Youth voices: The missing link in Middle East politics

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Empowering and engaging the youth of the Arab world is a key factor for the establishment of long-term security and stability of the region

As the Middle East and North Africa region continues to experience flux in its order, its youth are struggling to have their voice heard at policymaking levels. 

Five years on from the uprisings that swept through the Arab world in 2011, many of the same social, political and economic problems persist. The rise of extremism has added to a long list of issues with unemployment, freedom of expression and education preventing security and stability in the region.

All of these problems affect young people disproportionately. Despite being the largest demographic group – and despite their key role in the uprisings themselves - they have not been afforded a voice in national discourses. Empowering and building capacity amongst youth is key to creating a demographic dividend for the future of the region.

Young people feel that established political elites continue to dominate politics and society - as many expressed in a new Chatham House report. This is frustrating the development of the younger generation, exacerbating economic problems and fuelling discontent, social unrest and extremism.

Lack of jobs and opportunities for youth in the Arab world was revealed in the 2016 Arab Youth Survey as one of the key drivers for recruitment to the Islamic State. As Hassan Hassan puts it in his article for the Arab Youth Survey, extremist groups do not simply materialise from thin air. They capitalise upon political, social, economic and religious failures that must be addressed at their roots. The marginalisation of young people is at the very top of this list of failures.

While this phenomenon is nothing new in the Arab world, it has been exacerbated by the increasing centralisation of political power in the region and by the increasing dominance of security in national policy agendas – despite the obvious link between insecurity and youth marginalisation. The few attempts to mobilise young people have been top-down and driven by established elites who are increasingly seen as out of touch with the aspirations of youth.

Despite all this, young people continue to self-organise and engage in community activities and debate on key national issues. Civil society groups play an important role as a non-partisan medium and should be highlighted and supported by the state to lend legitimacy and encourage further youth engagement.

One such is example that was mentioned in my research is NABNI, a think-tank in Algeria which works to bring together different voices in Algerian society to discuss key domestic issues and foster new ideas. A more enabling environment could allow these groups to make a real contribution to national development. Both within and outside political parties, channels for participation in national policymaking should be seen as a benefit to wider social stability, which cannot be assured by preventive security measures alone.

I experienced this frustration of youth first-hand in Tunisia recently, where one interviewee told me, "They [the government] are not willing to let the youth have input into strategic issues, which is problematic when it is the youth who have the best grasp of what the mood is on the street".

Failing to tap into this resource would be a huge missed opportunity for Middle Eastern governments - as well as risking furthering the spread of radicalisation, criminality and the kind of social precarity that comes from irregular or no employment. In the age of new technology, finding ways to incorporate wide-ranging views through youth networks that are created through social media and online engagement is both achievable and essential.

Empowering and engaging the youth of the Arab world is a key factor for the establishment of long-term security and stability of the region. Shifting official discourses from well-established norms of controlling youth, to gradually opening up channels to move the rhetoric of youth inclusion into action is vital. Allowing young people the space to propose and take effective action on domestic issues that concern them is the place to start.

-Saad Aldouri is Programme Coordinator of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House. He is the author of a new research paper, Young Arab Voices: Moving youth policy from debate into action. You can follow him on Twitter @s_aldouri

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Tunisian graduates and unemployed youth walk on Mohamed Bouazizi square on 14 December, 2015, in the impoverished central town of Sidi Bouzid (AFP).