New book explores Arab youths’ struggles seven years after uprisings

Popularity of religion among the youth substitutes for lack of social and professional opportunity.
Sunday 16/09/2018
Cover of “Coping with Uncertainty: Youth in the Middle East and North Africa.”
With a personal feel. Cover of “Coping with Uncertainty: Youth in the Middle East and North Africa.”

The “Arab spring” uprisings caused 1.4 million deaths, 15 million refugees and $900 billion in economic damage. It seemed like the hardest part was to remove the autocrats and tackle corruption head-on but the turmoil left loopholes in almost every aspect of daily life in the affected countries.

Researchers surveyed 9,000 16-to-30-year-old people from Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, the Palestinian territories, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen. Although countries that did not experience an uprising were included, their daily struggles are described in “Coping with Uncertainty: Youth in the Middle East and North Africa.”

The book is filled with graphs and statistics that make the researchers’ findings easy to understand but it is the first-hand description of the young people and their daily struggles and dreams that adds a personal feel.

Sarah, a 17-year-old student from Egypt, described circumstances determining the lives of young Arabs today as “harder than ever before.”

“I believe the previous generations had a more comfortable life compared to us,” she said. “They lived their lifestyle in quieter and more stable times. Our lives are fundamentally different from the start because we grew up with revolutions, unstable conditions in public places, the loss of security, the absence of the police and the experience of several unexpected changes in government.”

Buraq, a 19-year-old from Yemen, said emphatically: “We get nothing but a headache from politics. It is only about how to lie and lie. The political language in Yemen is the language of arms.”

Iman, a 23-year-old Bahraini who has not been able to complete her studies or find a long-term job, described the experience of social isolation following the “Arab spring.” “Before the revolutions, people were better off,” she said. “They were happy with small things. Now they have all the luxuries and they aren’t happy. People have become more complicated and confused. At family gatherings, we used to feel happy, unlike nowadays. People don’t like gatherings. They prefer to stay alone.”

The team’s findings are organised into sections such as religion and economics. Rachid Ouaissa, a professor of politics at Philipps University in Marburg, Germany, studied whether the rise in young people’s religiousness over the years reflects a return to religion or individual strategies aimed at establishing their identity in a tense environment of globalisation and longing for local culture.

He said increased religiosity often starts after young people finish school and is mainly found in large towns and among the rich while the less religious are from families with lower education. The research surprisingly indicates that, for most people, religion no longer serves political or ideological purposes and is more of a channel for spirituality.

The removal of welfare states has led to a decline in reliable public employment. Today, one-third of young people work in any capacity; all others are temporarily or even permanently without work. Even then, nearly one-half of this labour force is precariously employed.

Respondents from all countries were asked which political system they prefer. Nearly two-in five — 39% — said a democratic system while 26% selected a strong man/woman who governs the country, 11% chose a combined democratic and Islamic system, 11% said a religious state based on sharia and only 1% opted for a socialist system.

The book’s findings state that young people in the Arab world are more religious than their elders because the latter believed in state-driven utopias and profited from economic prosperity.

Popularity of religion among the youth substitutes for lack of social and professional opportunity. In all countries surveyed, 34% of those asked rated themselves as “very religious” and 32% rated as “quite religious.” About 24% said they were “somewhat” religious and 8% considered themselves as having “low” religiosity.

Comparing the figures to responses five years earlier, there is an increase of the “quite” religious (from 27% to 32%) and the “very” religious (from 31% to 34%) Respondents expressing “low” religiosity decreased (from 12% to 8%) and those “somewhat” religious (from 27% to 24%). Two-thirds of respondents are “quite” religious or “very” religious compared to 58% five years ago. Also, 32% currently rate themselves as of “low” religiosity or “somewhat” religious, compared to 39% five years ago.

The authors said in Yemen, Tunisia and Lebanon the sense of growing insecurity ranked first among anxieties. For Syrian refugees, Palestinians and Jordanians, the fear of falling into poverty took first. Moroccan respondents said they fear losing jobs most of all. For Egyptians, the dominant fear was listed as falling seriously ill. Bahrainis were found to have the most anxiety over falling out with their parents.

The struggle of refugees was also studied and young Syrians said they are torn between fatigue because of years of displacement and a strong motivation to rebuild their lives. About one-quarter of all respondents expressed tiredness and the need to recover and more than one-third said they just hope to get to safety. An equal number said they were eager to work harder, learn a new language and adjust to new cultural environments.