Suad Joseph, University of California, Davis

(appeared in the MESA Newsletter, February 2011, Vol. 33 No. 1)

Presidents often use this annual letter to the membership to address the conditions under which we carry out our research as scholars of the Middle East or the conditions of our organizational lives together within the Middle East Studies Association. However, the January, 2011 events in Tunisia register the immediacy of the focal population of the Middle East that calls for our attention–the youth. The dramas and dilemmas of their futures raise for us questions of what responsibilities we, as scholars of the region, might have toward these youth. These images pop up on our screens, demanding space on scholarly agendas.

The street protests which overthrew the 23-year authoritarian rule of President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia on January 14, 2011 appear to have been ignited by the December 17, 2010 self- immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year old street food vendor in Sidi Bouzid. The story quickly spread virally on social media that Mr. Bouazizi was beaten and humiliated by 45-year-old Fadia Hamdi, a female police officer and her fellow officers. His wares, his livelihood, were confiscated, as they had been numerous times before, because he did not have a vending permit (some reports indicate a permit was not required, but bribery of officers was). His mother was reported to assert that it was the public humiliation, not the poverty that led to his suicide. Facebook, Twitter, and other social media flashed updates and clips of the deadly events from street to street as thousands of youthful demonstrators, males and females, confronted police in what was dubbed the “Jasmine Revolution” or as a report called it, the “Twitterized Revolution.”

June 13, 2009 thousands of Iranians, mostly youth, males and females, took to the streets to protest the results of the Iranian presidential elections which they saw as rigged. In one candle-light vigil, over 100,000 protestors mourned those killed in the demonstrations. The protests continued for weeks, with street battles leaving dozens of dead and more wounded. The killing of 26-year-old Neda Agha-Soltan, by the Basij, on June 20, captured by amateur video, spread virally as soon as it was posted on YouTube and Facebook. Seen by millions all over the world, the video of Neda’s killing was perhaps the most watched death in history. The young Neda became the human face of the protestors and of the government’s oppressive technologies. Twitter feeds and cell-phone pictures kept the young protesters and the world riveted to the events which came to be called the “Green Revolution” (after the colors of opposition leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi) or the “Twitter Revolution” in recognition of the power of social media in mitigating censorship. 

On February 14, 2005, former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Harriri was assassinated in a car bomb in Beirut. With fingers pointing at Syrian involvement, tens of thousands of anti-Syrian protesters, mostly youth, males and females, took to the streets on February 21, 2005 to call for Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon. By March 8, a pro-Syrian demonstration organized by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah drew a crowd of anywhere between .5 to 1.5 million, largely young men and women. On March 14, by some counts, a million demonstrated, again in Beirut, in commemoration of Harriri’s assassination–a non-sectarian turn out that developed into the March 14 movement.  Mainly youthful in compositions, these demonstrations and counter demonstrations continued for weeks and months, as did the assassinations. Sometimes called the “Cedar Revolution” or the “Intifada al-Istiglal” (Independence Uprising), the demonstrations and international pressure led to the withdrawal of 14,000 Syrian troops from Lebanon after an occupation of almost 30 years. Facebook, YouTube and other social media kept the protesters and the world tied to the compelling events on the streets of Beirut–and triggered sympathetic demonstrations of Lebanese in the diaspora. Feeds on social media focused on the young faces of hope, as the overwhelmingly youthful demonstrators dashed themselves into history.

These, and other examples one might give, direct our attention to the authoritarian regimes, the lack of civil society, the suppression of public speech and press, and the corruption in many Middle Eastern governments–all of which are well known. However, they also point us toward the faces in the crowds, the possibilities of their futures, and the technologies they master to navigate their circumstances. They point us to the youth of the Middle East, the conditions of their livelihoods, the institutions facilitating/obstructing education, the doors open/closed for jobs, the avenues open/closed for political engagement. In each of these sites, the stories are disturbing.

Middle Eastern children and youth constitute two-thirds of the populations of almost all Middle Eastern countries. The “youth bulge” refers to the demographic condition facing most of these countries, especially in the Arab world. Adolescence and youth (the ages of 15-29) count over 100 million in the Middle East, over 30% of the population of the region. The main reason contributing to the “youth bulge” is the improved health conditions leading to a decline infant mortality in the 20th century. High fertility with improved infant survivability produced the biggest youth bulge the region has ever known. The growth rate, at about 2% per annum, is higher than the world average of 1.2%. While there is unevenness in the region, the youth bulge will remain for a generation in the region until the expected general decline in fertility manifests itself in a reduction in youth.

In an area of the world that produces critical sources of world wealth, the rates of poverty, illiteracy, unemployment and underemployment, and health problems among children and youth are often staggering. Since the early to mid-20th century, when most of these states gained independence, the story of state-making and of nation-building has been a story of failure. Nationalist and pan-nationalist movements have stalled or left their followers disillusioned. Wars and violence have forced many of the young to leave or try to leave their countries.

For over the past half century, the majority of these children and youth have grown up at high-risk, their futures filled with political uncertainty and likely violence. For many youth, the state offers little hope for the future. For many youth their futures are routed through family relations which are themselves complicated as both sites of security and sources of oppression. Many youth have to postpone marriage and family formation (what is called “waithood”). Many are unemployed or underemployed–indeed the highest unemployment rates in most countries are among the youth, averaging 25% for the Middle East as compared to 14% for youth globally. Some are mobilized into militias, resistance movements, or sectarian/religious movements. Islamist movements, which swept through the region since the 1980s, are among a variety of alternatives for some youth who try to claim a vision for their future. Many try to leave their natal countries. Many migrate internally, willingly or reluctantly.

Middle East youth are often seen in global media as violent, radical, religious fanatics and terrorists. Despite the great heterogeneity of the region in religion, in ethnicities, in national cultural histories, the Middle East and the youth of the region are often viewed as Islamic and Islamic fundamentalist. 

Most Middle East youth are just trying to survive, obtain some education, manage a livelihood. A majority of the youth in the region are disillusioned with their political leaders and governments. They focus on their families and their lives. Yet, they are capable of momentous political and social action–as the events in Tunisia, Iran, Lebanon, and other countries demonstrate. Their aspirations can be tapped. Their hopes can be ignited. Their humanity can be stirred to action. And they are using new technologies, the social media, to animate their actions–regardless of their levels of education. For scholars of the Middle East, these events call for us to read them, understand them, translate them beyond the easy and ready-made categories of analysis. 

It is telling that the mother of Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian youth whose self-immolation triggered the fall of a political dictator, contended that his suicide was not for a politics or an ideology. It was for dignity. She claims it was the humiliation that he suffered that he could no longer tolerate. The resulting Tunisian protests also appear non-ideological, not driven by Islamists or political parties. They appear to manifest the cry of a human condition, the demand for human integrity, the insistence on openings for futures free of authoritarian regulation–futures which facilitate the possibilities of creative human production. This too, is part of our responsibilities as researchers of the Middle East–to capture the human condition as we describe, analyze, and translate the humanity we have chosen as the focus of our scholarly production. 

Return to List

Stay Connected

MESA offers several ways to stay connected, including a young-people-approved presence on Facebook and Twitter, oldie but goodie listservs, and trusty email notifications. To find out more, please follow the link below.

Connect Now