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Circles of Trust: New Insights Into Arab Youth

Young people in the Arab world place most of their trust in their families, and very little in formal politics and public institutions. They have high—even unrealistic—expectations regarding their future. Some of the best educated and most civically minded among them are also the most eager to emigrate.

These and other insights were shared recently by a team of researchers and academics from both sides of the Mediterranean who are studying youth in the Arab world.

The Power2Youth is a consortium of research institutions and universities funded by the European Union and formed “to explore the dynamics of youth exclusion and the prospects for youth transformative agency in the South East Mediterranean region.” Ever since the Arab uprisings of 2011, which were largely led by young people who voiced their desire for greater freedom and opportunity, there has been an intense interest in youth in the region. The hundreds of thousands of young people entering stagnant job markets in most Arab countries may present the greatest political challenge of the coming years.

The Power2Youth project began in the spring of 2014 and will run for another year. Participants shared survey results and case studies at a conference at the University Mohamed V in Rabat in mid-October.

Young people in the countries studied—Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, Tunisia and Turkey—place their utmost trust in their families. Their confidence in others (friends, neighbors, colleagues, and public officials) drops off quickly. One explanation may lie in respondents’ reporting it is through relatives and friends that they most often find work. Between 54 percent (in Morocco) and 87 percent (in Tunisia) said that wasta – personal connections—was very important to finding employment.

Across the region, a majority of young people said their education did not prepare them for the job market. There is a big disconnect between the kind of work young people hope for (public, salaried, life-long) and the kind that is actually available (informal, precarious, and poorly paid). Unsurprisingly, young people report dissatisfaction with their government’s efforts to find them employment, and believe politicians don’t pay enough attention to issues of concern to youth.

In Morocco, 51 percent of the respondents (aged 18 to 29) were employed (70 percent of men and 30 percent of women). The average monthly salary was 1,000 to 3,000 dirhams (about $100 to $300 per month). A majority of the young Moroccans interviewed had only a primary education. The country’s high drop-out rate was explained by the expense of schooling, the need to start work, a lack of interest in school and the discouragement of repeated academic failure.

Professors from universities in the region analyzed different sub-groups within students, looking for patterns. They found, for instance, that in most countries, being female and poor generally means a greater probability of being less educated and unemployed.

Academics also investigated the question of youth participation. The Arab Spring shattered the idea that young people in the region were unengaged or apathetic. Yet young people today remain largely absent from political participation.

Saloua Zerhouni from Mohamed V University in Rabat found that a high level of interest in politics did not necessarily correlate with joining a party or voting in elections.

“They don’t vote because they don’t trust candidates, they know elections are manipulated and parties are weak,” said Zerhouni of young Moroccans. “They are well aware of the political game and how it’s rigged.”

Young people do participate in public life in many ways, but they aren’t present at the institutional level, said Zerhnouni, because “there are no good channels to make their voices heard.”

Samiha Hamdi from the University of Sfax in Tunisia argued that the uprisings in 2011 should be viewed as “generational conflicts,” part of a “crisis of institutions and ideologies.” Young Tunisians’ commitments today are more individual and pragmatic than ideological, said Hamdi, noting that many are active in charities, non-profit organizations, and cultural projects. They create “micro-worlds” in which to live according to their values, to work on solving immediate issues in their neighborhoods and universities.

Young people’s engagement with social media and desire to speak freely may be one of the lasting legacies of the Arab Spring. A majority of young people in the countries surveyed have regular access to the Internet. In Morocco, 87 percent of young people said they consider themselves free to express themselves at home and online. But one blind spot of the research presented in Rabat was the lack of focus on Islamist youth and their strong participation in political movements and the public sphere.

In Egypt, the authorities recently convened a multi-million-dollar youth conference in the resort town of Sharm El Sheikh, attended by President Sisi, political and army officials and hundred of hand-picked representatives of Egyptian youth. One of the conference’s main recommendations was to pardon some of the many young people who have been imprisoned in the country in recent years, and to review the country’s draconian protest law.

In fact, in many countries in the region, young people have been seen as a problem and a threat since 2011. For all the anxiety over the “youth bulge,” there is little interest in hearing what young people’s demands or aspirations might be. The research team in Egypt was denied permission by the authorities to ask many of the survey’s questions regarding political participation and level of trust in public institutions.

Nadine Sika, an assistant professor of political science at the American University in Cairo, focused instead on the socioeconomic marginalization of youth. Just as in other Arab countries, in Egypt higher education actually leads to higher unemployment. The Egyptian researcher found that that is particularly the case if the student comes from a low-income family—meaning there is hardly any social mobility.

Another particularly depressing finding? University-educated young Egyptians, with the highest level of engagement and political participation and the most aspirations for change, also have the highest desire (and ability) to emigrate.

In fact, the problems that young people in the region face are clear, as is their persistence. In recent months there have been several cases of young people setting themselves on fire in protest, just as happened five years ago. (See for example this incident in Egypt and this one in Morocco.) As a students in the audience in Rabat asked: “We are talking about youth participation in the labour market, but will this academic research have any impact on policymakers?”


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