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Arab Youth Still Want Change, But Won't Be Politicians Arab Youth Still Want Change, But Won't Be Politicians

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FOREIGN AFFAIRS

Arab Youth Still Want Change, But Won't Be Politicians

Egyptian and Tunisian Activists Stick With Mass Protests as Vote Nears.

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Slim Amamou takes the oath of office as Secretary of State in charge of Youth and Sports during the swearing in of the interim unity government in Tunis.(FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images)

Slim Amamou knew he would be arrested after a group of cyberactivists shut down the Tunisian government’s official website. As protests against longtime autocrat Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali raged on the streets in January, security forces yanked the 33-year-old computer programmer from his office. Even during his secret interrogation, thousands of people knew where the dissident blogger with long, straggling hair and thick, black glasses was being held. Amamou was handcuffed, but his cell phone, armed with Google Latitude, relayed his location: the Interior Ministry.

Amamou was released a day before Ben Ali’s ouster. Afterward, a clean-shaven Amamou received an unexpected invitation to become Secretary of State of Youth and Sports in Tunisia’s transitional government. Amamou, who didn’t trust a Cabinet with former government members, seized the chance to represent the nation’s youth. He riled the older Cabinet members at meetings by not wearing ties and live-tweeting proceedings.

 

But many young people criticized his decision to join the government. They accused Amamou, who’d become a symbol of the revolution, of selling out. “They thought the interim government was corrupt, and they didn’t want me to be corrupted,” Amamou said. He resigned in May. He’s not running in the next election.

Young activists in Tunisia and Egypt began setting the framework for democratic transition using historic waves of protests. But few of them are becoming politicians. Disillusioned by the slow pace of change, young pro-democracy protesters have returned to the streets—but without a coherent message.

As the dates of their respective fall elections draw closer, the youth’s lack of organization or political strategy appears likely to bring about new governments in which they are again underrepresented. Even if the youth are still active within civil society as a de facto opposition group, this could be problematic for the United States and other countries counting on inclusive governments in the first two democracies born in the Arab Spring. 

 

Where are the Tunisian youth now, months after Ben Ali’s flight kicked off the Arab Spring? “It’s summer, so most of them are at the beach,” laughed Zied Mhirsi, 33, a prominent Tunisian radio host. A recent survey conducted by the International Foundation of Electoral Services revealed that only 38 percent of Tunisian youth aged 18 to 24 correctly identified the purpose of their next election: to choose an assembly to write the constitution. So far, only about 13 percent of Tunisia’s eligible voters have registered to cast their ballots.

Even for the politically savvy, the new electoral rules are incredibly convoluted. Electoral experts confirm that few notable young leaders are in powerful positions within more than 100 recently registered political parties in Tunisia. Instead, the parties are led primarily by a hodgepodge of former government members, opposition figures, and Tunisians returned from exile, Mhirsi said. “Why don’t the youth join politics? Why don’t they try to build the Tunisia they want? They think if they join parties now, it's compromising.”

“You can’t change your mind every day,” he continued. “You have to stick with the party’s rhetoric, agree to the party’s compromises. This [aversion] is typical of the young people.”

Many believe job creation and rebuilding the country after massive upheaval are more pressing than political participation, said Manal Omar, the U.S. Institute of Peace’s North Africa director. “In Tunisia [there are] literally fist fights over jobs.” In the short term, Omar said established groups able to provide desperately needed services—like Tunisia’s Al Nahda or Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood—could fare better in elections.

 

President Hosni Mubarak has long left power, but Egyptian youth are still on the streets, trying to wrench the ruling military council into prosecuting his cronies and some of his security forces. They’re also scuffling with a growing number of ordinary Egyptians who are tired of the turmoil and want to see the protesters go home. In a blow to the youth activists, tens of thousands of Islamists calling for the establishment of sharia law took over Tahrir Square last Friday. It was a clear display of the Islamists’ political strength and organization, jarring to many youth activists who have been camped out for weeks in the symbolic epicenter of the January protests. As the Muslim holy month of Ramadan began, the military deployed a dozen tanks to clear the square on Monday, shredded tents, arrested some of the remaining activist youth protesters, and dispersed many of the rest.

For all their commotion, the activists’ ongoing demonstrations have garnered only a few concessions from the ruling military council. Basem Fathy of the non-profit Egyptian Democratic Academy said disorganization could be partly to blame. “We were successful in the revolution because we were chaotic, unorganized. Powerful. Non-negotiable. Now we need a leader to speak, to organize, to negotiate,” Fathy, 27, said. “But the youth are not trusting anybody—that’s why people are still negotiating by collective action.”

Many of the youth are too individualistic to join a party. Others have never voted—let alone campaigned or run for office. Most are distrustful of the military council and suspect it’s trying to rig the election against their interests—fears fueled by the military’s rejection of international poll monitors for the elections. As a result, “there’s no political map, no organization—it’s the same as before [Mubarak fell],” Fathy said. “We’ll call for something on the Internet, and if it’s valid, you’ll find thousands protesting on the street on Friday.”

Their time would be better spent preparing for the upcoming parliamentary elections to secure some representation in a new Egypt, said Daniel Brumberg, an expert on democratization in the Middle East at USIP. But campaigning is daunting for would-be politicians. Garnering 5,000 founding members to form a new political party is challenging. So is competing with umbrella groups like the 600,000-strong Muslim Brotherhood.

Brumberg said the youth are holding onto an unachievable goal of “revolution”—eradicating every last vestige of the old system—when progress, overseen by powerful figures left over from Mubarak’s administration, is likely to be incremental and halting. “This is a process managed by the military, built around mobilizing and negotiating with different groups,” he said. “Whether you like it or not, you have to do politics.”

Regardless, young people in the new Egypt and Tunisia are virtually certain to play a major role in civil society as unofficial watchdogs capable of returning to the streets at a moment’s notice. Perhaps free speech, not necessarily political representation, will be the short-term result of the youth revolution.

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