Even though the Middle East is entangled in four wars and millions of refugees, many Arabs will mark an inspiring anniversary on Dec. 17. Six years ago a young entrepreneur in Tunisia, who was barred from selling fruit by corrupt police, started the Arab Spring with an act of self-immolation. His defiance and sacrifice led to pro-democracy protests that toppled four dictators.
Only in Tunisia, however, did the revolt achieve its democratic aim. Elsewhere, events led to a whirlwind of violence among tribes, sects, ethnicities, and nations as well as to the rise of Islamic State. While ending these conflicts remains a major world focus, the anniversary has renewed interest in whether the region’s youth – whose hopes and values drove the Arab Spring – might now help drive peace.
The numbers are in their favor. The Arab world has never had such a large share of young people – 60 percent of the population is under 30 years old. This week, two reports on the future of the Middle East focused on the potential of this group to bring change from below and possibly create a new social contract.
The region’s new generation is “the largest, the most well educated and the most highly urbanized in the history of the Arab region,” states the latest Arab Human Development Report from the United Nations. “Thanks to social media, they are more in tune with the world than ever. If only their rulers knew what to do with them.”
Their hunger for democratic self-government endures, their rejection of violent jihad remains high, and their support for political Islam has fallen, the report states.
The underlying values of the 2010-11 Arab uprising remain strong, undeterred by autocratic regimes. Polls show young Arabs are more socially open. Support for gender equality and civic involvement has expanded. More of them prefer secular rulers. These changes are partly driven by social media. Mobile phone use in the Middle East is above the world average. Two-thirds of Arabs using Facebook are age 15 to 29.
“These young individuals have on their shoulders the burden to navigate for their own survival, but also, by their doings, they are charting the future for their generation as well as the coming ones,” the UN report concludes.
The other report, released by Atlantic Council and written by former American diplomats Madeleine Albright and Stephen Hadley, argues that the region has a realistic path to peace through its most important asset. “It has a tech-savvy, youthful population hungering for a better life,” the report states.
“Under the right conditions, it is possible to imagine a different kind of Middle East emerging over the course of the next generation. At the local level, communities would be driven more and more by the talents and energies of their citizens, who would have more autonomy over their local affairs.”
Much of this youthful energy is entrepreneurial. A recent poll found 36 percent of Arab youth want to start a business. Another survey found that for every 10 new successful enterprises, 2,500 jobs are created in the Middle East. That’s critical when youth unemployment averages about 30 percent.
Ending the region’s war may indeed require an appreciation for what started the Arab Spring: a young entrepreneur, seeking dignity, peace, and freedom.