Youth Revolution in the Middle East
Middle East Youth Revolution--please add your observations and corrections.
In the Middle East and North Africa, about two-thirds of the population is under 30, the highest percentage of young people in the world. High youth unemployment creates fervent desire for change and electronic media provide a way to organize, a tinderbox waiting for a spark to set it off. The spark was a young Tunisian man setting himself on fire to express his frustration with not being able to make a living. Just before the revolutions started in 2011, Amr Khaled warned, “Arab and Muslim youth need to be listened to. No one listens to them. They have dreams. We need to bring out those dreams,” but governments ignored their unrest over high unemployment and rising food prices. The Arab slang word hittistes refers to those who lean against the wall, without work, many hittistes in a humiliated generation who need wasta—connections to someone with power or bribes to get a job. Getting married requires a good job to pay for a wedding, feasts, dowry, and a place to live, clearly a frustrating situation for unemployed young people.
If you watched and listened to the news about revolution in Egypt, it would seem a single self-immolation protest by fruit seller Mohamed Bouzzizi (age 26), upset over being hassled by a bribe-seeking policewoman, caused youth demonstrations in Tunisia. Protests resulted in the resignation of the dictator Ben Ali in January, 2011, which leapfrogged via the Internet to Egypt. Only 18 days of protest demonstrations organized by young people led to the 30-year reign of Hosni Mubarak in February, momentous events like the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the break up of the USSR.
Demonstrations spread to Jordan, Yemen, Algeria, Bahrain, Iran, etc. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, who postponed elections for years, quickly announced he would hold new ones as soon as possible. Syria’s’ dictator, Bashar Assad, promised change. Even in Saudi Arabia, a group of businessmen launched a new political party in February, called Islamic Umma, asking King Abdullah for a voice in governing, although the country has no elected Parliament and public descent is banned. They wrote to the King, "You know well what big political development and improvement of freedom and human rights is currently happening in the Islamic world," echoing reform discussions on Saudi social media.”
Outside the Middle East, demonstrations spread to Azerbaijan where a 20-year-old activist, a member of a youth political organization, called for their own “Day of Rage.” Demonstrators in Albania demanded new elections. In Russia, demonstrators called for Prime Minister Putin to resign because of his government’s “rule of thieves.” The Chinese government censored the Egyptian revolution from the news.
Despite the impression of spontaneous protests, thousands of demonstrations, strikes, and protests about economic and political grievances prepared the way in the Arab world the decade before. Protests were led by labor groups, youth organizations and bloggers, leftist movements, political parties and a little by Islamic groups. Mosques were the only space to meet in countries that prevented public assemblies, but youth in 2011 didn’t organize in the name of Islam. They wanted democracy, an end to corrupt dictators amassing billions while the people went hungry, and access to jobs. Youth consider the older unions and leftist groups to be slow and obsolete. In contrast, using the Internet youth can organize quickly and get around government emergency laws about assembly, etc., as they said at meeting organized by the Carnegie Middle East Center. In turn they’re criticized for lacking commitment to organizing and sustained planning for the future. The Carnegie Center did a review of earlier protest movements, pointing out that in Egypt, for example, more than 2,000 “episodes” took place from 1998 to 2009.
Waves of economic and political protest have swept Jordan for over 20 years. Youth organizations include the National Campaign for Student Rights and the Jordanian Democratic Youth Union. When they started demonstrating again in January, King Abdullah’s government responded by reducing taxes for fuel and food and replacing an unpopular Prime Minister. The population is mainly (60%) Palestinian refugees, less supportive of the monarchy than the local tribes, thus Jordan is considered especially vulnerable to change.
Morocco also had waves of protest, especially in the last decade. In Algeria, the military took over in 1992 to stop an Islamic victory at the polls, generating a decade of violence between Islamist groups and security forces. In February, demonstrators chanted “change the power” as police tried to break up the crowds. The government promised to end emergency law. Protests in Kuwait and Bahrain were about political and civil rights; in Kuwait protests led to full political rights for women in 2009.
In Iran, the Green Movement activists of 2009 were inspired by the overthrow of Mubarak, which the government also praised, and tens of thousands took to the streets again, as seen on YouTube. They chant the familiar “death to the dictator” and a new chant about its time for the supreme leader to follow Ben Ali and Mubarak in resigning. In response to youth uprisings, the government started an execution binge. A difference between the military in Egypt, which is trusted by the demonstrators, and the security forces hated and feared in Iran is the former are conscripts and the latter are volunteers sworn to loyalty to the rulers.
How were demonstrators able to topple well-entrenched dictators in a few weeks? No one predicted that Tunisia would be the catalyst for democracy. Protests started in December, 2010, in poor tribal regions in the west were the young man set himself on fire. Graffiti in the town square where Bouazizi lived says “No to youth unemployment. No to poverty.” Bloggers spread the news and demonstrations got larger until the army forced Ben Ali to leave the country. The government hacked into Facebook accounts to change passwords to try to stop communication, but didn’t succeed over time.
Sixty percent of Egyptians are under 25 and use the slang “El-Face” because Facebook is so widely used. President Mubarak acknowledged youth leadership for change and their dreams for a brighter future. In his last speech to the nation on February 10, Mubarak blamed the foreign media and interfering nations for the unrest, but addressed and praised the “noble youth,” saying, "I speak to the youth of Egypt from the depth of my heart, I deeply cherish you as a symbol, a new Egyptian generation seeking a better future.” He said he spoke to them as a father to his children, not a shrewd approach. His own sons almost came to blow over that speech, with Alaa urging him to step down and Gamal (groomed to follow his father into the presidency) convincing him at the last moment to rewrite his speech to keep his title as President.
The groundwork for the “youth revolution” was established by decades of struggle for worker rights and the movement against police brutality, both of which included leadership of youth and women. Groundwork was laid in 2004 by a protest movement called Keyafa, which means “enough,” referring to Mubarak running for another term as president and in protest of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Kefaya activists helped form the April 6 Youth Movement that helped organize a general strike in 2008 led by “cyber activist” youth bloggers and workers’ groups. They called for economic and political reforms including higher wages and the end of government corruption and police torture, but could only sustain the strike for one day. The April 6 Youth Movement claims to have 100,000 online members. It has a flat leadership structure, as in universities across Egypt, so it was difficulty for the government to control them.
One of the leaders was Esraa Abdel Fattah, a young woman who started the call for a strike and as a punishment was jailed for two weeks while the April 6 group got the country talking about her. Another founder is Asmaa Mahfouz (26) who on January 18 called for protest after the Tunisian revolution on January 25 in a viral video posted on Facebook. (She has an MBA from Cairo University.) She appealed to men’s honor to come to Tahir Square to protect her and other girls from harassment, to demand human rights and the end of government corruption. She also disturbed thousands of leaflets in Cairo slums on January 24.
Police stifled April 6 Youth Movement demonstrations until youth were galvanized by a Facebook page “We Are All Khaled Said.” It publicized police publically beating Said (28) to death in Alexandria. The photograph of his broken skull and mangled face went viral on the Internet. His family was able to bribe a policeman to get the photo, one time when corruption worked for the revolutionaries. The Facebook page, created by Google employee Wael Ghonim (30), called for demonstrations against police brutality where activists wore black and carried Korans and bibles. The page called for a national “Day of Rage: A March Against Torture, Corruption, Poverty and Unemployment” on January 25 (the national day to appreciate police), the buzz enhanced by Asmaa Mahfouz’s viral video. Ghonim told CNN, “The revolution has begun online. This revolution began in Facebook.” (Time magazine was perceptive in naming founder Mark Zuckerberg man of the year in 2010.) They survived the government shutting down the Internet and telephones from January 27 to February 2.
Ghonim gained more stature as a leader after his 12-day arrest when he was kept blindfolded by police, enhanced by his emotional sobbing on February 7 on a popular TV show when he was shown photographs of the murdered demonstrators. He said, “All I did was use a keyboard;” the real heroes were on the ground. During the protests, young activists formed a coalition called “The Revolution’s Youth.” The “Youth Revolution” was joined by earlier democracy organizations like Kefaya and El Ghad, along with Muslim Brotherhood youth, and supporters of Nobel peace prizewinner ElBaradei (68) who returned to Egypt to support the overthrow of Mubarak. Youth formed neighborhood watch committees to protect their neighbors from looters. They insisted on non-violence other than stone throwing, giving flowers to soldiers. Ghonim reported, “Our protests were peaceful and our motto was ‘Do not break.’”
A 21-year old female student said, “We’re not afraid of them. What are they going to do, arrest millions of us?” But, women were afraid to come back to Tahir Square in Cairo after “the police/thugs started targeting women in a particularly horrifying way, molesting, detaining, raping.” The military also tried to keep women home to “protect” them. But they returned to the protests trusting their comrades to keep them safe because of men’s recent good behavior, despite a tradition of men harassing women on crowded Cairo streets. The focus on peace and purity worked. Women also organized behind the scenes, using cell phones and the Internet. After the fall of Mubarak, demonstrations and strikes continued, including police seeking higher wages. The military leaders promised a referendum on constitutional change in two months.
Eboo Patel, “ Egypt, Tunisia and the Youth Revolt in the Middle East,” Huffington Post, January 28, 2011.
Ulf Laessing, “Pro-Reform Saudi Activists Launch Political Party,” Reuters, February 10, 2011.
Marina Ottaway and Amr Hamzawy, “Protest Movements and Political Change in the Arab World, “ January 28, 2011. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The report mentions the above facts.
Omid Memarian, “Iran's Execution Binge,” The Daily Beast, February 5, 2011
Paul Amar, “Why Egypt’s Progressives Win,” Jadaliyya, February 8, 2011.