In November 2009, Egypt’s population council conducted a survey amongst the country’s youth. The results of the survey were revealing. 90% of the unemployed in Egypt happened to be youth. 40% of the those between the ages of 15-29 said they were looking to migrate because they did not expect to find work at home, and 70% said they were jobless simply because there was just no work at home.
The government didn’t think much about the results of the survey. A year later, in December 2010, Egyptian youth spilled onto the streets and toppled President Hosni Mubarak.The United Nations’ recent report on Arab youth, titled “Youth and the Prospects of Human Development in a Changing Reality“, shows not much has changed in the last 5 years in that prospect in the Arab region.
Arab youth still continue to suffer from social exclusion, face the highest unemployment rates in the world. Women still continue to have low participation in the workforce. And in the face of governments around the region failing to respond to the root cause of discontent, crushing dissent through a security-based approach instead, the report points out another Arab spring may not be far away.
Young Arabs, it says, “may prefer more direct, more violent means, especially if they are convinced that existing mechanisms for participation and accountability are useless.”
“Today’s generation of young people is more educated, active and connected to the outside world, and hence have a greater awareness of their realities and higher aspirations for a better future. However, young people’s awareness of their capabilities and rights collides with a reality that marginalises them and blocks their pathways to express their opinions, actively participate or earn a living. As a result, instead of being a massive potential for building the future, youth can become an overwhelming power for destruction,” Sophie De Cain, UNDP’s regional director in the area.
At the same time, the report also goes on to dispel many myths surrounding Arab youth and shows a possible direction for Arab governments to change things.
The biggest myth the report dispels is that the youth in the region are prone to get radicalised or support terrorism. A lot of polling data analysed for the report, in fact, says that even though the youth remain largely conservative in their religious and social attitudes, majority reject terrorism and radicalization as a route, preferring instead to protest and demand their rights.
The second myth, of young migrants from the region being a threat to developed countries has also been proven just that through the polling data. While an increasing number are heading out of their countries, most end up migrating to neighbouring Arab countries instead of western ones, the numbers reveal. Arab countries, in fact, continue to receive, more migrants – both Arab and non-Arab – than they send out.
Life dissatisfaction among the youth may be the highest in the world, but the young also are more civically engaged and socially mobilised, than youth in many other countries.
The report notes that the new generation is “the largest, the most well educated and the most highly urbanised in the history of the Arab region.” Instead of considering them a threat and suppressing them, the governments would be wise to open political space for the youth and engage them in dialogue. Else, as history has already shown – the young are capable of taking matters into their own hands.