2011 was supposed to be the starting point of a new hope in the Arab world, starting in Tunisia on 14 January when President Ben Ali decided to give up his power in the face of mass protests on the streets. Millions of protesters from the south to the north went out to the streets and demanded dignity, jobs and respect. Later on, many countries followed the movement such as Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain. Unfortunately, despite all the hope of the revolutions during this period, the political instability since has ruined the happiness and the light that everybody was expecting in their lives. In this article, I will take you through some of the challenges that the youth are facing in the Arab world, as well as some problems produced by young people themselves.
Tunisia is one of the most successful countries of all the Arab Spring countries in that it secured a democratic transition, if not the only successful country. However, it has been exporting a large number of young people to join extremist groups such as ISIS. Since 2013, more than 6000 soldiers have joined extremist groups in Iraq, Libya and Syria. Different studies have been done to understand the phenomenon of young people’s extremist behaviour, and the findings have been diverse and blamed different things: unemployment, taxation, centralisation, lack of dignity, political marginalisation, lack of entertainment etc. The rate of domestic and street violence has increased three times since before 2011. Also, the rate of teenagers dropping out of schools at an early age has increased.
Despite all this, civil society organisations have become very powerful in the country, influencing the political scene by trying to make the voices of young people heard in the public sphere. International NGOs, national and local associations, clubs, activists and many other institutions have amplified the voices of the youth to bring about positive change and create alternatives for the challenges that people are facing.
The number of young people in the Arab world is estimated to be about 30% of the population (about 105 million). This large number require us to truly consider and take seriously the concerns and ambitions of young people, as they are the strategic balance and represent the future of the region.
Youth are the fundamental priority for the government and civil society organizations as they contain the human and vital energy capable of carrying out positive change in their communities. However, different obstacles are impeding their way to success, starting from bureaucracy to poor educational quality which is dropping year after year. Not only have many young Tunisians left home to join the ranks of ISIS, according to the UN High Commission for Refugees, the number of asylum seekers coming from Tunisia was nine times higher in 2011 (7,900) than in 2010 (900). These alarming facts resulted from different reasons:
Relationships between family members have been affected by a large tension and disconnect after 2011. Parents became more obsessed with the economic stability of their family members, more than their social acquaintances. Lack of parental control made the rate of children dropping out of school very high. In addition, this disconnect led to a lack of control of children’s behaviour which leads them to be very easily influenced by external forces such as extremism.
During my work on the ground in Tunisia, Morocco and Jordan on ways and techniques to prevent youth from joining extremist groups, violence inside families were one of the major issues that were raised time and again during most of my interactions with youth. Unstable parents who are affected by the current economic situation turn their fear into violent acts against their children or wife. These facts are even more serious in rural areas and dangerous neighbourhoods where the rate of poverty is very high.
Different organisations are working on this issue of urban and family violence. Oxfam Tunisia made a campaign called “ENOUGH” where they published different studies showing the alarming results of violence, especially against women. Also, the UN Population Fund has initiated a national advertising campaign on how political leaders can influence negatively their citizens through their hate speech encouraging people to commit violence against women.
Education in the Arab world is one of the most urgent challenges tackled by all governments in the MENA region and even in many western countries. In fact, our current pedagogy has a reputation for killing youth creativity and a lack of critical thinking inside schools. Youth nowadays are learning more from non-formal education and their personal efforts than from the existing pedagogy.
Teachers are becoming more and more detached in the way they teach, which blocks the formation of meaningful relationships between them and their students. Studies have shown the increase of the rate of violence in public institutions which partly explains why many young people are dropping out of school and choosing instead to join extremist groups.
In 2011, following the uprising, the government in charge committed the first big political mistake of the new era: promising unemployed youth stability and positions in the public sector to showcase that they are willing to change and win the hearts of their audience, who they hope will vote for them in future elections. This promise has given young people high expectations of being employed in the public sector, at the expense of considering alternatives such as employment in the private sector or NGOs. Different curfews and protests have happened since which have led to the shutdown of many big companies especially between 2011 and 2014.
In Tunisia, we have around 700,000 workers in the public sector in an overall population of around 11 million, compared to around 700,000 public sector workers in Morocco among 35 million citizens. We can conclude from these numbers that the public sector in Tunisia is too big.
Various solutions have been proposed by the government to support youth entrepreneurship initiatives, but it is the bureaucracy which has played a crucial role in making the life of Tunisian entrepreneurs very difficult and discouraging them from continuing their entrepreneurial careers.
The security dimension
Security has become one the main concerns amongst Tunisians. The various terrorist attacks that have occurred in the last few years have not only affected the economy but also citizens’ feelings of being unsafe and insecure. The security problem also relates to the current relationship between police forces and citizens. In fact, Tunisians have always had a tense relationship with the police forces and prefer to avoid any problems with them. Today, a law relating to protecting police forces from being held accountable for any abuse of power is under discussion and has generated a lot of debate and resistance from civil society activists who believe that it will give police more reasons to impose their power on citizens for any reason.
Although it is the case that young Tunisians are not very active in the political scene, it is not entirely their fault as they have not had the opportunity to learn about how democracy functions due to the inadequacy of existing curriculums. Civil society organizations in a few regions are attempting to change this, but the government has been resistant to see changes in the current teaching methodology and pedagogy. The government and opponents to reform claim that young people are already in decision making roles but when we see the current facts, we do not find many young people with the right competencies and quality to fill these positions, partly because of the fear of public judgement which prevents them from putting themselves forwards for those positions.
What must be done is a thorough campaign to change how young people are educated today as well as how they see themselves in society, so that they have the skills and competencies required to be effective citizens in a democracy as well as the motivation and will required to put themselves forward.