Five years after the Arab Spring, a 16-country survey has detected an undercurrent of hope among young Arabs in the Middle East. While the democratic uprisings of 2011 largely failed, and thousands have joined Islamic State (IS) or other militias, millions of young people still hold aspirations for freedom, opportunity, and equality.
Are those hopes now helping drive recent steps toward peace in Yemen, Libya, and Syria?
An overwhelming and rising majority of young Arabs ages 18 to 24 reject IS and its notion of a “caliphate,” according to the poll, conducted by US-based firm Penn Schoen Berland. But that is not the most interesting part. A majority say that those who join IS are impelled not by an extremist version of Islam but by a desire to escape joblessness and poor economies. (The Arab world has the globe’s highest unemployment rates.)
This insight should help reverse a common stereotype about the Middle East as wallowing in religious strife. Or as commentator Rami Khouri of Lebanon’s Daily Star puts it: “The easy and simplistic analysis one encounters across the world, especially in the United States, is that Arab lands are hopelessly caught in their own self-made sectarian wars waged by ethnic, national and religious communities that are unable to live together peacefully.”
The survey finds more than half of young Arabs say religion plays too big a role in public affairs. And despite their pessimism about prospects for democracy, two-thirds still want governments to improve personal freedoms and human rights.
Radical leaders cannot long ignore these youthful voices, which may explain the tentative successes of cease-fires in the region’s worst conflicts. But it also emphasizes a need to undercut extremist groups like IS by tackling the economic, social, and political problems in Arab societies. The promise of the Arab Spring has not gone away, the survey’s authors say. It is being expressed in new and necessary ways.