The Arab Spring is frequently portrayed as a series of uprisings against oppressive regimes. A more historically-oriented reading would see it as a rejection by young Arabs (the more than 185-million under the age of 30 years) of the socio-political heritage they inherited from the previous generation.

Across most of the Arab world, young Arabs are subject to poor education, healthcare and transport services, and are faced with high unemployment rates, a bleak job market, and the likelihood of dismal futures. In politics, the failures of almost all modern Arab States to forge national narratives or legitimate structures to which the majority of their people can subscribe, exacerbated the sense of overarching failure.

The current wave of political activism led by young Arabs is the culmination of a decade of dynamism. Towards the end of the 1990s, a number of young political ‘heirs’ – in Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Syria – led initiatives to modernize the political structures that they were groomed to inherit from their fathers. In Libya, Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi tried to position his father’s regime as a rehabilitated, new convert to capitalism and a responsible member of the international community. Al-Assad junior in Syria distanced himself from his father’s murderous heritage. In Egypt, Gamal Mubarak led a rigorous operation inside the then ruling National Democratic Party to put forward a sophisticated socio-political narrative that Egypt’s massive middle class could accept.

All of these initiatives centered on building constituents among the youths of these societies. But the inherently corrupt natures of these regimes, their lack of legitimacy, and crucially their bankrupt political narratives gradually led these heirs to move away from their initial populist discourses.

These political attempts became increasingly detached from the people. There existed no political space for the masses of young Arabs who were emerging onto the stages of their societies, and trying to escape the pains inflicted on them by decades of political and economic failures.

Energy channeled into alternative culture

Arabic cinema, in Tunisia, Morocco, Lebanon, and Egypt, with new twists, stories, scripts, innovations in visual effects, shooting styles and higher production values, witnessed a revival after a long low period in the 1980s and 1990s. Production budgets are now routinely US$3–5 million, if not more – major investments by the standards of Arab cinema.

Distribution of films has expanded from the classic markets of the Arab world, and increasingly to the world cinema circles in Europe. From 2004 onwards, at least two Arab films were presented every year at Cannes Film Festival. And there were serious attempts at participating in innovative gatherings such as Tribeca in New York and Sundance in Utah. The same development took place in Arabic music: innovations (and in many cases refreshing unorthodoxy) in tones, mixes, melodies and visuals drew more listeners, opened new markets and generated more revenues. Arab music and artists won the prestigious World Music Award three times between 1998 and 2007.

Even reading, a long-lost cause across the Arab world, has witnessed a revival. The Arabic (and in many cases illegal) translations of the Harry Potter books and The Lord of the Rings films, the rising penetration of the internet in cafes and public spaces, in addition to the popularity of blogs and chatrooms, triggered an enthusiasm for reading, writing and critiquing. So far another Naguib Mahfouz (the Arab world’s sole Nobel laureate in literature) has not emerged, but thousands of young writers are experimenting with new themes, structures and language (different evolutions of Arabic slangs). One refreshing example is ‘El Koshary Today’, an English-language ‘fake news website’, modelled on the highly successful satirical ‘The Onion’ in the United States. The site was launched by three twentysomething Egyptians, and with its tongue-in-cheek hilarity and uproarious directness, El Koshary Today has managed to attract a dedicated and increasing fan base.

Youth-led economic development

Young Arabs’ dynamism has also set off a wave of innovation in the Arab world’s business and finance scene. The major increases in oil prices in the period from 2004 to 2008 yielded huge liquidity in the Gulf which fuelled an investment bubble in real estate and capital markets. But much more interestingly, capital-poor areas in the Arab world witnessed admirable growth in high-end economic sectors. The Egyptian computing and information-technology industry, though tiny in size and highly concentrated in terms of professionals and entities, boasts excellent education centres (especially at the American University in Cairo), a number of highly successful companies with international clientele and sales distribution, and an increasingly high reputation.

In Morocco, technological innovations coupled with wise investments in infrastructure resulted in major water desalination projects that improved the lives of millions of people. Over the past decade, the Middle East’s and Africa’s most successful telecoms operator, construction conglomerate, a number of highly successful pharmaceutical companies, and three of Africa’s largest private equity funds emerged out of the Arab world, invariably led by young management teams.

Even at the core of the Arab world’s socio-economic life, away from the industries and sectors that require sophistication, exposure to the west and access to mega-funding, thousands of young Arabs have created tens of thousands of small businesses and enterprises in numerous sectors, from small textile workshops to fast food restaurants, call centres, taxi fleets, diving centres, tourism operators, vegetables and fruits farms, to small manufacturing projects. Adam Smith’s invisible hand was very much in action throughout the 2000s, promoting creativity, ingenuity and resourcefulness.

In philanthropy and social investment, a new generation of Arabs has established a large number of NGOs working amidst their societies’ poor and needy, on projects aiming to alleviate poverty, promote vocational assistance, and improve educational facilities in some of the most deprived areas of the Middle East and North Africa. Social work and enterprise extended to general social and environmental problems, such as efforts of independent activists to raise awareness of climate change, and solve problems such as rubbish collection in the poor neighbourhoods of mega cities such as Cairo, Damascus and Khartoum. Young people’s philanthropy groups also confronted some of the region’s deep-seated social problems; for example very admirable and courageous work was undertaken by volunteer groups in some of the poorest regions in southern Egypt to curb female genital mutilation.

Look to the youth bulge

Political activists in Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, and certain parts of the Gulf drew attention to these countries regimes’ severe violations of human rights; organized demonstrations to protest against these abuses; and in a number of cases – most notably Egypt – stirred dynamism that quickly gained momentum and evolved into society-wide demonstrations that succeeded in toppling a 30-years old corrupt administration. Such activism, clearly, yielded tangible results and made momentous differences within their societies. They have an opportunity to go further.

The rise of internet penetration across the whole of the Arab world; the widespread adoption of digital social networking as a medium of sharing, testing, debating, and disseminating ideas; and the potential that these new media have shown in the cases of the Tunisian, Egyptian, and Syrian revolutions mean that the new socio-political and cultural narratives that young Arabs’ dynamism is likely to give rise to will emerge in these new public spaces. Political parties, traditional media, universities, professional syndicates, and labour organisations will remain vital to presenting new ideas, stirring public debate, and lending legitimacy to new political movements. But the new digital space is increasingly the medium of choice of the most active groupings within the demographically dominant sector: young Arabs. It will witness the battle of ideas that is certain to emerge between different ideological groups in the Arab world over the coming few years.

International observers need not try to influence these clashes of ideas. They should foster the media (the platforms) through which these ideas are presented. For decades, oppressive Arab regimes have tried to contain the youths’ energy by denying them any chance to peacefully express their views. That was one of the fundamental reasons why the Arab world witnessed a rise in radicalism, secularism, and rejectionist postures. That mistake should not happen again.

Young Arabs should have an open, public, tolerant space, in which intellectual competitiveness is a function of the strength of the argument, power of persuasion, charisma, and ability to reach out to large sections of the society. Their most important contribution today is not in cinema, literature, business, philanthropy or social work. It is in forging their own futures – their own attempts at escaping the failures they have not contributed to and yet are living the consequences of on a daily basis.

An open bottom-up dialogue, free from impositions from the top, is the best guarantee that young people’s energy will give rise to innovative, refreshing narratives that can transform Arab societies.

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