By Majid Rafizadeh, Special to CNN
Editor's note: Majid Rafizadeh is a policy analyst and human rights activist and a contributing editor to the Harvard International Review. The views expressed are his own.
Despite what many Middle East analysts have been suggesting in recent months, the recent wave of uprisings in Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, and Syria is by no means unique in history. That said, the focus of the latest wave is a little different.
The series of upheavals were the anti-colonial, nationalist revolutions of the 20th century, such as the Algerian Independence Movement against French colonial rule in the 1950s and 1960s. Widespread resistance ultimately led to Algerian independence in 1962, but Algerians weren’t the only nation in the region fighting for independence. Bahrain, a British protectorate since 1820, didn’t gain full sovereignty until August 14, 1971. Meanwhile, the Egyptian national resistance movement, led by Saad Zaghlul Pasha and the Wafd Party, forced Britain to relinquish its hold over Egypt in 1922, when Egypt joined the community of sovereign nations. Most recently, the Iranian revolution led to the establishment of the Islamic Republic, in 1979.
This latest wave of uprisings, in contrast, emphasizes civil liberties, individualism, rule of law, democracy, and a more liberal interpretation of religion and economics. The reality is that in many of the countries now facing upheaval, a relatively small segment of the middle class has been able to accumulate capital while the majority have experienced a decrease in their quality of life. As a result, it is not unusual these days to hear of civil servants or teachers taking on two or three jobs to make ends meet.
Resistance in Syria, for example, is in many ways as much about hunger, poverty and corruption as general civil disobedience aimed at the government. Some estimates put the number of Syrians living below the poverty line at about 30 percent of the population. Under the rule of President Bashar al-Assad, capital is accumulated in a few new sectors that are controlled by the bureaucratic bourgeoisie, while the dominant modes of production existing before al-Assad’s rule have remained intact.
But Syria isn’t the only place where such frustrations have been boiling over. In December 2010, mostly educated middle class Tunisians sparked this latest wave of revolution at a time when the unemployment rate for college graduates was as high as 20 percent, by some estimates. The match that lit the fire of unrest was, tellingly, the self-immolation of college graduate Mohamed Bouazizi, who was forced to peddle vegetables for a living.
Indeed, a common thread that links the revolutions taking place in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt, is the soul-crushingly high rate of youth unemployment. Full of zeal and relatively free of responsibilities, young people are traditionally most likely to challenge the status quo, a trend being borne out in the Arab world today.
But it’s not all about economics. This latest wave also emphasizes freedom of press and the protection of civil liberties. The objective, for many of the newest revolutionaries, is to find a way to merge rights, religiosity and liberty and, more specifically, many of these would-be revolutionaries are looking to effectively marry Islam with modern values such as individuality and democratic freedoms. The new generation doesn’t oppose secularism as such, and many students, women and state employees have been vocal in their calls for individual rights, tolerance, and gender equality.
Ultimately, though, greater transparency is likely to mean little unless job creation is made a priority by governments in the region. Whatever the shape of new regimes taking power, they will need to find new models for everything from finance to education to scientific research. These new regimes must also find better ways of engaging young people, nurturing their passion and expertise, rather than ramping up tuition fees and cutting back on retraining.
To put it bluntly, incoming governments have a choice – help young people to utilize technology in a way that ensures they can earn a decent living, or see some of those same technological tools such as social media turned against them.