January 15th, 2013
03:23 PM ET

Don't lose hope over Arab Spring

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.

More from GPS: Arab Spring knocking on Jordan's door

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.

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Topics: Arab Spring

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soundoff (23 Responses)
  1. JAL

    The stronger we move economic infrastructure to the Arab world the quicker things will progress. The labor machine is...dang it, I don't know what they are doing right now. That is what disheartens me...Big business needs to know their role. They are the primary mechanism to fight poverty on the planet.

    January 15, 2013 at 4:40 pm | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Except for Egypt and Tunisia, the so-called "Arab Spring" appears to be a dismal failure. The brutal regimes in Jordan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are still very much intact while the long and bloody civil war in Syria grinds on and on thanks to both the Arab League and the NATO countries. The immediate future of the Middle East does look quite grim indeed and will be that way as long as the West interferes!

      January 15, 2013 at 7:10 pm | Reply
  2. guest

    With 60-70% literacy, how is Egypt anything like Eastern Europe in the 1980s which had universal literacy? Iran has long been far more educated and developed, and look what happened. And infant mortality and all those other indicators mentioned began to deteriorate after 1989 in the communist world.

    January 15, 2013 at 7:23 pm | Reply
    • Quigley

      Yours is one of most sensible comments I've seen here yet. Thank you, guest.

      January 16, 2013 at 2:31 pm | Reply
    • author

      guest, literacy is a lifetime measure that includes adults long past their school years. Under-30s in Arab states have comparable literacy and higher university attendance than Eastern Europe in 1989. Iran's educated, developed past is a fallacy based on a small elite with good PR. The numbers don't bear it out.

      January 16, 2013 at 3:00 pm | Reply
      • Andrey

        You are talking nonsense: Eastern Europe had univerlas literacy in 1986 and even in 1956 if you like. And it is not going back: it is hardly possible to forget how to write/read or leave your children without school education if you had one yourself. So the article is incorrect and "bending" the truth: as so many from CNN.
        So you either know about Eastern Europe only from CNN, or you are trying to make Arab states look better than they are. I personally think: both.

        January 24, 2013 at 9:48 am |
  3. 100 % ETHIO


    Look up^
    Most of the World population lives are, based on MONKEY-see, monkey-DO.

    The Arab-springs and its on going life styles are, unconsciously copied from "The war on terrorism, 9/11".

    Have we consider all the actual happening and the shadow (copy-cat), that the World experienced from the creatures of Human-being; we do wonder how its happening climaxes are.

    Currently, the shadow of US, covered the entire planet Earth.

    January 16, 2013 at 1:53 am | Reply
    • 100 % ETHIO

      ....in some compute-rs, the Nose[¤] appears under between Eyes(@-@).

      ...do a safety check, your own. Mirrors might work.

      1) In the early Morning, you look....

      2) In the After-Noon, you look...

      3) In the late night, you look...

      So, who are you?

      January 16, 2013 at 2:06 am | Reply
  4. shloime

    shallow and facile "analysis".

    none of the rights issues in egypt, for example, are being addressed, and with the moslem brotherhood firmly in power, they will not be. do not expect women's, or gay, rights in egypt anytime soon. and expect (women's) literacy, and general employment, to start dropping, as of this year's statistics.

    replacing one dictator with another isn't progress, and pretending that the middle east is europe is simply stupid.

    January 16, 2013 at 1:05 pm | Reply
  5. deniz boro

    It is diiscouraging now and than

    January 16, 2013 at 8:56 pm | Reply
  6. j. von hettlingen

    The Arab Spring can be seen as an awakening after years of autocratic governance, and the popular uprising can be compared to that of the Russian Revolution in 1917. We'll see where Russia stands in four years and where the Arab World stands in less than a century.

    January 17, 2013 at 7:32 am | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      please reas: and the posterity will see where the Arab World stands in a century from now.

      January 19, 2013 at 4:17 am | Reply
  7. Milagros

    The so called 'Arab Sping' is wrongly portrayed in the West as a struggle for democracy when it is nothing more than a fight for change in those holding power. These people do not long for democracy or socialism. They want to live like their ancestors with tribal leaders dictating and providing. These Arab nations need to break down the border lines drawn by westerners in the 1940's and return to how things were 1500 years ago. In the short-term (next 50 years?) they should be allowed to continue fighting it out unitl the population is substantially reduced. Hopefully the most militant of them are dead when the dust settles and somewhat reasonable people can pick up the pieces.

    January 19, 2013 at 11:15 am | Reply
  8. deniz boro

    Plans cooked in the election spirited environment of the Western world may not apply to the Eastern side. It is a pitty that so many people died (a huge amound of easterners with a comparably few westerns) to carry on the trend of this BLOOMING TREND. Which gave bloody red fruits.
    Sorry I never thouht it was a humanistic act of the west.to reform"whatsover" It wasn't even an advance on the oil rich countries. There was no land left to be exploited in the short term.
    It was not even an act to find a war footing to find a solution for the global crises.
    It was just a wile act done out of the blue just to be doing something.
    But it also brought about plusses that was not projected.

    January 20, 2013 at 5:28 pm | Reply
  9. deniz boro

    Just go back to your own comments of 2 years ago. This may end up to be a self test on how you are. And do form your sentences with the thought in mind.
    As for me, I am retiring to the arms of nature. Called the Earth Mother, with several bountiful Mother figurnes. I'll live off the land and turn my back to the doings of the mankind. I have been doing this for the last 2 weeks but Alas! the local internet 🙂

    January 20, 2013 at 5:46 pm | Reply
  10. ian

    it's all a fraud guys, 'arab spring' just means CIA, MI6, DGSE intelligence operation...Wake up. No democracy in egypt or Libya and Syria is now in ruins due to civil war. Isn't that nice, doesn't it just give you a warm feeling inside...When does the 'love bombing' of Damascus start...ahhh forget it it's the super bowl soon got to go pick up beer and make some nachos for me and the boy zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz...

    January 21, 2013 at 6:45 am | Reply
    • Victoria

      You disgust me.

      January 21, 2013 at 11:12 pm | Reply
  11. krehator

    Don't matter. The people over there are still radicals anyway.

    January 25, 2013 at 11:49 pm | Reply

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