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Why This Summer Could Be the Arab Summer

The Middle East's millennials haven't gone anywhere.

| Mon Jun. 30, 2014 6:35 PM EDT
Protests at Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, in 2011.

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

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.

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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.

Here are three of their achievements that seem likely to be lasting, whatever the upheaval in the region:

1. The emergence of dynasties and family cartels as the leadership of the Arab republics has been rejected.

Back in 2000, sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim coined the phrase jumlukiyyah, a melding of the Arabic words for "republic" and "monarchy." This phenomenon of "monarpublicanism," he pointed out, was the dynastic principle that then governed the leadership succession in much of the Middle East. Unlike in republics elsewhere in which unrelated presidents and prime ministers are supposed to succeed one another in accordance with the popular will, Ibrahim suggested that the way Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father Hafez in Syria was a bellwether for the region.

Saif al-Islam Gaddafi seemed poised to eventually take over from his mercurial father, Muammar, in Libya. Hosni and Suzanne Mubarak were said to be grooming their younger son Gamal to step into the presidency after the old man passed from the scene in Egypt. In Yemen, President for Life Ali Abdallah Saleh was promoting his son Ahmad, a general in the army, as his successor. Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali 's presidential palace was being eyed by his wife, social climber Leila Trabelsi, and his son-in-law, billionaire Sakher El Materi.

Ibrahim was jailed by a petty and vindictive Egyptian regime simply for being a sociologist and observing the reality around him (even if he was ultimately acquitted of wrongdoing). One goal of the youth movements in Egypt and elsewhere was distinctly Ibrahimist: to destroy the principle of monarpublicanism, turn out those presidents-for-life, and ensure that their children did not succeed them. All of them were to be made accountable for their family crimes after free and fair elections.

Because of those youth revolutions, Hafez al-Assad of Syria was the sole republican monarch who passed his country on to his son— and even then, Bashar has been able to cling to power in just half of his country and only by resorting to atrocities so extensive that they amount to crimes against humanity. Elsewhere, the crown princes of the corrupt old republics are often in exile, court, or prison. Saif al-Islam Gaddafi is on trial in Tripoli. Tunisia is attempting to extradite Sakher al-Materi from the Seychelles Islands. Gamal Mubarak is on trial for stock exchange manipulation. General Ahmad Ali Saleh, the son of the deposed dictator, is being investigated on charges of embezzlement, while his father, accused of plotting a coup, has lost much of his remaining power.

Youth opposition to the emergence of royal dynasties in the Arab republics sprung not just from a distaste for the betrayal of republican political principles but from a conviction that such ruling families had become corrupt, nepotistic cartels. As the US embassy in Tunis observed in 2006, "In Tunisia's small subset of commercial actors, it seems at least half of the elite are rumored to be somehow related or connected to the President."

In such circumstances, licenses for companies, jobs in the state bureaucracy, and other economic opportunities were monopolized by and for the ruling family and its circle of cronies. The protesters saw this level of corruption as a brake on economic growth, leaving those outside the charmed circle doomed to work as menials, to unemployment, or to exile abroad. Worse, if the plans for non-royal succession were implemented, these exclusionary, corrupt, and stagnant systems would be perpetuated many decades into the future.

Jumlukiyyah is now in the junk heap of history.

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