After playing a critical role in the revolutions that swept the Middle East last year, Arab youth will continue to be a driving force of regional change.  While the perceptions and perspectives of youth are by no means monolithic, they serve as a useful barometer for understanding popular grievances, attitudes, and aspirations in the Arab world today. 

To analyze the views of Arab youth and their important implications, Carnegie hosted a discussion with Rami Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, and Dalia Mogahed, executive director and senior analyst for the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies. Carnegie’s Marina Ottaway moderated the discussion. 

Arab Youth as a Regional Barometer

  • Advantages of Studying Youth: As vulnerable members of society, Arab youth feel the pressures of poverty, corruption, and human rights abuses before the general population, Khouri explained. Furthermore, they are more inclined to speak out and bring their grievances into the public eye. Because the attitudes of young people often match those of adult citizens on key issues including the state of the economy, politics, and the judicial system, they provide a valuable window into popular sentiments in the region. Khouri concluded that studying Arab youth can suggest both what needs to be done in the region and how young people can help achieve it.
  • A Generation on the Move: Khouri’s two-year study, entitled A Generation on the Move and cosponsored by the American University in Beirut and UNICEF, analyzed nine nontraditional indicators to gain a comprehensive picture of youth grievances, activism, and aspirations from 2009 to 2011. These include: youth identities and values, civic and political participation, media expression, autonomy in the Arab family, the status of young women and girls, sexuality, migration, violence and armed conflict, and national youth policies in MENA. 

Youth and the Arab Spring

  • What Drove Them to the Streets: According to Khouri, looking at the conditions of young people before the uprisings reveals much of why they risked their lives for political change and continue to do so today. Young Arabs felt a desperate need to reform their societies because they insisted upon more space to express their identities freely, opportunities to achieve their full potential, social justice and equity, and the right  to hold their governments accountable.
  • Longstanding Grievances: The underlying factors driving youth discontent have existed in the region for over twenty years, Khouri said. In 2011 young people finally broke out of their “passive suffering” and led popular revolutions across the region. A critical balance between material well-being and intangible rights to dignity must be upheld to preserve stability, he added. In the lead up to the revolutions there was neither. Now people have much more confidence in government and because they feel they have obtained more “intangible rights,” they may have more tolerance for a lack of material well-being in the short term, Khouri concluded. 
  • Expectations and Reality: Drawing upon Gallup data from 2005, Mogahed examined the growing disconnects between youth expectations and their daily experiences that drove them to action. In the six years before the revolutions erupted, although GDP was growing at a healthy rate, economic opportunities and living conditions were plummeting. Furthermore, while citizens had lived under a social contract for decades in which they sacrificed freedoms for government services, in the lead up to the Arab Spring many people found themselves without freedoms and without adequate education, healthcare, housing, transportation, and other services. However, she added that the revolutions were not driven by purely economic issues, but rather by a deep and longstanding desire for freedom and democratic change.
  • The Role of Social Media:  Mogahed stated that internet did not play an “end all be all” role in the uprisings, and most citizens gained information from television networks or word of mouth. While it was certainly a factor in helping the revolutions to reach critical mass, most protestors did not have access to the internet and the revolutions were not simply uprisings of the “digital elite.” Khouri added that the internet played a role in the Arab Spring similar to that of “Paul Revere’s horse in the American Revolution”— meaning that it was an important communication system, but not the main mobilizing tool. 

Post- Revolution Attitudes

  • Persistent Optimism:  Despite difficulties in the transition process, Khrouri stated that young Arabs continue to believe that if they work hard and pursue their educations,  they will be able to live with stability and dignity. Mogahed added that citizens of countries undergoing transitions still believe in the potential of uprisings to bring prosperity and better governance. They also have increasing faith in the ability of non-violent political action to bring change, which is highly correlated to their faith in government institutions. However, she cautioned that if expectations for good governance are not met, unrest may return.
  • Fear of Instability: Mogahed stated that while fear of crime has skyrocketed, the crime rate hasn’t changed significantly in the aftermath of revolutions. Women are disproportionately fearful of instability in Arab countries, reflecting a gender gap in threat perception that exists in many geopolitical contexts.
  • Attitudes in “Non-revolting” Countries:   While citizens of countries where uprisings have occurred overwhelmingly believe their revolutions will improve their economies, security, and governance, Mogahed explained that citizens of “non-revolting” Arab countries are viewing the transitions in their region with “anxiety rather than envy.” They expect uprisings will bring worse economic and security conditions, as well as poor governance. They also believe that foreign elements—rather than indigenous movements—are responsible for the uprisings across the region. She expects the divide between revolting and “non-revolting” countries will continue to grow in the next five to ten years.
  • The Gender Gap: Mogahed explained that there is little to no gender gap in attitudes across the Arab world. There is also little gender division on the appropriate role of sharia in Arab societies. However, there is a noteworthy gender gap on women’s rights issues, with women supporting women’s rights at higher rates than men. Interestingly, there is an empirical connection between male support of women’s rights and levels of male empowerment and employment in their societies. Mogahed concludes that male perceptions of women’s rights are not driven by religious beliefs, but rather are impacted by the state of the economy and human development.  

Role of Youth in Arab Democracies:

  • Promoting Accountability: Mogahed concluded that the best role for youth may not be in politics, but rather to serve as the “government’s conscience” and to hold officials accountable. Youth may be most effective if they work to create a viable ecosystem for democracy, she added.
  • Addressing Structural Problems:  Khouri concluded that the goal should not be to solve “youth problems,” but rather to mend the underlying structural issues that have fueled economic and political disparities for decades.