A Message for Us All

Middle Eastern youths can teach young Americans something about political engagement

The tide of political engagement that has characterized the uprisings and revolutions in the Middle East has captured the world’s attention since Jan. 2011.

Beginning with Tunisia, popular revolutions have swept up Egypt and Libya, with the latter country currently in a half-way house between civil disobedience and full-scale civil war. In Egypt, meanwhile, a grassroots revolt succeeded after 2 weeks of protest in toppling Hosni Mubarrak and gaining the support of much of the country’s military.

In Libya, with the communication blackout imposed by Muammar al-Gaddafi’s trembling regime, it is difficult to say what will happen in the coming days, but the pattern of one protest inspiring another across the region looks set to continue. Bahrain has spent the past week riddled by sectarian-driven protests, while hundreds of thousands of Iranians are reported to have taken to the streets last weekend. With governments ranging from Morocco to the kingdom of Jordan forced into promising democratic concessions, the region grapples with alarming chaos as it awaits momentous change to come.  Despite the appalling violence that has ensued as a result of this turmoil, we are convinced that the uprising in Egypt and elsewhere is a positive step for the Arab world and for democracy and human rights in general. It should go without saying that all Americans should support any person’s right to vote and basic political rights—something Egyptians have been sorely deprived of since 1981—regardless of their religious or political beliefs.

Throughout all of this, the United States government has chosen to remain on the sidelines, at least publicly. So far, the people of Tunisia and Egypt—the majority of whom is under the age of 30 in both cases—have been responsible for driving the removal of their repressive dictators. President Barack H. Obama may be right to call for reform and democracy but not interfere actively. After a tumultuous recent history in the region, this is clearly not the opportune moment for more U.S. intervention in the Middle East.

From our perspective, however, the revolutions sweeping across the Arab world offer a telling lesson. When we discuss the ‘domino effect’ of protests engulfing the Middle East that began symbolically with the self-immolation of one Tunisian street vendor, 26-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi, on December 17, 2010, we need to remember that these are overwhelmingly movements of young people. In Egypt, the early vents of revolution began in 2008 with the founding of the student-worker alliance known as the April 6 Youth Movement, which has represented a wave of dissatisfaction among students and unemployed youths. When we take into account that over 60 percent of the Arab world is under the age of 30, it becomes even clearer that it is our peers who are largely responsible for determining greater freedoms and opportunities for the future.


The political engagement of so many people of our generation and what they have achieved so far ought to inspire more young Americans to take real actions for the causes that they care most about. If the population of Cairo can bring down an authoritarian dictatorship—and, in doing so, force their new military government to promise democracy and human rights after three decades of oppression—then American youths who, to be sure, face entirely different circumstances and problems, no longer have any excuse to wallow in the political apathy that has come to characterize our generation. In short, we can use the example of those under much greater duress as a sign of how much an individual can achieve through active political involvement.

The role of social media in the downfall of Mubarrak and Zine Ben Ali, the former president of Tunisia, has been both lauded and rejected by analysts and protesters alike. In the end, though, it seems foolish to speak of social media as causes rather than catalysts, as the role of Facebook groups and tweets rests entirely with what users make of them. In fact, Facebook can even serve as an enabler of complacency for many Americans. By simply ‘liking’ a page supporting democracy in Egypt, human rights in Darfur, or the Green Movement in Iran, it is far too easy for many young people here to go to sleep at night thinking they have used their online procrastination to advance social justice.

In the different ways social media are appropriated, we see very clearly a great gulf in political engagement in America and the Middle East. While an entire generation of Americans today has grown up using Facebook to augment social life, our counterparts in the Middle East are likely to know the site equally as a means of exercising political agency. In places like Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, and Tunisia, Facebook and social media have certainly enabled repressed populations to organize and protest the authoritarian edifice.

It says something about the political involvement of young Americans today that our country’s most energetic grassroots movement of the past two years was the Tea Party, so clearly dominated by citizens middle-aged and upwards.

Despite the wave of youthful enthusiasm in the 2008 election, it seems hard not to draw the conclusion that so many of those supporters have melted into an anonymity of inaction once again.

Young Americans today should not react to the uprisings in the Middle East by merely thinking that change for the better is taking place. Rather, we should all respond by wondering what we ourselves can do in our own country to follow meagerly in the footsteps of young people across the world who are making their voices count today.


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