There has been a new wave of Arab uprisings over the past year, with protests in Lebanon, Iraq, and Algeria as well as several other countries. These upheavals have led some to question whether a new Arab Spring could be unfolding a decade after the revolutions that spread across the Arab world in 2011. Could history be repeating itself, they ask.
Whatever the answers to these questions may be, the future of many Arab countries appears unclear and consequently so are the futures of many Arab young people.
According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), young people in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region now account for nearly half the whole Arab world’s population. Yet, their representation in the wider society is still seen as deficient, and political analyst Youssef Sherif suggests that what a lot of the region’s youth really want to see is younger people upholding positions of authority so that they feel more represented.
Arab 20-year-olds today may have witnessed more conflicts than many others have done in a lifetime. As a result, many youngsters have become more aware of politics and what can be at stake in political and other uprisings.
“With the Arab Spring and the other uprisings worldwide people understood that if they came together, they could actually overthrow a regime. So, I think the level of political awareness and revolt against social injustice in people’s minds has been growing and is still doing so even after the revolutions,” said Sudanese activist Ehab Al-Tayeb.
Al-Tayeb sees some light at the end of the tunnel for Sudan and its younger generations. He describes the recent uprising in Sudan as one of the most effective to have occurred in the country, especially for young people whose focus now is on improving the country socially and politically. Civil-society groups are being set up by members of the younger generations with a view to ending discrimination, tribalism, and racism, as well as other issues that have resulted from the oppression of the past three decades.
There was a new sense of togetherness in Sudan, he commented, adding that the country’s “young people are exploring avenues they’ve never followed before in hoping to assist in developing a sustainable Sudan in the future.” However, Al-Tayeb also said that it was too early to say how far the country’s youth would be able to develop Sudan after the revolution since there was much to be done before the country’s new stability could become long-lasting.
At the start of this decade, revolutions struck in different countries around the region, and though the decade has come to an end the conflict in the Arab world is still ongoing. “I think the waves of revolution that came out of 2011 did not die in 2013, as many thought they did. This is a long transformation, and we will see more uprisings. The economy, demography, and societies of the Arab world all point towards them,” said Sherif.
“Pretending that this transformation is not happening, or is the result of a conspiracy theory, is delusional and counterproductive. What is calm today could be a typhoon tomorrow,” he added.
Yet, these uprisings have been no happier than the earlier ones in bringing about lasting change. The current demonstrations in Lebanon have been going on for months on end, for example, and they may by now have taken a wrong turn.
“I myself went down to the protests in [Beirut’s] Martyr’s Square, and I was excited regardless of my personal opinions or the ideologies I follow. I put everything aside and went down to join the protestors for the first three days: it was a moment when everybody was putting their differences aside,” said one young Lebanese business owner who had taken part in the protests.
“However, two or three days into the thawra [revolution], many people from diverse backgrounds, not just myself, were saying that they felt disappointed,” she added, pointing to the fact that while all those present at the demonstrations said they were after change, not all were after it in the same way.
“I felt that 20 per cent of those who took to the streets were honest and regardless of their religion, opinions, or the area they were from were trying to look for rational solutions. But another 20 to 30 per cent who were also in support of the revolution were taking it in the direction of anarchy,” she said.
Other still had external agendas and some unfortunately were criminals.
The young business owner said that young people in Lebanon like the rest of the public were protesting for basic human needs.
“I pay two electricity bills, but there’s no electricity. I pay two water bills, but there’s no water. The Internet doesn’t connect. The whole infrastructure is catastrophic,” she said. “It’s been 30 years since the [Lebanese civil] war ended, yet the prices of education are still sky-high, and all these aspects are just a drop in the ocean compared to other things,” she added.
The 28-year-old knows that in time change will come, but until then she worries about the young people who are leaving the country on a daily basis because they do not see a future there.
In a similar way in Iraq, young people are particularly affected by government failures, and young people are on the frontlines of the current demonstrations.
“In addition to devising their own slogans, the young Iraqi protesters have adopted chants from other popular revolutions, especially from the Lebanese uprising. They have been chanting ‘all means all’ to emphasise their demands, and they have written songs and painted on graffiti showing their resolve,” Iraqi journalist Salah Nasrawi said.
With young people now making up more than half of the Iraqi population, they have been hard to miss in the current demonstrations. For Nasrawi, in order to understand the current demonstrations, it is necessary to look at previous uprisings and to extract lessons from past events.
“As we near the ninth anniversary of the Arab Spring, we may have a better and more realistic picture of what happened in 2011 in the Arab countries. The uprisings succeeded in toppling entrenched autocrats in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, but to a large extent they failed to bring about the real changes aspired to by the people of these countries,” he said.
“In Syria, for example, the revolution was not only aborted, but it also turned into a civil war that has left the country in ruins.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 January, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.