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Arab youths, revolutions, and the rise of the ‘second society’

---- by Sami Mahroum ----


The sudden and rapid change that has swept across the Arab world over the recent few months has taken the world by surprise. All of a sudden, the status quo was challenged and the long-held prerequisites for change were replaced by mobile phones, an Internet connection and a Facebook account.

It is a unique movement in that it does not have charismatic leaders as much as a common groundswell of opinion. It is in the hands of many, rather than in the wake of one.

For decades, Western governments and the intelligentsia behind them did not think the conditions required for a democratic change were present in the Arab world. For Islam, the religion of the majority that dominates Arab culture needs first to be reformed before a democratic revolution can take place. For that, almost all major Western countries have launched Arabic language TV and radio networks, set up dedicated cultural exchange and research programmes, and assigned special envoys to the region in the hope that these will help cause the cultural change needed to bring about a democratic change.

Sami Mahroum

Arab governments were largely (and happily) in agreement that it was premature for their societies to embrace democracy. Instead, many governments sought to cause change by adopting and encouraging a consumerist culture. Governments used their powers to create a middle class that is tied to them on the basis of shared materialistic interests. Subsequently, new shopping malls, five stars hotels, and gated communities are sprinkled across much of the Arab world largely owned by elites and linked one way or another to the people in power.

In turn, militant and radical groups actively sought to sabotage incumbent governments’ policies through militancy and an underground modus operandi. Tourists were attacked or taken hostage and hotels were bombed. The internet, satellite, and mobile telephony technologies have helped these groups to organise, produce and distribute propaganda materials, but they remained largely ineffective due to their militancy and radical views that could only appeal to a very small minority of people.

For decades, the eyes and thoughts of analysts interested in the Arab world have focused on three players and the interplay among them, namely Western governments, Arab governments, and militant groups. On the margins, there was a “Second Society” emerging: one that has gone largely unnoticed, namely the “Arab Youth Society”, which has now culminated in several countries to become the “Arab Youth Movement”.

The demographic bulge

In the last 30 years, the number of Arabs has more than doubled, surging from 173 million in 1980 to 352.2 million in 2009. According to the United Nations, assuming that fertility levels continue to decline, the total population of the Arab region is projected to reach 428.4 million by 2020. The majority of these are under the age 24 and live in cities. The “youth bulge” is expected to increase to 73 million in 2015. This is important as some studies suggest that countries where young adults make up more than 40 per cent of the working age population are more likely to experience armed conflict than countries with lower proportions of youth.

The mushrooming of new universities across the region has created new spaces for youth to meet and mingle

The last three decades have seen a surge in higher education in the Arab world, along with the privatisation and internationalisation of the Arab tertiary education system. A 2008 report by the Arab Investment & Export Credit Guarantee Corporation revealed that there has been an increase in the number of universities in Arab countries from 233 in 2003 to 385 in 2008, including 115 private universities (about 4.4 times the figure for 1993). According to the same report, Tunisia has experienced the highest increase in the number of universities (the number doubled from 22 to 44 universities, including 31 private universities).

While education and socio-economic analysts have been busy critiquing the quality and quantity of the output of these universities, Arab youths were finding several benefits to being at university: a new space for association, networking, and the exchange of ideas and sentiments. Places of worship (churches and mosques) were no longer the only spaces for legal gathering, and however monitored university campuses have been, Arab youths increasingly had more arenas than the previous generations to meet and mingle.

Cyber space another meeting place for youth

The wide and rapid spread of the information and communication technologies (ICT) in Arab countries has added another massive new space for association, networking and the exchange of ideas. ICT has also opened new avenues for pursuing higher education and training through distance learning at foreign institutions. Not only did the internet allow Arab youths to meet and mingle over Facebook and Myspace, but it also gave them the opportunity to rapidly develop and share an underground culture transmitted over mobile phones. From gossip and rumours about the political class to sharing politicised opinions and non-conformist values, mobile internet applications borne primarily over mobile phones, have provided Arab youths with new spaces for self-expression.

The rise of NGOs and Third Sector organisations as safe arenas for youth activism

The Arab world has witnessed a rapid increase in the number and role of civil society and non-governmental organisations. These have been largely tolerated given their single issue orientations and non-confrontational operations. They have also helped attract investments from international and private donors where governments have failed. While exact numbers are not available, for anyone engaged with this sector in the Arab world, it is clear to see its attraction for high calibre young Arab volunteers and workers. The expansion of this sector has provided yet one more new space for Arab youths to develop and express awareness around important issues affecting their societies. Furthermore, working with Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and other third sector organisations provided exposure to the third sector community around the world.

The rise of the “second society”

The result is the emergence of the so-called “Second Society”, a term coined by the Hungarian sociologist, Elemer Hankiss, in reference to communist countries in Europe. Universities, ICT, and NGOs furnished Arab youths with institutions that run parallel and almost independently from state-run institutions. “Second Society” institutions are loose, virtual, and sub-cultural, which made them agile, resilient and very effective at organisation and delivery. They survive on small budgets, need little hardware, and require low level of technical skills. Ironically, many of the infrastructure and services supporting “Second Society” institutions were owned by people in government or close to it. This made it harder for governments to curb them or shut them down. The infrastructure behind “Second Society” institutions was amphibious in nature, owned by people who were benefitting from the status quo, but serving people who were increasingly disenchanted with the same status quo.

An alternative “Second Society” culture thrived and spread over the internet from alternative underground music and short-movies on YouTube, to uncensored coverage of current events from the streets via Twitter. “Second Society” institutions allowed for an important proportion of social interactions to escape the control of governments. Small groups of like-minded self-organising people created islands of autonomy that were able to eventually torpedo the continuum of state-controlled hegemony and bring about the desired change.

The “Great Arab Revolution” that we are witnessing today is the first real revolution that is the work of “Generation Z” as they are known in the West, a generation that grew up digital. ”Generation Z” revolutionaries are unique in that they do not draw on charismatic leaders to mobilise, nor are they in need of a strong command structure to organise.

The patterns of revolutions tend to be similar, focusing on the rise and fall of their leaders, a plunge into lawlessness, and finally a new order – not often any better than that which was overthrown. Today’s movement is different: its very plurality could render it invulnerable to being hijacked by any particular interest group. It is the dawn of a new power base not only in the Arab world, but in the world as a whole.


Sami Mahroum is the Director of INSEAD’s Innovation & Policy Initiative, based at the school’s Abu Dhabi Campus.



First published: March 14, 2011

Last updated: March 25, 2011

SM/MR 03/11

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