The Arab Youth: How do they think? Why do they Revolt?

The Arab Youth: How do they think? Why do they Revolt?

After a year which was characterized mainly by change demanded by millions of young men and women who sparked off a wave of uprisings and even sacrificed their lives for it, many voices were heard giving descriptions, making analyses and comparisons and drawing conclusions. In the midst of all that the Fourth Arab Cultural Development Report appeared shedding light on many aspects of that dramatic scene, particularly as the report is produced annually by the Arab Thought Foundation, monitoring the events which preceded the Arab Revolutions and focusing on youth presence in hot issues since 2010 and throughout the past year. That s why as we read and analyse the report it looks like reviewing, interpreting what happened and, more probably, predicting what will happen, particularly in view of the fact that the15-33 year-old Arab youth account for 66% (i.e. two thirds) of the total population of the Arab world.

As we repeatedly stressed the importance of the ingredients and products of education in previous Talks we give serious consideration to the main issue in a section of the report dealing with the key issue of university education relevant to the labour market and how the disparity between them led to the recent uprising, as unemployment was the main trigger for youth protests.

Education and unemployment areas of deficiency

At the beginning of the university education and the labour market section the report reviews the alarming increase in the number of private universities in Egypt as an example compared with that of higher education institutions, as in a single decade, from 1999 to 2010 the number of private universities rose by 375% compared with that of governmental ones being 58%.

In addition, university education, private and governmental alike, does not enjoy any independence, in contrast to European, American and Asian universities which imposed themselves on the course of academic progress. There is lack of independence in the following areas: academic structures, course content, academic appointments, budget expenditure to achieve purposes and salary scales. Faculty s salaries account for only 39% of the total salaries and the rest (61%) goes to non-academic employees and ancillary services.

Added to the above deficiency is the fact that private universities grant admission to students who do not score well in the secondary school certificate and can t join top faculties in governmental universities, such as those of medicine, engineering, economics and political science, and computing and informatics, which means a parallel deficiency in the quality of the graduates who will join the labour market, or rather the unemployment market later!

Similarly, there is a wide disparity between the number of students enrolled in theoretical and scientific specializations in governmental universities : 49.1% in social sciences and 20.1% in the humanities versus only 10.3% and 7.2% in engineering and medical sciences respectively, and a similar low rate in other studies. The majority of the children of poor families find in technical education the only way to complete secondary school and often does not led to higher education as only 0.5% of them complete secondary school successfully.

The above reasons combined have contributed to the deterioration in the quality of education which is one of the main forms of deficiency affecting the relationship between such education and the labour market, and unemployment has created a number of problems and at the same time revealed an economic deficiency in the labour market.

This state of affairs is not limited to Egypt but applies to Tunisia as well, as when the Tunisian university celebrated its gold jubilee two years ago (established in 1959) two serious problems addressed by the report spoilt that celebration: the unemployment of higher education graduates and the low quality of such education for two decades. According to the report, the Tunisian revolution in December 2010 proved that university graduate unemployment was one of the main factors of the social upheaval which fed the revolution with such a strong youth protest force. It was also one of the scenes of hidden and severe unemployment which hit Tunisian university graduates and made study at tertiary or even PhD level a means of coping with unemployment and tough living conditions rather than pursuing scientific research.

University study and beyond has become a strategy for securing places without desirably good results, particularly in the light of the high success rates in recent years as part of the so-called the policy of success pedagogy , in contrast to the unprecendented rising failure rates at the Tunisian university in the 1970s and 1980s. The number of applications for employment at Tunisian ministries was 508,000 in 207 and the number of the jobless rose to 740,000 last May, five months following the outbreak of the Tunisian revolution. Southern and north-western areas accounted for a record 28% of unemployment figures. The state of university education in Egypt and Tunisian no doubt applies equally well to the rest of the Arab world s universities.

Writing and creativity as outlined in the report

Let s ask: Does this central problem, along with other problems created by unemployment, appear in youth writings and literary and artistic works? That s what we are attempting to read in the features of the writing and publication movement covered in the Arab youth writings report including field and statistical studies. According to the report, the works of youth novelists, poets and researchers, as an elite group, serve as a barometer of Arabs tension and fatigue.

To begin with, there a sharp difference between Arab youth writings from one country to another. In Egypt the writings in recent years have openly been carrying the early signs of revolt, perhaps due to the widening range of the freedom of expression in society, while scenes of protests are subdued and modest in other Arab counties. In general, youth writings in 201 were dominated by expression of their marginalization and varying degrees of schism between their aspirations and Arab reality.

In Lebanon, most of its young writers were born and raised among political and security turmoil, instability and political and sectarian strife, as most of them were born after 1975, the official date of the outbreak of the civil war which overwhelmed society and, according to the report still includes factors of a possible cold civil war and militant ethnic rhetoric. Syrian youth writings reflect the severe restriction on freedom of expression and differ from those of the youth generation of the1960s and 1970s who were involved in politics and addressed public issues and national causes during an era of growing pan-Arab sentiments, social transformations and ideas of radical change.

The above feature reveals the struggle put up in the creative works of the present youth generation who are free from the burdens of their predecessors and no longer express their failures. However, this does not at all mean that conditions have become better, problems resolved and wounds healed. There are still reports of severe poverty, corruption and unemployment in many Arab societies, but it seems that this younger generation have distanced themselves from direct and indirect party inclinations which make their writings different from those of their predecessors and some contemporaries whose works look like a party manifesto rather than creative poetry or literary ones.

The report also looks at the special interests of young men and women, pointing out that love features prominently in the works of the latter, but differs from the literature of the 1960s in which the familiar pattern was romantic love culminating in marriage. Today s love is marked by uneasiness and turbulence, not normally leading to marriage and difficult to sustain for a long time. In addition, young women are influenced by the dominant culture of self-restraint which contradicts and clashes with a desire for emancipation.

Moreover, the writings reflect differences among youth writers who want to live independent and free from obligations, captivated by talking about the body which plays a central role, revealing what is hidden and deduced, as well as fluctuation and disagreement through giving and taking, in addition to colloqualism or the like, which spoils the writings.

But writings are not confined to books and poem anthologies, as the youth have found a new outlet for publishing their creative works on the Internet.

Young Internet users in Egypt in 2000 were estimated at one million, rising to twelve million in 2008.Blogs first appeared in 2003,and the number of bloggers in Egypt was two million in 2010. The blogs revealed how the (creative) youth generation have been influenced by revolutionary figures such as Ahmad Fuad Najm, Salah Jahin, Yusuf Idris and Ahmad Bahauddin, marking interaction between a new generation and that of the 1960s who championed major national dreams and aspirations. Interestingly, most writers engaged in culture in Egypt, including young men and women, are the ones who present television programmes more than their contemporaries.

The youth and arts ... early signs of revolution

As almost all research and studies agree on the falling level of reading as a cultural activity, which is not limited to the younger generation, we may look at other forms of expression, such as theatre, cinema and music, in which the youth expressed their concerns, protest and revolt.

The appearance of independent cinema in 2010 and the rise of Arab cinema institutions supporting the seventh art and unprecedented film boldness can lead us directly to a positive role played by the artistic movement in youth enlightenment. Most of those engaged in film production writers, directors and actors- were among the Egyptian youth who provoked the January 25 revolution either on Facebook or appearing directly in Tahrir Square.

But it was a different scene in Tunisia as the prestigious Carthage festival in the autumn of 2010 opened like an empty mirror, and only two Tunisian films were produced as the film industry has been declining for years due to despair and indolence in the light of an ageing generation and the passing away of another and the immigration of still another generation. This requires that the younger, revolutionary generation in free Tunisia change the structure of art.

The new production of Lebanese cinema introduces a note of optimism that artists have surmounted the civil war and its memories, with no new signs of another disaster. That s what is told by Nadin Labki s film, which was shot in 2010 and shown last year, indicating the new sensitivity of a young film-maker who sensed danger. Other similar films were produced during 2010 and they appeared at Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Doha film festivals, which called 2010 the Lebanese cinema year.

In contrast to the cinema boom in Egypt, Lebanon and Morocco, and even in Syria-despite the small volume of production which is a record compared with that of previous years Arab drama entered a dark tunnel following the decline of its tools. It seems that the ruralization of historical Arab cities had a negative impact on the theatre, as there is no theatre without a city. In addition, the Arab theatre has popularised the culture of the television picture, as in the experiment of the UAE theatre which is covered in detail in the report.

In Lebanon, talk about plays expressing popular sentiments, which the report describes as disgraceful, has disappeared as the Lebanese theatre no longer carries the audience to a different world and at the same time maintains its special high level, and drama has lost its boldness and powerful appeal, and the many plays now look like a single one. The Syrian theatre has also lost talented, creative and professional generations no epical spirit or rigour. As for the Palestinian theatre, its survival is a miracle which relies on the strength of despair. The report s reading of the daily life of the public and private sector theatre in Egypt comes to a shocking conclusion: decline in the latter and confusion in the former with too much involvement in festival chaos. The Egyptian theatre is no longer in harmony with its past, with no new experiments due to lack of funding, and even foreign embassies have penetrated Egyptian troupes to produce political drama.

As far as music is concerned, TV song channels attract a large number of youth viewers, with the rise of song video clips which hide defects in singing, low-quality music and arrangement and words. Western culture s consumerist music has been influencing the form and content of Arab music. A comparison between the patriotic songs not the youth s first preferences - of the 1960s and 1970s generation, with those broadcast in 2010 showing that the latter songs have become just celebratory ones.

However, as the report says, songs in Egypt and Tunisia before the revolution, witnessed a number of its early signs, as in the Tunisian song They taught us : They taught us how to turn the night s darkness into a flame. They taught us how to hide a jasmine in our heavy hearts, as well as in Muhammad Munir s Song Why :

I m a child who s grown very attached to you, but halfway you made me lose my way, why?! I raise your head, but you bend mine, why?! The song, which was banned on the Egyptian television in 2010, has become a music icon on all channels.

The youth and information the future of the revolution

Many analysts of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions have stressed the power of information as tools of revolution and change, but the report adds a third dimension: how information tools and gates express the youth s different strands of thought and even determine the future. Bloggers have a large audience, with the highest response rate from Egypt s, Saudi Arabia s and Kuwait s bloggers, a strong indication of he significant influence which these blogs have on a wider sector through social networks.

The report strikes a balance between contributions and comments on the Internet in sectors like education, and notes the popularity of the issues raised on Facebook. It also relates more females blogs in nine countries than male ones, taking advantage of the Internet for hiding behind an electronic veil in masculine societies as well as women s narratives behind a virtual curtain which may not reveal their real characters. In addition, analyses show gender, differences: women excel in reflections, whereas men s priorities and cinema and religious topics.

Analysis of the sample shows that the vast majority (85%) of bloggers do not tend to specify their occupations clearly. On top of the list of bloggers across the Arab word are journalists, writers and students; followed by teachers, with preachers, religious scholars and business men near the bottom of the list

Blogs are also influenced by factors of geography. Religious issues came in first position in all Arab countries except Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Kuwait, Djibouti, Lebanon and Egypt, where they came in second position. Cinema issues occupied positions ranging between first and twenty fourth: First in Saudi Arabia, second in Algeria, third in Egypt, fifth in Djibouti, followed by Kuwait and Bahrain, ninth in Iraq and eleventh in Palestine.

Interestingly, the report shows how movement in cyberspace was parallel to movement in the street, which requires that we reconsider opinion poll tools and monitor the issues raised on social networks and in youth blogs.

The views and ideas serve as an early warning for the future. Arab digital interaction in 2010 was an arena in which pubic and private affairs raced to capture the attention of individuals and the community together, with figures showing that the intensity of competition reached a level of vitality far beyond reality.

Arabs, particularly the youth, are not concerned with their own personal interests alone but rather see, fear and share in what is going around them after receiving a multitude of information of different strands from rival movements.

It is as if we say that it is movement within that virtual space that provoked the popular uprising from the Internet to reality. In this way revolutions on the Internet preceded those in the squares. That s how the youth thought, were affected and then contrived and took to the streets carrying he views and ideas having built up considerable momentum. In this way, whisper on smart phones and computer screens turns into a massive wave whose impact we are still monitoring, and we will probably keep doing that form many years to come.

(Translated by Dr Shaaban Afifi)


Sulaiman Al-Askary

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