On February 18, 2012, just over a year on from the first major demonstrations in Yemen’s Change Square, 26-year-old photojournalist Ebrahim Al Sharif announced he was going to run for the presidency, under the banner “The First Youth President in the World.”
“My desire is to become Yemen’s next president and this is irreversible,” said Ebrahim, boldly ignoring the fact that the upcoming elections were not open to contestation. Vice President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi was sworn in as president on February 25, after receiving 99 percent of the vote on the single candidate ballot.
The same week, in Egypt, 33-year-old Amr El Beheiry was released after over a year in prison and cleared of assault charges. Branded by the military court that sentenced him—purportedly without witness or lawyer—as a “thug of the revolution,” Amr was severely beaten by the authorities. When he was arrested, it was the first time that he had been to a protest. His case prompted the emergence of Egypt’s “No to Military Trials for Civilians” campaign, led by activists who were with him during the protests.
Thousands of others like Amr remain in detention. In Bahrain, an 18-year-old Kuwaiti national, Ali Feifel Sahad al-Ali, was jailed by the police for participating in an “illegal gathering.” His family were denied access to him, and Amnesty International released a statement warning of the risk that he might be tortured. In Syria, seven-year-old Julnar was shot through her bedroom window in Homs as she called down in support of her protesting neighbors below.
The patterns and outcomes of the uprisings that have torn across the Middle East in the past 20 months—ousting the autocratic leaders of Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen, executing Libya’s Colonel Gaddaffi, and prompting prolonged and violent clampdowns in Syria and Bahrain—have varied considerably country to country. But one noticeable similarity has been the huge numbers of young faces in the crowds; they are young men and women writing the slogans, shouting the loudest, and often bearing the brunt of the brutalities.
Ebrahim, Ali, Julnar, and Amr are far from the most prominent names or faces from the revolutions, but illustrate some of the hopes, desires, and fates of the millions of other young citizens involved across the Middle East, of an emerging generation who exist in stark contrast to the octogenarian leaders that pepper the region.
From Apathy to Agency?
For a long time, Middle East citizens, particularly the youth, had been characterized as apathetic and passive by Western and Arab analysts alike, who cited low voter turnouts (67 percent of young Egyptians did not vote in the 2010 elections), inability and lack of will to mobilize, lack of interest in politics and an assortment of cultural specificities. In 2009, Belgian-Egyptian journalist Khaled Diab asked: “Do the Egyptian people possess some kind of socially innate antibody against mass protest?” It resonated with Edward Said’s 2003 forceful call to Arab populations: “Why is there such silence and such astounding helplessness?...How can a region of almost 300 million Arabs wait passively for the blows to fall without attempting a collective roar of resistance and a loud proclamation of an alternative view? Has the Arab will completely dissolved?”
As the world watched, millions of young people thronging to the streets in January 2011, showing not only strength and determination, but also an ability to organize and in some cases overthrow, scholars have been rushing to fill this analytical void, offering various theories for youth-heavy nature of the Arab Spring. Young Arabs were suddenly an exciting new force to be contended with.
Some argue that it is a case of demographics: the Middle East is experiencing an enormous youth bulge, as around 60 percent of the region’s population is under the age of 30. In Egypt and Syria, this is closer to 65 or 70 percent, and in Yemen, 75 percent are under the age of 25. This large youth population is also said to face greater economic discrimination, inequalities, and hardships and therefore have greater grievances against the ruling regimes. The system is more stacked against the less-than-30s than others—for example, young people are more likely to be unemployed; in Egypt, nine out of ten of those known to be unemployed are under 30.
A lot has also been made of the role of social media, with the “revolutionary tools” of Facebook and Twitter seen, rightly or wrongly, as almost the exclusive domain of the young. The young urban, middle-classes, who had grown up in the age of the Internet, had banded together and awakened the sleeping—digital—masses through following, friending, and posting online, starting a cyber conversation that got picked up and reproduced by both the street and mainstream global media. A new kind of civic activism had been created, according to journalist Paola Caridi, “a common political culture, not in ideological terms, but rather as a frame within which to give birth to a new community of citizens in search of political reform.”
Yet the willingness to perceive the region’s youth as powerful new agents for political and social change has already begun to wane. Understandably nervous of the rather amorphous concept of “youth”—which can be used to describe anyone from an Islamist to a communist to a technocrat under a certain (undetermined) age bracket, and says nothing of class, gender or politics—some analysts are beginning to question the significance of making the distinction at all. Others criticize the more appreciably coherent youth movements, such as in Egypt and Yemen, for being disorganized and failing to provide distinct interlocutors or political candidates to speak on behalf of the youth. A particularly fierce backlash has been aimed at the social networking generation, not just in the Middle East. “Armchair” activism for the educated elites will ultimately not contribute to anything other than surface changes.
More importantly, however, the youth voices are also questioning their own agency. A narrative has emerged of revolutionary “hijack;” frustration and despondency that old or traditional political powers are using the revolutionary momentum for their own advantage, leaving the ‘true revolutionary’ youth behind. In Egypt, the ruling military council members are also playing an effective game of divide-and-rule, aiming to discredit a number of the youth leaders by accusing them of unpatriotic activities, such as receiving foreign funding or assaulting fellow citizens. This is successfully creating distrust both within the youth coalitions and between the youth leaders and the wider Egyptian population, and many of the young people who took part in the January protests are now distancing themselves from “politics” as they see it.
My own research focuses specifically on Egypt and Yemen, where enough people self-identify as being part of a youth movement or new generation—through their involvement in youth coalitions, new youth-led political parties or other networks—that the term can prove useful (admittedly, I have been at more than one meeting in which a 60-year-old gleefully contends to having youth values and energy, so the term is still somewhat loose). While no one could argue that the youth revolutionaries have emerged ultimately victorious in either country, it is interesting to look at whether the progress of the newly prominent youth voices can serve as a yardstick for whether the balance of power has shifted in the two countries. Has the political space for previously excluded voices increased, despite some setbacks? Are we seeing more inclusive or legitimate political systems begin to emerge? What kind of role could or should Ebrahim, the aspirant Yemeni youth president, be seeking in Yemen’s post-revolution future?
Egypt and Yemen and the Politics of Exclusion
Prior to the Arab Spring, much of the Middle East was operating under various systems of political exclusion. Not only were countries run by ageing, autocratic leaders, but the embeddedness of nepotistic patronage networks, elite corruption and crony capitalism meant that the majority of the populations in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Libya had little to no access to political or economic decision making processes.
When people came to the streets demanding “bread, freedom, and social justice,” I would argue that many were looking not just for a change in leadership, but ostensibly an entire restructure in state-society relations—opportunities to build more inclusive societies, economies, and governance systems.
Some of the earliest and most lucid articulations of this vision came from the youth coalitions in Egypt and Yemen. In June 2011, one of Yemen’s largest youth coalitions, the Civic Coalition for Revolutionary Youth (CCRY), stated that it’s mission was to “lay the ground for a civic, modern and democratic state which can interact with the realities of the modern world on the basis of equal citizenship, human rights, social justice, a plural political system, the freedom of expression and opinion and the peaceful transfer of power.” Egypt’s Coalition of Youth Revolution—which includes the most well known youth movement, April 6 (actually established in 2008 to support a workers strike in the city of Mahalla)—explicitly state that they seek to “design and shape a new social contract.”
At face value, beyond the removal of the figureheads Hosni Mubarak and Al Abdullah Saleh, there have been two key achievements in Egypt and Yemen that indicate a move towards greater pluralism and a new social contract between society and the state: Egypt’s 2011 elections through the 2012 parliamentary elections—generally agreed to have been free and fair, with an impressive 60 percent voter turnout—and Yemen’s Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) sponsored transition program, with its proposed national dialogue designed specifically to bring previously excluded voices—that is, of the youth, women, southern secessionist, and Houthi rebels from the North—into Yemen’s political sphere.
But plenty of questions remain over how truly transformative these mechanisms will be.
The incredibly low number of youth and women in Egypt’s new parliament—at 2 percent Egypt now has one of the lowest percentages of female MPs in the world—and the amusingly-worded official GCC initiative document states women should be “appropriately” represented in the Yemeni national dialogue, are worrying signs. Most problematic, however, is not the parliament’s lack of diversity or the GCC’s nervousness over quotas. Most problematic is that neither the new Egyptian parliament nor the GCC transition necessarily represent the change in the old style of politics that the youth revolutionaries say they seek.
At the time of writing, Egypt’s parliament still lacks true decision-making power. The ruling military regime—the Supreme council of the Armed Forces (SCAF)—still holds onto the country’s political and economic strings. Similarly, in Yemen, the GCC initiative has consolidated power into the old political players: the new unity government is divided into Saleh’s party, the General People’s Congress, and the opposition coalition, the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP). Both are pawns in the Saleh family’s political game playing and have done little to shift the real balance of power, which still lies firmly in Saleh’s immediate family and the country’s security forces. Both countries are still operating under the old system, with a small number of elite players holding all the aces, if not all the cards.
Youth Coalitions and New Political Parties
Both Egypt and Yemen’s youth coalitions have faced criticism, particularly from Western policymakers, for their choice to remain leaderless, and to retain loose, cross-ideological structures. In Egypt, this criticism was amplified when the street protestors refused to support the new Islamist-heavy parliament. But, as British academic Chris Phillips explained to the The Guardian in early 2011, “the lack of interest in formal political structures among the youth is…hardly surprising.” Decades of elite level corruption and hierarchical, inflexible and inaccessible systems have taken their natural toll, and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party—a staunchly traditional, hierarchical set-up themselves behind the scenes—who won 47 percent of the people’s assembly votes, has not yet had time to prove themselves different.
The problem of traditional hierarchies is also echoed, somewhat surprisingly, across new political parties. In Egypt, many members of the youth movement who have chosen to join new political parties have found themselves sidelined—or allowing themselves to be sidelined—for older and “more experienced” generations. Even young people working for al-Ghad, Ayman Nour’s liberal opposition party, complained of “the sidelining of youth issues and the strict age-orientated hierarchical structure,” says Phillips. This is particularly true for women. In a number of interviews that I conducted in Cairo during 2011 and 2012, young women are described as being relegated to women’s issues committees, despite having been in the drivers seat during the revolution.
“Youth are too timid to put themselves forward,” said one interviewee, “the revolutionaries and the women need to be inside the decision-making—only now are we beginning to realize that the revolution has been contained.”
Yemen is also beginning to see a handful of new political parties or formal political aspirations come out of the revolutionary youth coalitions, but may face similar problems. At a meeting at Chatham House in London, Husam Al Sharjabi, co-founder of both the CCRY and the new Al Watan Party, argued that it is important that the youth “put a political face to the movement, because without having political parties you will not have the right structure to drive the change forward.” Husam also mentioned having problems recruiting women—a challenge he is keen to meet.
Other youth-led initiatives may prove to have as much, if not more, traction in challenging the status quo. Both Egypt and Yemen are drafting new Freedom of Information Laws, to establish a two-way process in which citizens can request access to government information, but also for the government to routinely publish records. One of the leading lights in writing Egypt’s draft law was a young researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, Amr Gharbeia, also a prominent social media activist. “There is a general positive direction from the government of engaging civil society,” Amr Gharbeia told the Egypt Independent, one that could lead to a more transparent state structure in the long-term. The youth coalitions in Yemen are fulfilling a similar social function. In both countries, these laws are a seemingly small but in fact very significant step forward in re-writing government-society relations.
New Horizons (and the Coming of the Islamists)
There are some interesting questions surrounding where the Islamist groups sit within this push-pull dynamic of older authoritarian ways and newer more participatory ones. When the balance of power finally shifts away from the old regimes, in both Egypt and Yemen, it’s the Islamists—the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis in Egypt, and the main opposition party Islah in Yemen—who look set to reap the rewards of greater democracy in the two countries.
While this is a topic deserves its own piece, it is worth noting that while the old guard of the Muslim Brotherhood and Islah may be running the show at moment, both also have their own internal generation divides that are likely to drive politics in a new direction. Progressive young Muslim Brotherhood members are shearing off from the main body, forming new parties like Egyptian Current with like-minded secular activists. In a conversation with one of the deputy leaders of Islah, he was quick to mention the need to accommodate the younger voices in his corall. Even the Salafis—characterized as the most fundamental and conservative of the main Islamist groups in Egypt—have their own ‘liberal youth’ wing in the Salfyocosta’s, who, while wearing hats imitating the Costa Coffee logo, advocate values of cooperation, community, and tolerance.
Bit by bit, the sheer weight of the youth in the region will inevitably make an impression on its politics. Whether through a youth-heavy cross-sectarian new political party like Egyptian Current, or the dogged production of new draft laws and street campaigns, or from within the traditional parties, the question remains how much of an impression—and how soon.
KATE NEVENS is Manager of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House, The Royal Institute of International Affairs. She runs two large research projects on Egypt and Yemen, and is studying the youth movements emerging from the Arab Spring.