The Arab world’s soft revolution

Friday 17/04/2015
Literate, wired and confused about the future

Washington - Arab youth are breaking taboos, bridging borders and reinventing them­selves in unprecedented ways and it is not by picking up arms or joining jihad.
They are the young scholar of Is­lam who rebuffs her traditional in­stitution in Egypt for online classes at Harvard; the unmarried Syrian couple who unabashedly live to­gether in exile; the numerous self-taught youngsters who read books online, the same books that have been banned in their countries for decades, then discuss them togeth­er on social media.
“We’ve never had such a critical mass of literate, wired, connected-to-the-outside-world, a generation that’s living in urban settings, be­ing exposed to various viewpoints. And this is a recipe for a lot of change, the formation of a whole new identity in the Middle East,” said Nadia Oweidat, a fellow at the New America Foundation, a public policy institute in Washington.
Perhaps hers is among the rosi­est outlooks in the aftermath of the “Arab spring” but her extensive re­search supports her optimism.
The “Arab spring” has been an uprising largely without an ideol­ogy, which could explain why ex­tremists hijacked it so easily. Arab youth took to the streets with little more than simplistic demands for change: They wanted justice and jobs.
But few could answer such fun­damental questions as: What prin­ciples do we want our country to uphold? What does it mean to be a citizen of a modern nation state in the Arab world? And how do reli­gion, sect and clan shape the layers of individual identity?
Things appear to be changing. The internet is the most disrup­tive technology since the printed page and a catalyst for young Ar­abs. Combine this with high unem­ployment and boredom among the young, and it is a boon.
Many young adults cannot afford to marry and still live with their parents, but it is there that they can afford to retreat for hours into their online world and connect with their peers from everywhere.
“They have time, they’re unem­ployed, they’re literate and wired. You can see what’s happening in the debate and the questions that they’re raising on social media,” said Oweidat.
Arab youth have one of the world’s highest internet usage rates, with 82% of people under the age of 25 connected and engaged, according to a report by Northwest­ern University in Qatar.
Oweidat says she constantly finds youth in the Arab world educating themselves online about the world and their own history from scholar­ly open sources. Then they debate each other about the lies they were taught in their own schooling.
“We’re going to see more of this because the disparity of what we have been taught in school grow­ing up and what actually happened in history is so enormous that we can’t overlook it,” said Oweidat, herself a product of the Jordanian school system.
A long road ahead
Once young people establish a rapport online, they sometimes move the conversation offline, in­advertently creating salons of intel­lectual discourse that are not too different from those in the 1940s and ’50s.
During a recent visit to Beirut, the city was abuzz with young, middle-class and educated Syrians who fled their war-torn country, leaving their elders behind. Daily conver­sations in the exiles’ living rooms seemed to revolve around negotiat­ing a reinvented identity:
“Does it make sense for me to continue to wear my hijab if I am living with an unrelated man?”
“Should I feel shame if my fian­cée and I now live together without marriage when the Lebanese courts won’t marry us because we’ve over­stayed our visas?”
“Am I a bad child if I do not tell my parents these things because they’re in Damascus and they have enough on their plate?”
Unbeknown to them, they are shaping the future discourse of their nation.
The same Syrian youths who protested in the streets still can­not agree on the most basic thing: Whether to call their future country the Syrian Arab Republic or the Re­public of Syria.
Perhaps Lebanon best captures the confusion that has handi­capped the Arab uprisings. Famous for its exceptional educational in­stitutions, Lebanon has no unified narrative of what happened dur­ing its 15-year civil war. The result? Lebanese children learn different versions of their country’s history, steeped in a sectarian viewpoint.
Zoom out of Lebanon and the picture remains murky
Arab children growing up in the wealthy Gulf attend American, Brit­ish, French or international schools and learn everything but a common Arab history or identity. Increas­ingly, Arab children graduate from elite institutions and are fluent in foreign languages but they cannot read or converse properly in their own.
And the majority of children in the Arab world continue to suffer the region’s stifling and politicised school curricula.
Their parents had a much more cohesive identity, steeped in pan- Arabism and Ba’athism, both now dead ideologies.
Asked what she thought a future Arab world might look like, Owei­dat refrained from drawing com­parisons to the usual benchmarks like Turkey, Malaysia or the West.
“No two democracies are alike,” she said. “In the Arab world, we have a very rich history and what we’re going to create is going to be very unique to us.”