Saturday, February 05, 2011

Angry young men of Arab world


Recent events in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Jordan and elsewhere have shown that Arab youth are not only worried and anxious about their future, but also disillusioned, disenfranchised and angry.

Most important, they no longer accept the status quo. They no longer believe that promises made will be promises kept nor that their governments will implement the changes they see as necessary to deliver a viable future for their generation. And most important, they understand that change is not only necessary, but possible and even inevitable.

Let's rewind and go back to the catalyst that sparked off the chain of events: Mohammed Bouazizi's Self-immolation in Sidi Bouzid on Dec. 17 last year. Some reports said he had a university education, others that he had barely finished school. Some said he applied for jobs in the military, others that he applied for jobs in the private sector. What matters is that he could not find a job, no matter how hard he tried. His father had died when he was a child. He supported his mother and his sisters. So he sold fruit and vegetables off a cart, an honest, hard way to make a meager living. But even that he could not do freely: He was pestered, bullied, and humiliated on a daily basis by local officials. On Dec. 17, after being slapped, spat on and insulted by a policewoman, after officials confiscated his scales and the produce he was selling, it all became too much for him. On that day he set himself on fire, dying three weeks later in hospital.

It's a tragic story and one that millions of young Arab men and women relate to. The image of Bouazizi being humiliated, of a man trying to make an honest living but being held back by petty bureaucracy, of a young man feeling hopeless about his job prospects and fighting desperately just to make enough to feed his family, all those ring true in Arab hearts. The hopelessness, desperation and anger he felt is unfortunately neither unique nor uncommon, nor is it confined to Tunisia or North Africa, nor to the poorest or those without university education, but is so widespread as to have become normative.

The Arab world is young. More than 50 percent of the Arab population are under 25 and 20 percent are aged 15 to 25. Among the under 25, one in four is unemployed. And it is only going to get worse. It is a simple equation, economic growth does not match population growth, add inequality and corruption to the sum and what you get is the anger you see on the streets of Cairo, or Sanaa, or Tunis, or...

I have heard those who blame foreign elements for the unrest, for the demonstrations, for the protests, for the uprising. Call it what you wish, but do not patronize the youth. They are the future and they are right to be worried. What they want is a secure and prosperous future. They want jobs, a roof over their heads and food on their table. They are not asking for the moon; quite the contrary they are asking for what should be theirs by right. You can argue about how that should be delivered but not about the legitimacy of their concerns.

I have heard those who claim surprise at the crowds in Cairo chanting that they would like the man who has been their president for 30 years to go. If a football team performs badly, supporters call for the manager to go. If a bank loses money, shareholders ask for the CEO to step down. Is it so surprising that the protesters assign responsibility for their misfortunes to those who have been running the country for so long? Agree or disagree with their wish to see a change of leadership but do not forget that the young have only known one president. How could change in their eyes not start with a call for a change of leadership?

I have also heard those who express dismay at some of the language being used by the protesters. What they are asking for is just not part of our culture I am told. Perhaps. But what they are asking for is to be stakeholders in their own future. If you call that democracy it rings alarm bells in some quarters but if you think of it as people wanting a say in their own future, it is not nearly so alarming, simply human nature, self-determination is after all a fundamental human desire.

The young people we have seen on the streets of Tunisia and elsewhere are not wild-eyed revolutionaries but ordinary people who want to live with dignity. They tell us that current policies have failed them and that they no longer entrust their future to those who have been in charge for decades. What strikes me most about them is that they call for the leadership to go without calling for a specific alternative. The force for change does not come from supporting a particular or distinct ideology, nor from a militant or revolutionary movement, but from a simple belief that change is the only way forward.

I have heard those that say that the alternative to the status quo is worse. There will be chaos in the Arab world. Islamic extremists might take over. It could all degenerate. Yes, it could, but it seems that millions of young Arab feel it is a risk worth taking. What is clear is that the status quo is not working for them, it only leads to stagnation.

There is no turning back the tide. We have seen that authorities can block the Internet and switch off telephone lines, but people continue to communicate. They can send in thugs, harass journalists and arrest protesters, but the protests continue and the news remains on the front page. You cannot defuse anger by pretending it does not exist nor by delegitimizing it.

Perhaps the wise thing to do is to listen to Arab youth, listen to their worries and their concerns, listen to their anger and their demands for change, agree or disagree but engage them in dialogue and take with them active steps on a path that leads to a secure and prosperous future. They deserve it after all.