No region in the world is as ripe for revolution as the Arab Middle East. Its political, economic and social mix could not be more explosive: longstanding political repression, high poverty and unemployment rates, and diminishing hope for a youthful, rapidly rising and ever more educated population.
All that was needed was a detonator. For the successful revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, the spark was understood far better by young rebels than by aged tyrants. Yes, Hosni Mubarak must know something of the internet. But is he on Facebook? Does he think of Twitter as merely an innocent sound uttered by the bird of paradise?
Arab rulers threatened by revolution – both recently toppled dictators like Egypt’s Mubarak and Tunisia’s Zine Ben Ali, and currently challenged relics like Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh and Bahrain’s King Hamad al Khalifa – did most of their dictating in the 20th century. In that benighted era, political organizing required a long, slow start-up. Before masses could take to the streets, rebels had to organize meetings of actual people in actual halls. Leaflets had to be physically printed and distributed. Such efforts could usually be nipped in the bud. Leaders were arrested, followers threatened, literature seized.
But the new century is different. Social networking on the internet can reach so many twenty-something’s so quickly, that before the secret police have time to read their morning threat assessment, the regime confronts a million protesters in the heart of its capital. By then, as in Tunis and Cairo, it may already be too late to save the ancient regime.
Will this year of 2011, then, be for the Arab Middle East what 1989 was for Central Europe? It is too soon to tell; revolutions are not like Microsoft Word, jumping to the next paragraph before their human operator even knows what to write. History leaves room for accident, for national variation. There are no guarantees.
But the sands on which Arab rulers sit are treacherous. The most recent Arab Human Development Report, sponsored by the United Nations but independently authored by Arab intellectuals and scholars, warns of the “alienation of the region’s rising cohort of unemployed youth.”
Rising cohort, indeed. Only four years ago there were fewer than 320 million Arabs – about the same as the population of the United States today. Four years from now, in 2015, the Arab population is projected to reach nearly 400 million – leaving the US far behind.
A rapidly rising population means a youthful one. Sixty percent of Arabs are under the age of 25. The median age in Arab countries is only 22 – well below the global average of 28.
Arab baby boomers are increasingly educated. Only two decades ago in Egypt, for example, the literacy rate of youth aged 15-25 was only 63%. By 2005 their literacy rate soared to 85%.
Ordinarily more educated populations would be cause for celebration. But what can young Arabs do with their degrees? Where will they find jobs?
Their prospects are not promising. Despite wide variations among Arab countries, nearly all Arabs live in failed economies. Throughout the region the average poverty rate is 40%. In Egypt, whose 80 million people constitute by far the largest Arab state, the poverty rate exceeds 40%. In Yemen the picture is even worse: some 60% are poor.
In poverty-stricken Arab economies, good jobs for eager high school and university graduates are hard to find. In Egypt last year, the official unemployment rate was about the same as in the United States. But while our unemployment was at heights not seen since the Great Depression, in Egypt the same rate was actually better than in preceding years.
In other troubled Arab countries the official unemployment rate was even higher. In Tunisia last year, one of every eight adults was out of work. In wealthy Bahrain, one in seven had no jobs. In the economic desert of Yemen, more than one third of the population was unemployed.
Persistent poverty and absence of hope are not sustainable. The lid has been kept on Arab unrest only by tight repression: rigged or no elections, banning of most opposition parties, emergency decrees allowing arrest without judicial warrant and detention without charge, routine torture in police lock-ups, and little or no freedom of the press.
Washington-based Freedom House ranks all countries in the world as Free, Partly Free, or Not Free. By its tally the Arab Middle East is the least free region in the world. In 2010, not one Arab country was ranked as Free. Only three – Kuwait, Lebanon and Morocco – were even Partly Free. All the rest – at least until this year’s revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt – were Not Free.
And what about next year? Will this year’s revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt bring freedom, as in Poland and Czechoslovakia 20 years ago? Or, instead, will they usher in a new system of repression, as in Iran and Zimbabwe 30 years ago?
It is too soon to say. But our hearts and hopes must be with the young people who have already overthrown the likes of Zine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak. If anyone can jump start the Arab world into the 21st century, they can.
Doug Cassel is
Worldview’s human rights contributor and director of the Center for Civil and Human Rights at the University of Notre Dame Law School. His comments are personal views and not necessarily those of Notre Dame Law School, the Center for Civil and Human Rights or WBEZ.