By Randall Kuhn, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Randall Kuhn is director of the Global Health Affairs Program at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. The views expressed are the writer’s own.
As we mark its two year anniversary, it has become fashionable to dismiss the Arab Spring as a false opening at best, or a gateway to an Islamist takeover at worst. Others have argued compellingly that radical extremists represent a small minority of citizens with little legitimacy. A more fundamental concern is whether the moderate Arab majority has the political capacity and motivation to overcome special interests who seek to undermine the original vision of social justice. My research on the role of human development in the Arab Spring suggests that they do.
On measures of human development such as infant mortality, life expectancy, and schooling, the Arab nations of today look far more similar to the nations of Eastern Europe in 1989, the revolution we all hope for, than to Iran in 1979, the revolution that many fear. Since 1980, no region of the developing world saw as much progress on basic indicators of health and education than the Arab States, fueled by foreign aid, oil money, and despots looking to placate the masses. In 1970, an infant born in Egypt was more likely to die in the first year of life than in India or most of Sub-Saharan Africa; by 2005 the infant in Egypt was less than half as likely to die. Moreover, by 2009 the average Tunisian 15-year old had a better chance of seeing their 60th birthday than the average American.
Arabs born in the 1980s and 1990s are a golden generation, healthier and better educated than any that had come before, much like the baby boomer generation in the US. Like the baby boomers, Arab youth were empowered not just by their own strength, but by a collective sense that everyone around them was gaining. The image of shared prosperity and modernity was reinforced by satellite TV programs presenting aspirational, middle class lives. The expectation of prosperity was reflected in rising university enrollment, exploding internet use, and high levels of optimism about the future.
Of course the bright future did not materialize. By 2010, the golden generation of Arab youth was mired in what could best be described as a transnational failure to launch, characterized in the media by high youth unemployment and growing political disillusionment. Perhaps more devastating still was the delay in marriage. By 2007, for instance, the mean age of first marriage in Libya was 34 for men and 31 for women. Age at marriage was equally high in Tunisia and rapidly rising in Egypt, even in the villages. The good news: the devastating practice of child marriage for young women was increasingly in the past. The bad news: an increasing number were unable to marry at all, a devastating fate in societies where marriage often remains the sole legitimate pathway to childbearing, sexual activity, and, for women, economic security.
While poor governance and recession bore some immediate blame for the marriage squeeze, the process began with drastically enhanced life expectations. Previous Arab generations had faced far worse economic deprivations, but had simply settled for lousy jobs (or no jobs for women) and any marriage as soon as possible. But the new generation held out the hope of a brighter future; they would not settle. Many in the golden generation instead chose an adulthood waiting for the right job and the right spouse, but eventually they stopped waiting and demanded more.
Furthermore, the golden generation has shown that they would not settle for the same old corrupt government and unjust society. Well before the Arab Spring, surveys of political attitudes indicated broad support for the abstract idea of democracy. While it is easy to say that you like democracy when you don’t have it, there was also growing support for specific values like political inclusion, freedom of speech, and women’s rights. In Egypt, the Arab Spring was preceded by a wave of popular protest, reflecting broad-based alliances between labor movements, liberals, Islamists, and others. While protests often addressed material conditions, the focus had shifted from simple bread and butter issues to questions of economic justice and worker’s rights. Participation in protests was actually more likely among those who were educated and employed, not those who were desperate. The fact that those with much to lose from disorder were front and center in the protests again suggests that Arabs were not just fighting for bread, but for an alternative vision of the future.
If the Arab Spring was indeed strongly rooted in a positive vision of justice and inclusion, why do things look so difficult today? The easy answer would be that revolutions are messy and difficult, and that even Eastern Europe in the 1990s, with so much help from the West, had moments of disorder, racism, and Communist retrenchment. A more serious answer would be that people power does not readily translate into political power. After the euphoria of an event as powerful as the Arab Spring, people naturally tend to hope for the best and return to their personal lives. The reality is that citizens may have to return to the streets for many years to come. They must also reengage with the electoral and party-building process, building durable political coalitions that can solve pressing economic issues, bridge deep cultural divides, and represent minority interests.
Come to think of it, those are the same challenges we face in the United States.