meant for the area in the meantime. After all, those tea leaves are out in the open and ready to be read.
Here are three things they did that seem likely to last, no matter what else is going on in the region:
1. It has been said that dynasties and family cartels should not be in charge of the Arab republics.
Sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim came up with the word “jumlukiyyah” in the year 2000. It is a combination of the Arabic words for “republic” and “monarchy.” He pointed out that this “monarpublicanism” was the dynastic rule that ruled the change of power in much of the Middle East at the time. Ibrahim said that the way Bashar al-Assad took over for his father Hafez in Syria was a good indicator for the rest of the region. In other republics, presidents and prime ministers are supposed to succeed each other based on what the people want.
Muammar Gaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, seemed ready to take over from his unpredictable father, Muammar, in Libya. People said that Hosni and Suzanne Mubarak were preparing their younger son Gamal to take over as president of Egypt after the old man died. Ali Abdallah Saleh, who is President for Life in Yemen, was trying to make his son Ahmad, who is a general in the army, his successor. The presidential palace of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was being looked at by his social climber wife Leila Trabelsi and his billionaire son-in-law Sakher El Materi.
Ibrahim was put in jail by a small-minded and spiteful Egyptian government just because he was a sociologist and looked at the world around him (even if he was ultimately acquitted of wrongdoing). One of the goals of the youth movements in Egypt and other places was very Ibrahimist: to get rid of the idea of “presidents for life” and make sure that their children didn’t take over. After free and fair elections, they would all have to answer for the crimes they had done with their families.
Because of these youth revolutions, Hafez al-Assad of Syria was the only republican monarch to pass his country on to his son, Bashar. Even so, Bashar has only been able to stay in power in half of his country, and only by committing atrocities so bad that they amount to crimes against humanity. In other places, the corrupt crown princes of old republics are often living in exile, in court, or in prison. In Tripoli, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi is being tried. Tunisia is trying to get the Seychelles Islands to send Sakher al-Materi back to Tunisia. Gamal Mubarak is being tried for trying to change the stock market. General Ahmad Ali Saleh, the son of the ousted dictator, is being investigated on charges of embezzlement, while his father has lost most of his remaining power because he is accused of plotting a coup.
When royal dynasties started to form in the Arab republics, young people didn’t like it because they thought it was a betrayal of republican political principles. They also didn’t like it because they thought these ruling families had become corrupt, nepotistic cartels. In 2006, the U.S. embassy in Tunis said, “Among Tunisia’s small group of business leaders, at least half of the elite are said to be related to or connected to the President.”
Under these conditions, the ruling family and its group of friends were the only ones who could get business licences, jobs in the government, and other ways to make money. The protesters thought that this level of corruption was slowing down economic growth and dooming everyone outside of the “charming circle” to menial jobs, unemployment, or leaving the country. Worse, if the plans for non-royal succession were put into action, these exclusive, corrupt, and stagnant systems would continue for decades.
Jumlukiyyah is now a thing of the past.
2. The time of presidents who can stay in office forever and who don’t have to answer to anyone is coming to an end.
Even though Egypt is becoming more authoritarian, the new constitution only lets the president serve for two four-year terms. In some Arab countries, politicians have started to show that they are willing to step down if the people want them to be accountable, if they want to uphold the rule of law, or if they just don’t want to look like the autocrats who were overthrown in anger. In response to public outcry, Tunisian Prime Minister Ali Larayedh of the ruling Renaissance (al-Nahdah) Party, the largest in parliament, resigned in early January in favour of a technocratic cabinet, which could be expected to run new parliamentary elections fairly. It was the first time in the country’s history that a civilian took over voluntarily.
In May, the minority Muslim Brotherhood group in Libya’s parliament and its allies tried to put one of their own in charge of security. Libya was in a terrible security situation at the time. They said that conservative businessman Ahmad Maitig was elected with 120 votes, but the nationalist opposition said he only got 113 votes. When Libya’s highest court ruled against him, Maitig gave up his claim, saying that it was important to uphold the rule of law. He joined Larayedh and other leaders who didn’t want to hold on to power and risk making their fragile societies even more divided.
Iraq is a stark contrast and a good example of what not to do in this way. Early in 2011, there were protests in both Sunni and Shiite areas. In response, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said at first that he wouldn’t run for a third term. He soon changed his mind about what he said. Still, young Sunni Arabs in Fallujah and other places kept using tactics from the Tahrir movement to show how they were left out in Shiite-dominated Iraq.
Early in 2013, Maliki’s troops killed Sunni protesters who were heading to Fallujah. This led to more protests by young people and calls for those responsible to be found. The government gave a stronger answer. If Maliki had met the demands of both Sunni and Shiite protesters, he might have been able to bring the country together in new ways. Instead, he let the radical Islamic State of Iraq and Syria insurgents in by crushing civil youth movements.
3. The Arabs now want to see how society should work from a more multicultural point of view.
Arab leaders and movements from the past didn’t always see how pride in the history of Arabic-speaking peoples could lead to prejudice against non-Arabs in Muslim-majority countries. Sometimes it was hard for these societies to treat non-Muslims as equals. Many young activists wanted (and still want) Arab society to be more open to different kinds of people.
Egyptian President-elect Muhammad Morsi, who is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, tried to rule through a small group of fundamentalists, who are a minority of Egyptians. This deeply upset activist youth. Even though he only won by a small amount, Morsi turned down the idea of a government of national unity and instead put fundamentalist allies in high positions. Last year, he was removed from power at least in part because millions of young people and workers again took to the streets. Since then, religious or sectarian parties that were openly religious or sectarian have been banned. However, the military, which helped the young people organise against Morsi, is back in power and has now turned on them, too.
Egypt’s youth movement in 2011 also tried to bring together Christians and Muslims. On Fridays, young Coptic Christians stood guard in Tahrir Square while Muslims prayed. On Sundays, when Christians held open-air masses, Muslim activists made sure they were safe. Youth activists were upset when Coptic schoolteachers were charged with blasphemy while the Muslim Brotherhood was in power. Even the biggest racial divide in North Africa, between Arabs and the minority Berbers or Amazigh, seems to be getting better in Morocco because of the 2011 protests.
Like much of the rest of the Arab Spring, the desire of the millennial generation in North Africa and the Middle East for a more multicultural world seems far away, but they have put it on an Arab agenda for the future. Its time will come again.
Waiting for the Arab Summer: The Long-Term Story of a Generational Shift in Values, Attitudes, and Mobilization Strategies. Part of the point of the youth movements was to push for real, honest elections in which millennials couldn’t run for office because they were too young. This made sure that older Arab Baby Boomers, many of whom are much more interested in political Islam or praetorian authoritarianism, would control politics.
In the first wave of writing about the revolutions of 2011, religion was downplayed or ignored because most of the youth movements were secular and liberal or leftist. When these rebellions led to elections in which Muslim fundamentalists did well, a second round of books talked about a “Islamic Winter.”
With the resurgence of the military and nationalists in Egypt and the major setbacks religious militias have had to face in central Syria, the “Islamic Winter” model is no longer as important in the countries that had youth revolutions. In 2012, fundamentalist Muslim candidates in Libya couldn’t win a majority in parliament. Algeria has been going through similar changes for a long time. Even in Tunisia, where the religious right was a part of the first government after the revolution, they could only rule with the help of secularists and leftists.
In the meantime, many of the millennial activists who for a short time turned the Arab world upside down and caused so many changes are putting their energy into non-governmental organisations. Thousands of these groups have sprung up in countries that used to have one-party rule, without anyone noticing. In this way, they learn important organisational skills that will, without a doubt, be used in politics one day. Some people still work with labour unions to help people in the working classes. Their dislike of nepotism, small groups, and ethnic or sectarian rule has already made a big difference in the Arab world’s politics. Don’t think for a second that the Arab Spring is over, no matter what you hear about Libya, Egypt, Iraq, or other places.
As they come into their own politically over the next two or three decades, you can expect big changes in the area. There will definitely be an Arab Summer someday, and the young people of this time will be remembered for what they did against all odds. Mubarak’s hired thugs tried to use camels to take them down. That government is no longer in place, and the millennials are waiting for the next one. We won’t stop hearing about their generation.