People often tell me that I sound very optimistic when I speak about the future of the Arab world. It is true that I expect the best instincts and values of people to prevail over the negatives that have dominated much of public life in the region in recent decades. If you want to know why I remain optimistic, you need only have been with me during the past few weeks when I had two particularly uplifting encounters with young men and women from different parts of the Arab world, often including engagement with their counterparts from the United States and Europe.
One of the great impacts-to-come of the current youth-led uprisings and revolutions across the Arab world will be the unleashing of enormous energy and talent that have been bottled up in the minds, bodies and spirits of young men and women across the region. The prevailing political and social culture across most Arab countries has largely prohibited young people from expressing themselves in public, and engaging meaningfully in civic and political activity to contribute constructively to the development of their societies. Young Arab talent has been wasted talent for the most part in recent history – but this is now starting to change.
The explosion of youth anger and determination to change their world was the initial impetus for the uprisings that have brought down four Arab regimes to date, with a few more to follow in due course. This level of active resistance is not sustainable in the long run, and will have to be replaced with some other mechanisms by which young men and women play a role in building new and better Arab societies in the decades ahead. I had a glimpse of this in the last month, when I had the privilege of participating in two events that highlighted the sentiments, energy, creativity and power of young people.
The first was a gathering of Palestinian refugee youth organized by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA) in Brussels; the second was the inaugural conference of a new organization at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, named the American Middle East Network for Dialogue at Stanford (AMENDS), which brought together Arab and American youths.
The dominant common thread at both events – and the reason I am more optimistic than ever about the Arab future – was the combination of the young men and women’s clear-headed realism about what is wrong in their worlds, their determination to articulate both their grievances and their aspirations, and, finally, their ability to initiate new projects and activities that start the process of change, even if only at their school or neighborhood level.
The young people I encountered ranged from low-income Palestinian refugees to high-tech entrepreneurs and worldly graduate students. However, they all encapsulated the new spirit of a rejuvenated citizenship that remains, to my mind, the single most prominent outcome of the last 16 months of revolts across the region: Arab men and women of all ages who not only believe that they are endowed by their creator and by natural entitlement with human and civil rights, but who also take action in the public sphere to make sure that they enjoy those rights equitably, with all others in society.
Arab youth are not inspiring now just because they sparked the current citizen revolts; rather, they initiated this historic transformation across the Middle East because they had always carried within them the determination to break through the constraints that their societies and their governments forced on them for so many decades.
The sentiments of many Palestinians and millions of young Arabs across the region were reflected in the words of Sahar Musa, 21, from Gaza City. After attending the Brussels event, she said that this was “just the first step for us Palestinian refugees to demand our rights for an equal life and equal opportunities. We should have the same rights that other youth around the world have. We deserve a chance to perform our best to help ourselves and to help each other ... What we need is a supportive environment, to do what we are capable of doing and not someone else doing it for us.”
The same spirit was captured at Stanford University by dozens of Arab and American youth who created AMENDS in order to be able “to come together and create spaces in which dynamic young leaders can collaborate, develop ideas, and implement bold initiatives that continue to shape the new Middle East.”
We have seen what happens when angry and determined young people came together to challenge and topple dictatorships in several Arab countries. We will see much, much more in the years ahead when millions of equally inspired and activist young Arab men and women put their minds and their energy together to get on with the business of nation-building.