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Books about the Arab Spring ignore youth

A series of books examine the Arab Uprisings, but not with a focus on youth except for Youth and the Revolution in Tunisia (Zed, 2013). Arab Spring Dreams consists of young adult’s fiction and non-fiction, written before the uprisings. Arab Youth is an edited collection written before the uprisings.

Ashraf Khalil. Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation. ST. Martin’s Press, 2011.

Marwan Bishara. The Invisible Arab: The Promise and Peril of the Arab Revolutions. Nation Books, 2012.

Bassam Haddad, R. Bsheer and Z Abu-Rish, eds. The Dawn of the Arab Uprisings. Pluto Press, 2012.

Nasser Weddady and Sohrab Ahmari, eds. Arab Spring Dreams. Palgrave, 2012.

Gilbert Achcar. The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Spring., University of California Press, 2013.

Layla al-Zubaidi and Matthew Cassel, eds. Diaries of an Unfinished Revolution: Voices from Tunis to Damascus. Penguin Books, 2013.

Paul Danahar. The New Middle East: The World After the Arab Spring. Boomsbury Press, 2013.

Alcinda Honwana. Youth and the Revolution in Tunisia. Zed, 2013.

Revolution 2.0? How influential was social media to the Arab Spring?

Revolution 2.0?

The Arab Spring of 2011 set off dominos of uprisings around the world, including the Occupy movements in the US. Raul Zibechi, Uruguayan writer, noted that mainstream media have given an “almost magical role to social networks in mobilizing the millions of people on the street.[i] He quotes former Brazilian President da Silva, who commented, “With nimble fingers on their cell phones, youth have taken to the streets all around the world to protest, connected by social networks.” Activists, however, often reject the label “Twitter Revolution,” “Facebook Revolution” or “Revolution 2.0” because it minimizes the work of small groups active for years in what anarchist professor James C. Scott calls “hidden spaces.”

A joke among young rebels was they prefer the technology of a Molotov cocktail to Twitter and Facebook. They feel western journalists overestimated the importance of social media. Salma, is a member of the Mosireen media group in Cairo. I heard her speak at a Global Uprisings conference in Amsterdam where she said it’s not accurate to call the ouster of President Mubarak an Internet Revolution. The day the revolution got in high gear was on January 28 when people woke up to government shut off of Internet or phones, so they went to the streets to find out what was happening. She said although Western media focuses on the young educated Twitter user, most of the marches started in poor neighborhoods with angry masses from different backgrounds—over 20 million people took to the streets. They burned down 90 police stations on January 28, destroying “oppressive state infrastructure” for bread, freedom and social justice. The Internet was a tool but the cause was police brutality, economic crisis including high youth unemployment, and Mubarak’s intention to pass the throne to his son. Now thousands of bloggers discuss politics on the Net, and Mosireen collects video footage from citizen cell phones and cameras, so IT is a powerful tool.

Social media photos galvanized anger before the revolutions by focusing on young men who people could identify with like a brother who were victimized by police. In Tunisia, a vegetable seller was so fed up with corruption that he set himself on fire (photos showed his burned body in the hospital). In Egypt, young  Khaled Said was battered to death by police in Egypt because he posted a video of police dealing drugs. Their photos went viral and fueled the revolutions.             Activist Asmaa Mahfouz made a videotaped message on January 18 for people to show up on January 25.”[ii] A 25-year-old MBA graduate, she said, “I, a girl, am going down to Tahrir Square, and I will stand alone. And I’ll hold up a banner. Perhaps people will show some honor.” The video went viral on the Internet, getting over 80,000 hits the first week. She said, “Don’t be afraid of the government.” Mahfouz was one of the activists who distributed leaflets in Cairo slums on January 24. Her family forbade her to demonstrate on the street and cut her off from the Internet, so she used her phone to organize from her bedroom. (Single adults usually live with their parents.) Akram, a Cairo high school student, emailed me in 2012 saying, “Now it’s all about Twitter; the ideas start there then they make events on Facebook.”

A statistical study of the use of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube in Tunisia and Egypt led researchers at the University of Washington to conclude that social media did play an important role in the Arab Spring. Knowledge of social media strengthened the leadership role of young urban educated people, including women who sent about a third of the Twitter messages and were a large presence on Facebook (41% in Tunisia and 36% in Egypt). Over two-thirds of the Internet users in Egypt and Tunisia are under age 34. They used Twitter to coordinate actions and share news internationally; in Tunisia about 1,000 people were Tweeting every day before President Ben Ali resigned. As Egyptian blogger Gigi Ibrahim said, “The Tunisian revolution is being Twitterized.” The main themes were freedom and revolution. The “freedom meme” spread throughout the region on Facebook and YouTube as conversations extended across borders, despite government efforts to arrest and imprison bloggers. Social media didn’t cause the uprisings but enabled it and spread ideas quickly across nations, and made the call for freedom more impactful with songs, videos and photos.


[i] Raúl Zibechi, “Autonomy in Brazil,” Roar Magazine, November 21, 2013.


www.youtube.com/watch?v=2uzdOLXLoes&feature=related A TV interview

2 Hazem Kandil, “Revolt in Egypt: Interview,” New Left Review, April 2011. Interview, http://newleftreview.org/II/68/hazem-kandil-revolt-in-egypthttp://newleftreview.org/II/68/hazem-kandil-revolt-in-egypt


Gayle Kimball is writing a book about global youth activism and invites you to read and critique chapters. gkimball@csuchico.edu

Who Participated in the Arab Spring Revolutions?

Although youth led the revolution, looking at the main supporters of the revolution, it wasn’t youth, according to a statistical study of participants in the Egyptian (sample size of 98 people) and Tunisian Revolutions (192).[i] Only 8% of students who were surveyed were active in demonstrations in Egypt, compared to 35% in Tunisia. Only 13% of the Egyptian demonstrators were aged 18 to 24, (compared to 35% in Tunisia) and 31% were aged 25 to 34 (25% in Tunisia). The authors concluded, “These simple statistics give lie to folk theories that the Arab revolutions were caused primarily by youth frustration.” Keep in mind that only 8% of the Egyptian sample reported participating in the demonstrations, compared to 16% in Tunisia, so the authors were working with a small sample.

In Egypt, using data from the Second Wave Arab Barometer administered in 2011, the three authors concluded that the Tunisian Revolution was comprised of a younger and more diverse class background than in Egypt. Both revolutions were supported disproportionately by the educated middle class and by males (76.5% of the demonstrators in Egypt and 79% in Tunisia). In Egypt the participants were more likely to be middle-aged, middle class, professional, and religious. In Tunisia the rebels were younger (likely to be students), more secular and from more diverse class backgrounds.

Although the outcome of the uprisings was free elections, the primary motivation for rebels—including youth– in both countries was economic grievances, and to a lesser extent anger about corruption, rather than a desire for democracy. In Egypt, the second greatest motivation was they were against Mubarak’s son Gamal as heir to the throne. Being unemployed wasn’t a significant predictor of participation in either country and the poorest people had the lowest rate of participation. For the minority of rebels who prioritized democracy, in Egypt they were likely to have participated in civil society associations, while in Tunisia they had higher levels of income. Few in either country wanted an Islamic regime, but the participants were not less religious than non-activists in the sample. The fact that democracy was not the top goal helps explain why Islamic parties were elected in both countries.

Despite young people’s beliefs that they made the revolution, a Harvard scholar agreed with the Princeton scholars that increasing support for democracy by the middle class was the main force behind the revolution.[ii] Ishac Diwan based his conclusion on the 2000 and 2008 World Value Surveys that showed “little inter-generational differentiation” in Egypt by 2008. Support for democracy jumped from 24% to 52% over the survey period. He believes that class has more impact than other explanations for increasing support for democracy and thus the Arab Spring: modernization (secular rational values), the youth bulge (associated with less democracy and more political violence), splits within the governing coalition as when the army supported the uprising, political Islam, or conflict between the rich and the poor over resources with the latter in favor of democracy.

Diwan argues that the middle class was motivated by the rise in skilled unemployment and frustration over economic inequality to abandon support for the regime. He included educated youth in the middle class and their more modern views. He concludes, “While the movement towards democratization was initiated by the youth, it spread among the poor and especially the middle class by 2008,” partly due to the Muslim Brotherhood’s support of democracy starting with the 2005 elections.

Two other academics use their data to emphasize the impact of expansion of education and rising expectations combined with job scarcity.[iii] This combination creates discontent, plus an unresponsive autocratic government, equals the uprising of the Arab Spring. The key role of education is enhanced by the finding that educated people are more likely to be politically active. A poll conducted in Egypt in April 2011 asked participants in the protests what motivated them—64% cited “low living standards/lack of jobs,” while only 19% mentioned lack of democracy. This seems to conflict with Diwan’s emphasis on class and desire for democracy although the middle class is more likely to be educated. When I asked him about this, he emailed, “My results do not contradicts theirs – I find that democracy is a means to an end, and that most people that shifted from support for “order” in 2000 to support for democracy in 2008 have done so because of their grievances.” Regarding youth, the co-authors state that the not-so-young group aged 25 to 39 were a bigger share of the population in countries where uprisings occurred and they suffered from the high unemployment rate. The authors suggest that this formula for revolution can be applied to other countries in the future.

[i] Mark Beissinger, Amaney Jamal, and Kevin Mazur, “Who Participated in the Arab Spring? A Comparison of Egyptian and Tunisian Revolutions.” Princeton University, APSA conference paper, 2012.


[ii] Ishac Diwan, “Age or Class? Leading Opinions in the Wake of Egypt’s 2011 Popular Uprisings,” Youth Policy, December 2012.


[iii] Filipe Campante and Davin Chor, “Why was the Arab World Poised for Revolution?” Journal of Economic Perspectives, Vol. 26, No. 2, Spring 2012, pages 167-188.



What’s on the Minds of Arab Youth 18 Months After the Revolutions: A 2012 Survey

Need for financial security may trump desire for democracy, as evidenced in 2012 interviews with 2,500 Arab youth, ages 18 to 24 (60% male). The emphasis on democracy dropped from 68% to 58% in 2012; however in Egypt 75% of youth view it as very important. Youth unemployment in the region is 25%, the cost of living is rising and foreign investment is decreasing. A year after the Arab Spring, top priority changed from wanting to live in a democracy to desire for fair pay (82% said it is very important) and wanting to own a home (65%). This goal of homeownership is similar to a large survey of 25,000 young people in 2010 cited elsewhere, indicating a global desire for security in recession. The other country where they would most like to live is modern UAE with its high standard of living and a ruling family. Youth point to the two biggest obstacles facing them and the region as lack of democracy and civil unrest, so they’re still very focused on liberty. (Their second biggest concern is the danger of drugs.) There are much more likely to keep up with the news and to blog on the Internet than before the revolutions. Despite economic troubles, like young people elsewhere, Arab youth are optimistic about their futures. In Egypt, optimism jumped from 38% in 2011 to 74% in 2012.

How do Arab youth evaluate the revolutions a year after? Favorably. In 2012 interviews with 2,500 Arab youth from throughout the Middle East, ages 18 to 24 (60% male), 72% feel strongly that the region is better off because of the Arab Spring and 68% feel they are personally better off. Eighteen months after the beginning of the Arab Spring, they report that their government has become more transparent, although they’re more concerned about corruption than in interviews the year before the uprisings. Egyptian youth are especially concerned about corruption as the biggest problem (66%). An amazing jump from 18% in 2011 to 62% the following year say they follow the news daily and the number to blog has increased from 29% to 61%. Despite their positive views about the democracy movements, only 24% believe that protest movements will spread to other countries. Despite all the turmoil after ousting the dictators, youth are still supportive of democratic change.

Muslim countries have traditional values, but even there some change is occurring. In 2012 interviews with 2,500 Arab youth in 12 countries, ages 18 to 24 (60% male), 65% agree that “traditional values are paramount” down from 83% who agreed in 2011. The most traditional countries are Libya, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia. The percent who believe these values are outdated is increasing, including 44% of youth from Tunisia, 42% in Iraq, 41% in Jordan and Qatar. When asked about their top concerns, in Oman 52% say they are very concerned about opportunities for women.

“A White Paper on the Findings of the ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller Arab Youth Survey 2012,”  Interviews with 2,500 Arab youth ages 18 to 24 (60% male) in 12 countries.



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