AFTER Wael Ghonim’s Egypt began the business of rebuilding for the future, the Middle East was turned into a revolt magnet.
Protesters in Yemen and Bahrain clashed with the police as the Egyptian model fired them on, while Libyan revolutionaries, filmed in fatigues and knitted caps, took on Muammar Qadhafi’s forces. The youth now veered towards armed uprising.
Arab youth have raised their voice in a resolute call for governments to reform, against the aging rulers and political elite of the Middle East. When 60 per cent of the population is under 25 and educated, the region is nurturing radical youth movements fretting about the future while the rest of the world is galloping towards prosperity. So clearly when Egypt protested it wasn’t an Islamist revolution.
And clearly much to our dismay Pakistan is not Egypt. It doesn’t seem to go that way although people are disturbed by a wobbly government tethering on the precipice of political upheaval, constrained on a tight leash by the military establishment.
Look to the moderate minority (civil society, progressive politicians, and rights activists) and they are ill-equipped to take on a self-serving government, religious extremists and the feudal class. Secular student groups don’t figure because universities double as ripe recruiting grounds for religious parties, among others.
Interestingly, in Pakistan it’s the extremist parties who take to the streets at the slightest, indoctrinating the masses with rabid ideology; they have yet to show those numbers in parliament. So freedom’s domino effect won’t take Pakistan by storm anytime soon.
If we talk of what is different in the brave new Arab world then it’s a pragmatic post-Islamist generation making no ideological appeal but calling to end corrupt dictatorships. These regimes have touted Islam as important but not always inclusive of political systems, rather for moral policing and socio-cultural re-Islamisation. “The only power you could rely on is the young people because they didn’t have a future,” explained Mohamed ElBaradei, Nobel Laureate and Egyptian opposition figure who has supported youth movements for over two years.When Egyptian protesters smiled through uncertain days and nights without violent resistance earlier this year, they were not critical of US policy in the region. Also, there was a stark sense of unity and purpose among men and women, Christians and Muslims, young and old, with Arabs from all walks of life crowding together to protest: a sea of humanity.
In contrast street protests in Pakistan have largely involved political parties or civil society, and have not been entirely youth-led or ideology-free. There has been no ouster of unpopular or corrupt governments because ever since 1947 the state has managed rather efficiently to use religion to fracture the nation. The 2008 lawyers’ protests might have helped unseat General Pervez Musharraf without changing the political system or instituting wide-ranging reforms.
Ironically the existence of institutions — the judiciary, free press, elections and opposition parties — however weak, allows the country to survive political instability and economic pitfalls. Limping along in Pakistan’s case is the judicial system (in Tunisia the courts are not as independent) and unlike Tunisia and Egypt, the press is relatively free. The Committee to Protect Journalists says press freedoms in Egypt were deplorable in 2010, and another press-monitoring organisation claims Tunisia provides the ‘most repressive’ conditions for journalists.
So, having experienced experiments with democracy, quasi-free elections, and when all fails military interventions, Pakistan’s Generation Y (ideology-driven, born from the ’70s onwards) with minimal secular education and without the spirit of nationalism or unity, has no understanding of how to mobilise and come onto the streets, like the Arabs or even the Turks.
They don’t have it in them to become thinking youth leaders, accustomed to being led by the religious ilk.
Meanwhile young Arabs with no association to political Islam have learnt about peaceful resistance online through the years, being better educated than previous generations who were forced through the ’70s and ’80s into silent submission. This generation has not only attracted young Islamists to become part of their revolt but have in ways for the first time proven that radical Islam is not the only alternative to authoritarianism.
Young Arabs in Egypt, Yemen and Tunisia are independent pluralists, like those Iranians who filled the streets of Tehran and 18 other cities to protest Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s re-election in 2009, young men and women who had to face a stiff government crackdown. Plainly put, it seems as if the Arab youth want democracy and an end to bad governance and high unemployment.
The Middle East youth movement is about security and employment, as there is persistent agitation in the region for social and political reform. Generation in Waiting: The Unfulfilled Promise of Young People in the Middle East, edited by Tarik Yousef and Navtej Dhillon, says that young people (15-29 years old) constitute about one-third of the region’s population, that ideological concerns won’t hijack the Middle East but with more than a 100 million young Arabs pressing for change, with young people in eight Arab countries coming of age, governments cannot turn a blind eye to reforms.
The frustration of the Arab youth has led many to warn the region is a ‘powder keg’. But who could have imagined the explosion, despite key US interests in financially propping up once stable authoritarian regimes. Not much remains predictable in the Middle East.