By Afshin Molavi
Understanding the shifts in thought as optimism turns to apathy and disillusion among the region's youth
The last ten years Taha Al Shazli wanted two things: a job and a sense of dignity. He received neither when he was unceremoniously dismissed from possible entry to the Cairo police academy because of his father’s “lowly” station as a security guard. When he lamented his fate to his friend Busayna, a weary-beyond-her-years teenager who was a victim of numerous assaults, she gave him some advice: use your good grades to go to university, then “go off to an Arab country and earn some money, then come back here and live like a king”.
She went on: “This country doesn’t belong to us, Taha. It belongs to the people who have money. If you’d had 20,000 pounds and used them to bribe someone, do you think anyone would have asked about your father’s job? Make money and you’ll get everything, but if you stay poor, they’ll walk all over you.”
That exchange, from Ala’a Al Aswany’s emotionally searing and celebrated 2004 novel, The Yacoubian Building, was all too recognisable for many young Arabs from poorer backgrounds in North Africa. It did not matter that Al Shazli was a talented and hardworking student. It did not matter that he aced the academy entrance exams. He had neither baksheesh nor wasta and so he was out of luck. His best hope was to leave.
For many young Arabs in the Levant and North Africa, Busayna’s resignation and Al Shazli’s anger rings all too familiar. Most emigrate or eke out a living, or live lives of squandered potential. The Arab uprisings brought great hope in those early years, but they have led to varying degrees of disappointment.
Indeed, as the latest Arab Youth Survey shows, an astonishing 56 percent of young Arabs view the Arab uprisings as a negative development, and only one out of five see the so-called Arab Spring as positive. Young Tunisians and Libyans are the most enthusiastic about the effects of the Arab Spring, with 50 percent and 42 percent, respectively, seeing the events as positive. Among young Egyptians, however, less than a quarter view the Arab uprisings as a positive event, and a full 52 percent see it as negative.
Young people overwhelmingly reject terrorist groups like Daesh. They want greater transparency. They want jobs. They want modernised education systems. They want opportunity”
We have come a long way from the heady days of Tahrir Square, when a new world seemed to be dawning. The Great Shift that the Arab uprisings promised has instead led to a Great Drift.
One of the heroes of the early days of the uprising in Egypt, the former Google executive Wael Ghonim, wrote recently of the fading allure of the Arab Spring and his own personal depression since leaving Egypt.
“Just as quickly as it had risen, the high of the Arab Spring began to fade,” he wrote. “Power corrupts even those with the best intentions, and I saw it do so every day.
I lived it. The opposition groups were blinded by the January 25th victory. They didn’t trust each other and lacked empathy. Sometimes I found myself lacking empathy too. We were all practicing one form or another of what we criticised the Mubarak regime of doing.”
Unemployment remains a persistent problem. On the eve of the Arab uprisings, the Middle East and North Africa region had the highest youth unemployment rate in the world, hovering near 25 percent. Today, after seven years of dizzying change and dramatic geopolitical shifts, one thing has remained stubbornly constant: a youth unemployment rate of 25 percent.
There is no bigger challenge to the future of the Arab world than the jobs challenge. Young people understand this. They have been crying out this familiar refrain for the ten-year life of the Arab Youth Survey, and before – and Arab governments have largely failed to deliver.
In the most recent survey, North African youth point to the need to create “new, well-paying jobs” and “cracking down on government corruption” as their top two priorities. Youth in the Levant agree on the need to create “new, well-paying jobs” – it comes in as their top wish. Creating jobs in an era increasingly driven by automation and robotics will be the challenge of our global era, but it is a challenge that must be met. The levels of frustration seen among youth in North Africa and the Levant are unsustainable both politically and morally.
Young people in the Levant are strikingly frustrated about the fate of their region. A full 85 percent of youth there believe the Middle East is going in the wrong direction. This contrasts sharply with youth from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), with a majority positive outlook, with an evenly divided split among North African youth.
The 2018 Arab Youth Survey shows us, once again, the stark divide between the youth from the Gulf and the rest. The poll findings reflect that young people in the GCC are seemingly living in a different world than their peers elsewhere. This, too, is unsustainable.
On the tenth anniversary of the Arab Youth Survey, leaders from across the Arab world now have a decade of survey data to understand what their youth want. Amid this wealth of data, good news emerges even amid the cries for support. Young people overwhelmingly reject terrorist groups like Daesh. Young people want greater government accountability and transparency. They want jobs. They want modernised education systems. They want opportunity. They prefer to stay in their home country and build it, rather than leave. They want hope. They want dignity.
A detailed examination of a decade of Arab Youth Survey findings reflects a young Arab population that is frustrated but pragmatic, hungry for meaningful work and dubious of utopianist solutions.
There is a moment at the end of The Autumn Quail, the Naguib Mahfouz novel set in the aftermath of the 1952 Egyptian Revolution as allure of that movement fades, when a former senior civil servant comes face-to-face with a young man he once jailed. The young man wanted to talk, but the former civil servant only saw menace in him, and dismissed his efforts at discussion. When the young man slinked away, the former civil servant had second thoughts. “I could catch up to him, he thought, if I didn’t waste any more time hesitating,” Mahfouz wrote.
There has been too much hesitation. Arab governments have largely failed their youth, and their “revolutions” have been disappointing, but I will not bet against the promise of Arab youth. There is a moment, today, without hesitation, when the promise of Arab youth can be channelled into results. For the Taha Al Shazlis and the Busaynas of the Arab world – and beyond. Or it can be lost, swirling amid the Great Drift.