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Doomed youth?

Article by Chris Phillips

February 25, 2009

Like most Arab states, Lebanon has an expanding young population for whom the future looks bleak. The United Nations Development Programme estimates that 26% of Lebanese aged 15-24 are unemployed – nearly twice the world average. Moreover, many have little say in their future as only 21-year-olds are eligible to vote –the subject of much debate in Beirut at present.

Were Nayla Tueni to be elected, she would be a decade the junior of the next-youngest MP in a parliament dominated by an older generation. Though the Cedar Revolution of 2005 was hailed by many as a breakthrough in the Arab world for youth involvement in politics, the young participants and organisers of the million plus protests subsequently ( complained that their cause was hijacked by the usual political elites. The result was a rivalry exclusively dominated by the older generation, whilst the young felt ignored.

The situation is worse for Lebanon’s Arab neighbours. Sixty-three per cent of the population of the Middle East is under 29 and a quarter of them are unemployed. The global economic downturn is being felt hard. As well as domestic recession, the rapid decline of the Gulf economies is sending home a new pool of skilled expatriates to flood an already tight job market, further squeezing out the young. While most would demand employment rather than revolution, these authoritarian regimes provide few forums to complain, and even the limited avenues allowed for political expression are geared towards those who are older. In Egypt and Jordan for example, a candidate must be over 30 to become an MP, with the majority well over 40, which excludes over half the population from running. The lack of interest in formal political structures among the youth is therefore hardly surprising, with 67% of Egyptian young people not even bothering to register to vote in 2004 – despite theoretically facing a fine or imprisonment.

Yet Arab youths are far from apathetic. Egypt’s own protests of 2005-06 that saw the Kifaya movement lead public demonstrations against the Mubarak regime with a substantial youth presence. Groups such as Youth for Change emerged to lead protests in universities and coffee shops. Yet, like their Lebanese counterparts, the young grew frustrated at their inability to affect the agendas of the old. Young people working for al-Ghad, Ayman Nour’s liberal opposition party that was prominent in Kifaya, complained of the sidelining of youth issues and the strict age-orientated hierarchical structure.

In contrast, the internet is proving to be a youth-dominated arena for political expression. The vast majority of Arab political bloggers, for example, are young or appeal to a younger audience. Similarly, Samantha Shapiro’s recent article about Facebook in Egypt highlights it as an alternative forum for Arab youth to vent their frustrations. The potential for social networking sites to organise protests and opposition in states where civil society is discouraged or actively suppressed was not lost on the Syrian government which promptly banned the site in 2007. However, even as Damascus set about blocking Facebook, Syrian internet cafes were using proxy sites and alternative networks to maintain their access.

Will these protests be constrained to cyberspace? Recently, just under half of the youths polled in a survey of six Middle Eastern states believed their country wasn’t going in the right direction, highlighting the broad desire for change. With youth unemployment set to rise even further by the end of the year, the potential for social and political unrest is clear. The recent protests over the Gaza war, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood-led demonstrations in Egypt, might prove the shape of things to come. Though prompted by the Israel-Palestine conflict, these youth-dominated marches soon descended into anti-regime anger protesting unemployment and poverty as much as Gaza. If such regimes, and even the liberal opposition, don’t turn their attention to youths’ feelings of disenfranchisement soon, more radical groups could offer an appealing alternative.

Even Ms Tueni, for all her good intentions, does not offer a real solution. Should she win in June, her election would represent more the continuation of her family’s political dynasty than signifying a new youth-friendly era in which less well-connected young Lebanese could follow her into parliament. Rather than celebrating her own youth, it must be hoped that she highlights the need for governments to offer Arab youth a real stake in their economies and polities in Lebanon and beyond.

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