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Youth Activism in the Middle East – Imperatives and Dangers

May 7, 2011

In my last post I mentioned the CNN list of must-read Middle East bloggers. One of the sites they cited was Rantings of a Sandmonkey, by the Egyptian blogger Mahmoud Salem. Here’s an extract from his latest post in which he demolishes a number of myths he says have arisen in the wake of the revolution.  The full post is here.

It’s hard to imagine a more compelling stream of optimism about the future of Egypt:

7) There is doom and gloom everywhere!

WRONG! There is nothing but optimism and the prospect of a brighter future. Yes, there is economic instability and the economy will go down for a bit, but that’s only natural and part of the healing process. When you take an anti-biotic to cure you from a disease it is bound to keep you bed ridden and feeling tired for a few days so that you can properly heal, but you will heal and you will regain your full health eventually. We are completely unaware of what’s happening in the country because things are happening so fast that everything seems like it’s standing still. But the country is moving, the virus of the revolution spreading everywhere and changes are happening by the minute because 30 years worth of changes and reform are unleashed all at once. We are living in Hyper-time, and every person who sees a hole in the foundation of our country is working really hard and fast to plug it, and the future is looking brighter every day because of it.

Think of state TV employees who are protesting right now demanding that our national TV practices real journalism without an agenda. Think of the coalition of restaurant owners that is being formed in order to tell the municipalities that they won’t pay bribes anymore, and if they wish to shut them down they can go right ahead and face the wrath of all of their employees. Think of the students of the Lycee in Cairo, 6 and 7th graders, who did a 3 day sit-in protest demanding the return of a teacher that got fired for carrying an anti-Mubarak sign in Tahrir and forced the administration to re-instate him. Think of all the 8 and 10 year olds who went out with their parents the day of the referendum to vote and had the experience engrained in their psyche forever, something we never had ourselves, and know that they will never allow that right to be taken away from them. Think of all the 12 year olds who are watching all the hot issues (secularism vs. theocracy, left vs. right, the role of the army, the role of the police, etc..) being debated all around them right now, and having their political consciousness formed right now and know that when they turn 18 it will be next to impossible for someone to trick or co-opt them. Think of all the 15 and 16 year olds who are watching the protests all around them and the lessons and mistakes that we are doing and think of what those kids will do the moment they get into college in a couple of years or when they join the workforce. Think of all your friends, wherever they are, who are joining and debating and talking and wanting to help and do something, and know you are not a solitary phenomenon. The Virus is everywhere. The Future is AWESOME. We will not save Egypt, Egypt will save us.

Now go and think of how you can help. And when you encounter people whose stupidity or irrationality or ignorance frustrates you, smile, because you know in 6 or 7 years they will no longer exist nor be of any influence.”

What particularly strikes me about this passage is his description of how the young of Egypt are getting involved in politics. But I do have mixed feelings about the extent to which children should become directly involved.

I think it’s absolutely essential that they learn to think for themselves about political issues, and that they debate and hone their critical thinking skills on the issues of the day – not only those  in their own countries but in the world in general.

When I was growing up I remember often talking about politics within my family. I went to a liberal private school, where we had guest speakers visiting on a regular basis to talk about current affairs. We were encouraged to look at all sides of every issue. And whenever there was a general election, the school would organise mock elections in which we would debate and vote for the party of our choice. It was amazing how many 15-year-old scions of wealthy families pledged their allegiance to the Trotskyites. Though in the end the majority stuck to their wealth-preserving roots and voted Conservative.

If I look at my children, growing up as they did in the UK, I was always surprised at their relative ignorance about current affairs. I’m sure they would admit this if asked. The only time they would get engaged would be over issues that affected them directly, such as university tuition fees. And in Britain such radicalisation as occurs these days seems to happen more often at university rather than school. Whereas in my youth we had causes célèbres such as the Oz Trial, in which the publishers of a hippie “underground magazine” were given jail sentences for obscenity after they published an edition entirely produced by schoolkids.

In Egypt and other parts of the MENA region going through protest and uprising, it’s hard for kids not to get involved when they are around adults taking to the streets. It’s entirely natural for them to join in the debates at home about the future of their countries and – even more pertinent to them – of their own families. And some of the attempts to educate children in the region about the democratic process are inspiring. Witness the Children’s Parliament initiative in Yemen I wrote about a while ago.

However, things can become sinister when “youth movements” start springing up. Young people who are brought up in environments in which critical thinking skills are not at a premium – and I’m thinking of the educational systems of several Middle East countries – are  much easier to indoctrinate and manipulate than those who don’t have rote learning and unquestioning obedience shoved down their throats from an early age. Even in countries where education in the humanities is much more prevalent, governments are capable of enlisting millions into highly regimented and ideologically “correct” movements such as the Nazi Hitler Youth and the USSR’s Komsomol.

Politicisation on a less formal basis often starts very early. It’s always disturbed me to see pictures of six-year-olds parading with their parents in the streets, wearing bandanas with slogans and toting wooden and sometimes real guns. It might suit the parents to ensure that their children inherit their beliefs, but if the kids go through a rigid education system there is the danger that their minds will be locked forever into a specific way of thinking. That is, of course, if they make it to adulthood, unlike thousands of Iranian child “martyrs” who charged onto the Iraqi guns during the Iran/Iraq war.

And as I think Mahmoud is implying, the youth of the Middle East are going to have to cope with ambiguity, not certainty, in the years ahead. They are going to have to be able to show flexibility of thinking and a creative approach to problem-solving if they are to help their countries into a brighter future.

So right up there – along with social, political and economic development in countries like Egypt – education, and especially the teaching of critical thinking skills must be a top priority.

Otherwise the Arab Spring will be for nothing, because the next generations will become entrenched in the same certainties that have led to the stand-offs and conflicts of the past fifty years or more.

And I’m not talking just about Arab youth by the way. The same goes for youth throughout the world, because whatever region we come from, we are all stakeholders in each other’s future. I may be one of those who, in Mahmoud’s words, are “pontificating really superficial analysis about something they can neither understand or grasp”, but I believe that I’m stating a self-evident truth.

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