A youth rally & sit-ins in the city centre of Amman. Demotix/Mohammad Magayda. All rights reserved.
Uprisings and internal conflicts are still sweeping across several Arab countries, often with significant human and financial costs. These protests and widespread discontent are a direct result of decades of failed economic and political transitions led by long-lived, largely autocratic regimes.
While embarking on a wave of economic liberalisation since the eighties and a rollback of the state, Arab regimes succeeded in maintaining their grip on power by moving from social modernising populism to an alliance with elite capital, through the development of a “crony” form of capitalism. Governments embraced a consumerist culture at the expense of job-creating investments, with oversized real estate projects and shopping malls owned by state-linked business elites mushrooming around the region.
This went hand in hand with various forms of repression, especially to control the grievances of the poor who were denied social progress, and the co-optation of the middle class through the use of economic transfers and subsidies. International support for these autocracies also provided a lifeline on which they thrived.
People of the region were therefore caught in a grand authoritarian bargain, where they were forced to trade their political rights against government-driven economic security. This state of affairs led to rising income inequality, rising inequality of opportunities, moderate growth with insufficient job creation, in addition to indignities. Political Islam became more popular in the shadow of oppression, because of its attractive moral critique of the system, because the mosques and the informal sector could not be controlled, and because regimes fostered it as a way to counter revolutionary tendencies in society.
However, as the middle class grew and got more educated and urban, its aspirations rose. It ultimately became more autonomous and ended up by rebelling against the regime, in alliance with the poor.
Young Arab men and women have been the face of the uprisings, and their grievance came as no surprise: more than 100 million youth aged 15-29 face one of the highest youth unemployment rates in the world. This exclusion from labour markets, which disproportionately affects young Arab women, is compounded by social exclusion, as the lack of job opportunities results in lack of access to housing and delayed marriage, which hinders the transition to independent adulthood.
The values and aspirations of the youth in the region were also deeply shaped by the socio-political circumstances in which they grew up. Though they have great difficulty voicing their expectations and effectively engaging in the political sphere, youth in the Arab world tend to be more educated, urban, and more networked and connected to global knowledge and information relative to older cohorts.
Young people in the region are increasingly raising their voice against their parents’ generation. They are holding them responsible for their social and political exclusion, as the old seem to have erected—with the support of the state—high barriers to entry to the labour, housing, marriage, and even political markets. The authoritarian bargain carefully crafted by the ruling regimes has therefore extended its dominance to the level of the Arab family, through the traditional patriarchal social contract.
Guaranteed public sector jobs, nepotism, subsidies, and other regime-led economic interventions had allowed the Arab family to survive on one (male) bread-earner, thus eroding the bargaining power of women and youth. The rollback of the state and the repeated financial crises seem to have shaken this state of affairs.
As in all political transitions, new rules need to be written while new parties compete to occupy the gasping power vacuum. As societies become more pluralistic, one would expect more competition and debate to occupy the freer political and intellectual space. At the same time, short term, we can expect a cracking down and a backlash on behalf of those invested in authoritarianism.
Polarisation processes in the region are dividing it along “destructive” lines—identity in particular, including in countries homogeneous religiously and “ethnically”. This is a result of political entrepreneurs mobilising strategies which push for extremism, often using the youth as their cannon folder in the process. This needs to be countered by initiatives for re-occupying and energising the centre, in many various ways, and to create space for reasoned debates about the countries' and especially the youth's future.
Within these debates some key questions need to be addressed: how to create an attractive and moral economic system, how to re-invent an effective and inclusive state, and how to devise rules that can aggregate preferences that respect citizens and their legitimate differences. It is never too late to start.