By Makhan Saikia
Today, the Arab youth are in need of another revolution, not to overthrow any autocrat or a dictator but to ensure that they have a definite future. Five years after the Arab Spring, the situation in many countries of the West Asia and North Africa (WANA) is far from satisfactory.
With devastating civil wars engulfing the region, the ambitious plans of the youth for democracy and freedom are badly lost. Unfortunately the ugly head of Islamic State (ISIS) has quietly occupied the vacuum created by the absence of stronger political systems almost everywhere in the region from Iraq to Tunisia.
The sacrifice made by Mohammed Bouazizi — a young street vendor who set himself ablaze in late 2010 in Tunisia, unmindful that it will start Arab Spring — has failed to herald a change. It is another story that Bouazizi could never foresee that his action would motivate millions across the Arab world, stretching from Morocco to the Gulf region. As he personified a large section of the young, single and unemployed youth and their numerous problems, his action resonated around the vast Arab world. The aspirations and dreams of the youth, who were mainly the driving force behind the whole Arab Spring, have finally been seen at present as mirages and nightmares, in some instances.
First of all, notably, the Arab Spring had been widely represented by a variety of participants, but the majority of them belonged to the age group between15 and 24 years. Obviously, the middle class and the economic elite took part in the protests but the torchbearers were the youth.
Second, the Arab Spring marred by blood, discontent and uncertainty could hardly restructure the political systems of any of the countries of the WANA region. It was caused mainly by the realisation of the youth in countries like Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and others that their generation was living in a State which does not recognise their contribution to the nation-building process, and also to a great extent their aspirations are not being fulfilled in the past.
Therefore, the deeply entrenched socio-economic problems that led to the rise of the rebellion will not just disappear with the death or overthrow of dictators like Muammar Gaddafi, Hosni Mubarak, or Ben Ali.
Third, the contagion of the Arab uprising was also motivated by decades of suppression of political freedom of commoners. Probably, long before the waves of globalisation swept the world, the rulers in the WANA region had enjoyed unquestionable loyalty from their populace. Put simply, their subjects in general were basking in the glory of oil wealth and massive subsidies released by the rulers.
These were used as a shield against popular protests and at times, for buying support for the regimes. So there was no question issuing political freedoms or at best bringing the common people to the political platform. Unfortunately the Arab youth fought for these very basic political freedoms, but they were denied the same once again.
Fourth, the overarching socio-cultural, political and economic problems leading to the frustration of the youth were a general concern in almost all over the Arab world. But what had changed the ground reality is that once the military and the secret police started pounding on the innocent and peaceful protesters, many more joined them for the fight against their rulers.
Ultimately, the success, rather the survival of many States in the region, will depend on a coherent strategy to improve standard of education, to promote private sector, to generate employment opportunities and to bring the young Arabs to the mainstream.
Fifth, some Arab observers say the Governments in West Asia must bring an end to the “waithood” that the young people are suffering from for decades. The Arab Spring was nothing more than the demand of the people to fulfil the social contracts made with their autocratic rulers. Thus the revolution across was perceived not only as a political struggle but also an economic and cultural ones which rightly exposes the long-drawn-out fault lines in their societies.
But today, regrettably we can say the first of the social contracts, which the children will one fine day grow up to and contribute back to society and then of course raise their own families, have all broken up; and these all spearheaded the fire of the revolution of the youth. Hence this “waithood” can no longer be tolerated, else, the States brought by the historic Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 will soon be decimated.
Sixth, the 8th Annual ASDA’A Burson-Marstellar ‘Arab Youth Survey 2016’ was conducted by the international polling firm ‘Penn Schoen Berland’ to explore the attitudes among the Arab youth in 16 countries in the WANA region found that an overwhelming majority of young Arabs reject ISIS. Astonishingly, these youths have openly said ISIS will fail in its aim of establishing an Islamic state. Hence, many who believe that ISIS has a huge and powerful spell on the youth are mistaken. It shows that the majority of young people look for more freedom, job security and peace in their homes.
Seventh, the survey demonstrates that the biggest obstacles facing the region are unemployment, lack of democracy, rising living costs and civil unrest. Only 13 per cent of 3,500 youths interviewed agreed with the statement, “If ISIS did not use so much violence, I could see myself supporting it”; 78 per cent rejected it, while 9 per cent were unsure about their position. And finally, majority of them feel the lack of jobs and unemployment as the top reason for anyone joining ISIS.
Eighth, an undercurrent for ISIS across the region reflects that unemployment, marginalisation and lack of opportunities are behind the rising sympathy for ISIS. While political instability, the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq and subsequent crisis in Syria have given a safer ground for ISIS to grow, the frustration developed among the youth has finally attracted a huge chunk of youths to ISIS. Indeed, the recruitment grounds of ISIS were easily available among these youths, because this was the last option left for them to see a future.
Ninth, ironically, the global policymakers in general and the Arab statesmen in particular have failed to understand the challenges their youths are facing every day. They are congregating to fight against terrorism and ISIS, and thus ignoring the socio-economic realities of their own people. This is indirectly contributing to the growth of ISIS. The bottom line is that the Arab rulers have become blind to their own problems. Basically, the overwhelming security strategies dominate and ignore the socio-economic challenges of the youth.
Tenth, once regarded as politically supine, the power of the Arab youth was largely undermined and misunderstood by their own rulers. The general hubbub that was largely prevalent in the region during the heyday of the Arab Spring was considered simply a law & order problem. Probably this was the biggest mistake committed by these rulers and they paid a heavy price for it. Even during the revolution, which started in Tunisia, a remarkable song was murmured by people across the country and its first line goes like this, “Mr President, your people are dying” which was quoted from a local song named “Rais Lebled”. But then powerful and proud Ben Ali refused to pay heed to the song by his own citizens. And finally he fell and fell badly. Then it was the demonstrators in Cairo’s Tahrir Square who led the revolution to oust Mubarak. Afterwards, Gaddafi in Libya was brutally killed by revolutionaries and the country was pushed into an abyss. This was like a wave, guided by youth’s action and supported by the modern information and communication technologies, but poorly managed by efficient leadership. So the fall was evident.
Eleventh, the most important aspect of the Arab Spring was that it came naturally and it was waiting for long to surface. Many of the revolutionaries were novices at political activism and they hardly could realise the old tricks of the autocrats. However, surprisingly the young Arabs were on the same wavelength and all of them wanted to have a say in choosing and changing their representatives.
Remarkably, these young people had wrought political change on a massive scale, not even seen or imagined since the end of the Cold War. But unfortunately their attempts were not carried forward after a point and had been buried as usual by the old and experienced zealots.
Twelfth, the most significant of all this revolution was that the young generation had rooted out some and threatened a lot of rulers simply by a slew of peaceful protests. And this was also achieved by the absence of a single, powerful or a charismatic leadership. This had gone unnoticed by the international media and ignored by their own rulers. This was devastating in a sense that the ruling Governments should have examined the wave of change brought by these young people. And eventually, these could have been addressed by the Government well in advance.
Thirteenth, interestingly, these young people have done something which their parents did in three or four decades. Thus they are called as Facebook generation, internet generation and finally the miracle generation. They have showed the world that the all-powerful rulers of the WANA region could be challenged and overthrown in a peaceful way.
The uprisings from North Africa to the Arabian Gulf say something else. Not so long ago, these were the people who were once sidelined as “lost generation” in the Arab world. Even the political experts on the region described them as frustrated but feckless as they badly disliked their rulers and they highlighted the economic trap unleashed by the autocrats. However, the young people were astonishingly emasculated by the repressive State to look for change, but could not stop them thinking beyond the borders and for more freedom.
The rulers of Mamluks and Maliks in the vast WANA region were badly shaken by the youth who were nowhere near to be considered as worth by their own Governments. Instead of considering them as economic powerhouse, they were treated as problems by the State. Thus, they were entirely intimidated by the Mubaraks, Salehs, Gaddafis and Assads for their big fight against the invincible State.
Worse even, they were threatened by the secret police of these despots who were known as ‘Mukhabarat’, but they challenged them all. The formative elements of the dispossessed generation for launching this revolt was simply found none other than in their own civilisation and culture where one was asked to pay eternal allegiance to the rulers.
Therefore, it was an ardent effort of the youth and this will once again surface in the region. What the Arab States need is change and restructuring of their haggard political establishments with gradual democratic elements-first to start with grassroots elections.
Take the youth into confidence and give more power to the women. Remember, the power of the young, educated people and anger of the unemployed could create disaster for all of the Arab autocrats who are ruling in the name of their people. In an age of globalisation, world has become a global village and all are interconnected by internet. So who knows, one fine day, the internet might change the face of the Arab world. Let’s wait and watch whether their leaders and policymakers heed to what the historic Arab Spring tried to convey to them. Let’s hope they listen to their people and act accordingly.
(The writer is Senior Editor, The Pioneer)
Five years after Arab Spring
By Makhan Saikia