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The Youth are Revolting


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n February 18, 2012, just over a year on from the rst major demonstrations in Yemens Change Square, 26-yearold 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 Yemens 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 himpurportedly without witness or lawyeras a thug of the revolution, Amr was severely beaten by the authorities. When he was arrested, it was the rst time that he had been to a protest. His case prompted the emergence of Egypts No to Military Trials for Civilians campaign, led by activists who were with him during the protests.
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A New Generation of Politics in the Middle East?

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KATE NEVENS
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.
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, sevenyear-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 monthsousting the autocratic leaders of Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen, executing Libyas Colonel Gaddaffi, and prompting

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prolonged and violent clampdowns in Syria and Bahrainhave 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. 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 sleepingdigitalmasses 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 regions youth as powerful new agents for political and social change has already begun to wane. Understandably nervous of the rather amorphous concept of youthwhich 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 politicssome analysts are beginning to question the signicance 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 erce 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

THE YOUTH ARE REVOLTING:

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 specicities. 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 Saids 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 ll this analytical void, offering various theories for youth-heavy nature of the Arab Spring. Young Arabs Combined population pyramid of Arab League countries in 2011. 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 regions 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 lessthan-30s than othersfor example, young people are more likely to be unemployed; in Egypt, nine out of ten of those known to be unemployed are under 30. 25 20 15 10 5 5 10 15 20 25 A lot has also been made of the role of Age Group Population (in millions) Population (in millions) social media, with the revolutionary tools of Facebook and Twitter seen, rightly or United States Census Bureau, 2012.

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Region of the Young

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Photo Courtesy Reuters

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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 specically on Egypt and Yemen, where enough people self-identify as being part of a youth movement or new generationthrough their involvement in youth coalitions, new youth-led political parties or other networksthat 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 Yemens post-revolution future? design and shape a new social contract. At face value, beyond the removal of the gureheads 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: Egypts 2011 elections through the 2012 parliamentary electionsgenerally agreed to have been free and fair, with an impressive 60 percent voter turnoutand Yemens Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) sponsored transition program, with its proposed national dialogue designed specically to bring previously excluded voicesthat is, of the youth, women, southern secessionist, and Houthi rebels from the North into Yemens political sphere. But plenty of questions remain over how truly transformative these mechanisms will be. The incredibly low number of youth and women in Egypts new parliamentat 2 percent Egypt now has one of the lowest percentages of female MPs in the worldand the amusingly-worded ofcial GCC initiative document states women should be appropriately represented in the Yemeni national dialogue, are worrying signs. Most problematic, however, is not the parliaments lack of diversity or the GCCs 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, Egypts parliament still lacks true decision-making power. The ruling military regime the Supreme council of the Armed Forces (SCAF)still holds onto the countrys 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 Salehs party, the General Peoples Congress, and the opposition coalition, the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP). Both are pawns in the Saleh familys political game playing and have done little to shift the real balance of power, which still lies rmly in Salehs immediate family and the countrys 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.

Egypt and Yemen and the Politics of Exclusion

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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 relationsopportunities 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 Yemens largest youth coalitions, the Civic Coalition for Revolutionary Youth (CCRY), stated that its 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. Egypts Coalition of Youth Revolutionwhich 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
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Youth Coalitions and New Political Parties

Both Egypt and Yemens 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 amplied 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 ishardly surprising. Decades of elite level corruption and hierarchical, inexible and inaccessible systems have taken their natural toll, and the Muslim Brotherhoods Freedom and Justice Partya staunchly traditional, hierarchical set-up themselves behind the sceneswho won 47 percent of the peoples assembly

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votes, has not yet had time to prove themselves different. New Horizons (and the Coming of the Islamists) The problem of traditional hierarchies is also echoed, There are some interesting questions surrounding somewhat surprisingly, across new political parties. In where the Islamist groups sit within this push-pull dynamic Egypt, many members of the youth movement who have of older authoritarian ways and newer more participachosen to join new political parties have found themselves tory ones. When the balance of power nally shifts away sidelinedor allowing themselves to be sidelinedfor from the old regimes, in both Egypt and Yemen, its the older and more experienced generations. Even young Islamiststhe Muslim Brotherhood and the Salas in people working for al-Ghad, Ayman Nours liberal opposiEgypt, and the main opposition party Islah in Yemen tion party, complained of the sidelining of youth issues who look set to reap the rewards of greater democracy in and the strict age-orientated hierarchical structure, says the two countries. 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 womens 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-makingonly 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, Egyptian youth sit and talk at a public cafe in Cairo in front of paintings depicting martyrs of the January 25th revolution. Husam Al Sharjabi, co-founder of both the CCRY and the new While this is a topic deserves its own piece, it is worth Al Watan Party, argued that it is important that the youth noting that while the old guard of the Muslim Brotherhood put a political face to the movement, because without and Islah may be running the show at moment, both also having political parties you will not have the right struchave their own internal generation divides that are likely ture to drive the change forward. Husam also mentioned to drive politics in a new direction. Progressive young having problems recruiting womena challenge he is Muslim Brotherhood members are shearing off from the keen to meet. main body, forming new parties like Egyptian Current Other youth-led initiatives may prove to have as much, with like-minded secular activists. In a conversation with if not more, traction in challenging the status quo. Both one of the deputy leaders of Islah, he was quick to mention Egypt and Yemen are drafting new Freedom of Informathe need to accommodate the younger voices in his corall. tion Laws, to establish a two-way process in which citizens Even the Salascharacterized as the most fundamental can request access to government information, but also and conservative of the main Islamist groups in Egypt for the government to routinely publish records. One of have their own liberal youth wing in the Salfyocostas, the leading lights in writing Egypts draft law was a young who, while wearing hats imitating the Costa Coffee logo, researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, advocate values of cooperation, community, and tolerance. Amr Gharbeia, also a prominent social media activist. Bit by bit, the sheer weight of the youth in the region There is a general positive direction from the government will inevitably make an impression on its politics. Whether of engaging civil society, Amr Gharbeia told the Egypt through a youth-heavy cross-sectarian new political party Independent, one that could lead to a more transparent state like Egyptian Current, or the dogged production of new structure in the long-term. The youth coalitions in Yemen draft laws and street campaigns, or from within the traare fullling a similar social function. In both countries, ditional parties, the question remains how much of an these laws are a seemingly small but in fact very signicant impressionand how soon. step forward in re-writing government-society relations.
Photo Courtesy Reuters Fall 2012
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