The “Shock and Awe” of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions have taken the world by storm. Beginning as uprisings against corrupt regimes and calling for “food, freedom and human dignity,” these movements brought about the toppling of two authoritarian presidents in a matter of a few weeks. Because of their shortsightedness towards demonstrators’ demands, these regimes reacted in ways that ultimately intensified protestors’ demands from initial calls for reform to complete government overthrow. As revolutionaries in Egypt and Tunisia continue to gain ground during the post-conflict period, waves of protests have erupted across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), including Iran, Bahrain, Libya, Algeria, Morocco, Jordan, and Yemen.
For Western analysts, the secular nature of these demonstrations has undercut presumptions about the strength and popularity of Islamist movements. For decades, the region’s authoritarian regimes secured Western support for their continued rule, in part, by exploiting Western fears of a potential Islamist uprising. As the story went, authoritarianism provided the only means of staving off political Islam, the favored ideology for citizens of the Arab world and the likely winner of any democratic election in the region. In part, because of this paradigm, Western governments threw their support behind the region’s dictatorial governments, pushing for at most slow and incremental economic and political reform, via well funded but toothless civil society organizations, rather than for real democratic openings.
However, by focusing on consolidating their power and on ensuring “stability” at all costs, Arab leaders and their Western patrons neglected the major socio-economic changes taking place in the region, and underestimated the dangerous consequences of promulgating state policies that did not reflect public opinion. Nonetheless, until the recent uprisings, the region’s dictatorships had effectively circumscribed the public sphere, crushing political dissent and commandeering an increasing number of civil society organizations in support of the status quo. Because of the actions of these regimes, the public sphere, which included civil society actors, mass media and religious institutions, lost its character as a private, non-governmental arena and became an arm of the Arab regimes. At the same time, Islamist movements, particularly the radical groups whose societal base and political power were exaggerated by the Arab dictatorships, adopted major ideological reform measures, rejected violence, began adhering to democratic principles, and gradually shifted towards a more moderate outlook.
However, as the recent uprisings have demonstrated, instead of finding refuge in political Islam and channeling their frustrations through religious institutions, Arab youth have chosen other venues, such as social networking sites and street protests, to broadcast their discontent. How and why did these youth find solace in “secular” ideals, like human rights and democracy, rather than in the traditional notions of political Islam? Throughout the past decade, four major issues have propelled young people in MENA towards a more “secular” outlook and away from Islamism, including: (1) education; (2) high unemployment; (3) growing socio-economic inequalities; and (4) an increasing incidence of protests driven by socio-economic and political issues, rather than religiously-focused concerns.
First, the current generation of MENA youth, which accounts for 21.5 percent of the region’s total population, is more educated than their predecessors. This development has gone hand in hand with increased public accessibility to education during the 1980s and 90s, especially at the level of primary education, which experienced the greatest degree of expansion in the region. Relatedly, adult literacy rates increased tremendously from 1990 to 2010. For example, during this period, literacy rates in Algeria increased from 49.6 to 77.6 percent, in Egypt from 44.4 to 66.4, and in Jordan from 66.8 to 91 percent.
At the same time, the rise of independent media and internet usage across the regime gave intellectuals, along with human rights and women’s activists, valuable tools to counter Islamism by advocating for human rights and democracy. Their message resonated with a growing number of youth, who although pious and religious in their daily lives, had become skeptical about political Islam, which while moving in a more moderate direction continued to impose strictures on youthful pursuits, such as films and music.
Though the quality of the region’s education systems may be weak, the prevalence of an educated citizenry, able to read and write, with access to the Internet and the ability to acquire knowledge from different sources, helped fuel the youth movements that drove the protests. Armed with the information and imagination to identify their desired future, to learn about alternatives to Islamism and its restrictions, and to evaluate their own socio-economic opportunities in light of those existing in other countries, particularly in the developing world, these youths ostensibly came to feel entitled to a better standard of living based on human rights and democratic ideals, rather than on principles of Islamist governance, the shortcomings of which have been demonstrated by countries like Iran and Afghanistan.
While literacy and education rates were increasing, so too were the region’s unemployment levels. In 2009, youth unemployment rates in MENA reached 23 percent, giving the region the highest incidence of youth unemployment in the world. In countries like Algeria, Morocco, and Egypt, youth with higher levels of education and skills have been particularly affected by unemployment. In Egypt, for instance, unemployment is highest amongst university graduates and second highest amongst high school graduates. Accordingly, a large number of the Egyptian youth participating in the January 2011 uprising were highly educated. The economic concerns at the root of the demonstrations were not, however, addressed by local Islamist movements. By and large, these groups had historically been more inclined to provide assistance to the poor, through social welfare programs, health care services, education, and financial assistance, rather than to be involved in the job creation efforts that would help the middle class. At the same time, Islamist organizations have hardly had a monopoly on providing assistance to the poor – a wide spectrum of non-governmental organizations, religious, and private voluntary organizations also have dedicated their work to supporting the worst off members of Arab society, making the Islamists one group among many in line for the political and social allegiance of the region’s poor communities.
Growing Socio-Economic Inequalities
Growing inequalities in standards of living and economic and social opportunities have dominated the region and contributed to the discontent driving the uprisings. For instance, while income disparities in MENA’s industrial sector have been increasing incrementally since the 1960s, these inequalities experienced a dramatic leap between 1999 and 2002, particularly in Egypt. Corruption, nepotism, and cronyism have historically been particularly widespread. According to one study, corruption in MENA countries is “deeply rooted in the political infrastructure of the state… the institutional infrastructure of the public sector… and [it] develops as a result of the relatively limited opportunities for public participation.” In such an environment, highly educated, unemployed youth, who lack the requisite political “connections” for attaining employment or a descent salary from the private and public sectors, have become frustrated with their governments.
Throughout the past decade, neoliberal reform measures and the concentration of large amounts of wealth in the hands of a few elites have further aggravated income inequalities and social exclusions. This system of cronyism-infused capitalism has served to alienate the youth and generally increase resentment amongst the region’s populations. In response, Islamist movements did respond to growing popular discontent, voicing their contempt against corruption and joining forces with different movements, particularly in Jordan to demand an end to corruption. Nevertheless, the Islamists remained unable to provide young Arabs with a viable, alternative route to improved living standards. For the rising number of educated middle class youth in need of clear-cut policies to ameliorate corruption and socio-economic inequalities, Islamism simply provided no solutions.
Socio-Economic and Political Demonstrations
The high incidences of socio-economic and political demonstrations in MENA, which began to gain ground in the early 2000s, also contributed to the absence of Islamist ideology from the recent protests. Between 1998 and 2004, Egypt experienced nearly 1000 demonstration and sit ins. From January to October 2007, Morocco had 945 protests, comprised of labor unions, youth activists and professionals demonstrating against unemployment, high prices and poor living standards. In Algeria, labor unions were a crucial force in protests against the regime’s privatization policies and the poor living standards of the working class, which culminated in 2003 and 2008. Uprisings in Tunisia also occurred during the early 2000s, with major demonstrations erupting in 2008 against a mining company on issues of employee living standards.
These early protests in Egypt, Algeria, and Morocco were mostly socio-economic, lacking any political aspects for a long period. These protests were nevertheless essential in demonstrating the salience of economic concerns for the poor and working class, as well for the middle class and professionals. At the same time, while income inequalities and poor living standards were amongst the most important reasons for demonstrations throughout the last decade, political protests also took place, though to a less extensive degree. In Egypt, the Kifaya (Enough) movement emerged in 2004 to call for an overhaul of the Mubarak regime, but initially failed to develop a mass following. In Algeria, the Berber population took to the streets in 2002 to defend their linguistic and cultural rights. In the Gulf countries, mainly Kuwait and Bahrain, demonstrations and protests have been primarily political in nature. In Kuwait, protests focused on political issues, such as electoral redistricting and women’s rights, with demonstrators successfully achieving positive changes in both areas. In Bahrain, the majority Shiite population, which has had its rights restricted by the country’s ruling Sunni monarchy, has regularly engaged in political rights-based protests; to emphasize, these protests have been focused on civil rights, and have neither been led by the Islamists nor have had a religious message. At the same time, during this period, Islamist movements in the region, particularly in Jordan, Egypt and Morocco, expended more time jockeying for political power through parliamentary elections than mobilizing the middle class and poor against the ruling regimes.
As a number of these demonstrations highlighted, different youth movements, mainly in Egypt and Jordan, developed effective ways of amalgamating socio-economic and political demands in the service of mobilizing a diverse constituency. These movements were able to connect political demands for reform with socio-economic concerns, through issues of social justice, equality of opportunity and human dignity, which lie at the root of both kinds of demands. Through these movements, a popular discourse emerged in which democracy, justice, and government transparency were connected with alleviating social and economic problems. As such, for MENA youth, democracy and human rights became more appealing than political Islam and Islamic movements, whose ideology was both too ideal and strict, as well as dissociated from the general socio-economic needs of youth.
As protests have spread over the past decade, the Islamist movements, like the Arab authoritarian regimes, have remained out of touch with the socio-economic and political nature of these uprisings. Meanwhile, the region’s youth movements based their cause, in part, on international human rights standards, and effectively addressed the needs and interests of different protests groups, particularly the labor groups, in order to gain political ground and mass appeal. In the 2011 uprisings, the youth were key, managing to overcome significant obstacles to achieve unbelievable results. In Tunisia, where the youth lacked the organizational structures enjoyed by their counterparts in Egypt and Jordan, they were nevertheless effective in mobilizing against an “unjust” regime. After the successes in Tunisia, Egypt’s youth movement, which initially lacked widespread popular support, was able to mobilize large segments of Egyptian society in support of “food, freedom and human dignity”. At the same time, the Islamists have remained noticeably marginal, demonstrating an inability to address the socio-economic and political problems that have captured the frustrations of the region’s populations.
*Nadine Sika is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the American University- Cairo and a consultant to the UNDP Regional Arab Office on Poverty Studies and Good Governance. Prof. Sika has published widely on issues at the intersection of education and economics in Egypt including the books Educational Reform in Egyptian Primary Schools since the 1990s: A Study of Political Values and Behavior of Sixth Grade Students and The Socio-Economic and Political Returns to Education in Egypt (Arabic)(forthcoming).
 Sami Zubaida, “Democracy, the ‘Public Sphere’ and Globalization,” in Eberhard Kienle ed., Politics from Above, Politics from Below: The Middle East in the Age of Economic Reform (London: Saqi, 2003), p. 21-32.
 Eva Wegner and Miguel Pellicer, “Islamist Moderation without Democratization: the Coming of Age of the Moroccan Party of Justice and Development?”, Democratization, vol 16, no.1 February 2009: 157-175
 The World Bank, The Road Not Traveled: Education Reform in the Middle East and North Africa (Washington D.C: World Bank, 2008).
 Asef Bayat, Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East (Cairo: AUC Press, 2009).
 Ragui Assad, “Unemployment and Youth Insertion in the Labour Market in Egypt,” in The Egyptian Economy: Current Challenges and Future Prospects, ed. Hanaa Kheir-Eddin (Cairo: AUC Press, 2008), p. 133-178.
 Bayat, op.cit.
 Clement, Henry and Robert Springborg, Globalization and the Politics of Development in the Middle East, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2010).
 UNDP, Arab Human Development Report: Challenges to Security (New York: UNDP, 2009).