Three and a half years ago, the world was riveted by the massive crowds of youths mobilizing in Cairo's Tahrir Square to demand an end to Egypt's dreary police state. We stared in horror as, at one point, the Interior Ministry mobilized camel drivers to attack the demonstrators. We watched transfixed as the protests spread from one part of Egypt to another and then from country to country across the region. Before it was over, four presidents-for-life would be toppled and others besieged in their palaces.
Some 42 months later, in most of the Middle East and North Africa, the bright hopes for more personal liberties and an end to political and economic stagnation championed by those young people have been dashed. Instead, a number of Arab countries have seen counter-revolutions, while others are engulfed in internecine conflicts and civil wars, creating Mad Max-like scenes of post-apocalyptic horror. But keep one thing in mind: the rebellions of the past three years were led by Arab millennials, twentysomethings who have decades left to come into their own. Don't count them out yet. They have only begun the work of transforming the region.
Given the short span of time since Tahrir Square first filled with protesters and hope, care should be taken in evaluating these massive movements. During the Prague Spring of 1968, for instance, a young dissident playwright, Vaclav Havel, took to the airwaves on Radio Free Czechoslovakia and made a name for himself as Soviet tanks approached. After the Russian invasion, he would be forbidden to stage his plays and 42 months after the Prague Spring was crushed, he was working in a brewery. Only after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 would he emerge as the first president of the Czech Republic.
Three and a half years into the French Revolution, the country was only months away from the outbreak of a pro-royalist Catholic peasant revolt in the Vendée, south of the Loire Valley. The resulting civil war with the republicans would leave more than 100,000 (and possibly as many as 450,000) people dead.
Preparing the Way for a New Arab Future
There are of course plenty of reasons for pessimism in the short and perhaps even medium term in the Middle East. In Egypt, Ahmad Maher, a leader of the April 6 Youth, famed for his blue polo shirts and jaunty manner, went from advising the prime minister on cabinet appointments in the summer of 2011 to a three-year prison term at hard labor in late 2013 for the crime of protesting without a license. Other key revolutionaries of 2011, like dissident blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah and leftist activist and organizer Mahienoor El Masry, are also in jail, along with many journalists, including three from Al Jazeera, two sentenced to seven years in jail and one to 10, simply for doing the most basic reporting imaginable.
When it comes to youth revolutions, however, it's a pretty good bet that most of their truest accomplishments will come at least a couple of decades later. The generation of young Arabs who made the revolutions that led to the unrest and civil wars of the present is in fact distinctive -- substantially more urban, literate, media-savvy, and wired than its parents and grandparents. It's also somewhat less religiously observant, though still deeply polarized between nationalists and devotees of political Islam.
And keep in mind that the median age of the 370 million Arabs on this planet is only 24, about half that of graying Japan or Germany. While India and Indonesia also have big youth bulges, Arab youth suffer disproportionately from the low rates of investment in their countries and staggeringly high unemployment rates. They are, that is, primed for action.
"Youth" as a category is always going to encompass very diverse populations, but it's the self-conscious activists claiming to act in the name of their generation who make youth movements. Not all age cohorts in modern Arab history have created organizations on the basis of generational aspirations and discontents (as some of the Baby Boomers did in the 1960s in the United States). However, the Arab youth born roughly between the years 1980 and 2000, who came into their own in the new century, have organized a plethora of generationally based movements, many named for the dates of their initial demonstrations, including April 6 Youth, Revolutionaries Libya 17, and Reunion.
In the brief period when they were riding high, they routinely spoke of themselves self-consciously as "youth" and made demands no less self-consciously in the name of their "generation." The two most famous of those demands were "the people want the fall of the regime" and (especially in Egypt) "bread, freedom, and social justice." Many of these groups are now banned by counter-revolutionary generals or by restored and ascendant secret police, while others have faded away in the face of the rise of paramilitary forces and militias -- the very opposite of engaged youth movements and deadly to their open-minded values.
Even banished or suppressed, however, their contributions to political life in the region should not be discounted. And where they still exist, they matter. In the summer and fall of 2013 in Tunisia, for instance, youth organizations allied with the country's major labor union to pressure the government, led by a party of the religious right, to step down in preparation for new elections and to allow principles like women's equality to be put into a new constitution.
Three Achievements of the Arab Spring
Two or three decades from now, the twentysomethings of Tahrir Square or the Casbah in Tunis or Martyrs' Square in Tripoli will, like the Havels of the Middle East, come to power as politicians. For that we have to wait. In the meantime, we can at least try to understand just what their movements have meant for the region. Those tea leaves are, after all, in plain sight and ready to be read.