Digital Youth, Arab Revolution and the Challenge of Work

The revolutionary spirit in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya was stirring in virtual communities before it spilled out to a wider spectrum of society. In each country the trigger for revolution and determination to confront the status quo and replace the leadership, was the wrenching story of a fellow citizen.

In Tunisia 26 year old Mohammed Bouazizi, dubbed “the father of Arab revolution,” (1) set himself on fire on the sidewalk in front of the local municipal building where he sought, but never received, justice. Bouazizi, who worked in the informal economy as a fruit and vegetable vendor since he was a teen, was continuously harassed, fined, and beaten by police officers including a female officer. One day he simply could not take it any longer.

In Egypt Khaled Said, a 28 year old citizen journalist from Alexandria who was trying to expose police corruption, was dragged out of an internet café by two police officers and allegedly brutally beaten to death in view of witnesses. The “Day of Rage” on January 25, 2011which triggered the Egyptian revolution, originated from the Facebook page, “We are all Khaled Said.”

In Libya the street protests, which are ongoing and resulting in terrible bloodshed, began in Benghazi on 15 February with the news of the arrest of human rights lawyer, Fethi Terbil. In all cases the tipping point for what would become a mass broad based revolution was the spread of a compelling story of the humiliation, abuse, and flagrant flouting of rights of a fellow citizen. In other words, issues of civic injustice, not economic injustice and labor insecurity, arguably just as great social calamities, have been the issues that have unified broad swathes of the population.

Digitally savvy youths who  have acted as a generational collectivity and society’s conscience, have taken an uncompromising stand against  injustice, corrupton and abuse of power. (3) The mass upheavels in not only Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya but also in Morocco, Algeria, Bahrain, Yemen, Jordan and Iraq, are indicative of a democratic ethos sweeping the region. Aided by tools of new media and digital communication tools, youth cultures throughout the Arab, Persian and Muslim-majority societies are developing alternative notions and practices of citizenship. (Foreign-based Libyan youth, for instance, are using Twitter to drum up international support for the protestors inside their country of origin).

The internet generation (4) has a very firm grip on rights, civic liberties and democratic accountability. In some instances youths are forging important alliances with Labor; the 6 of April youth movement that formed in 2008 to support the textile workers of El-Mahalla El-Kubra is a prime example of this. But for the most part on-line communities, activist coalitions, and, more recently, citizens joining the revolutionary movements, are showing greater adeptness at articulating a way forward for civic and political rights, and are on more shaky footing when it comes to economic rights, fair labor practices, and distributive justice.

To be sure there has been a strong labor presence in Egypt’s revolutionary movement. Workers converged on Tahrir Square and other places throughout the country to clamor for better pay and working conditions; the largest union called for a general strike. Pressure is being brought to bear on the military caretaker government in Egypt not only so that it does not renege on its promise of a smooth transition to civilian rule but that it ensures a much more democratically equitable economic system.

Since Mubarak stepped down and parliament was dissolved on February 11, the army has been heavy handed on those groups who are holding out, particularly workers. They are being told to go home, get back to work, get the economy churning again. But they are holding their ground. Earlier on around 4000 workers from the Asiut (Upper Egypt) cement company staged a sit in to demand permanent contracts, a profit-sharing system and an end to the daily-wage system of remuneration for work (14/2/2011). On Feb 25 labor leaders in Egypt established the “Coalition of the 25 January Revolution Workers”. But it remains to be seen how the military will respond to a mobilized and organized force and if youth will join workers in larger numbers (larger than 6 of April movement). The two groups, laborers and educated youth, have potentially much to gain in forging a strong coalition on labor issues and workers rights.

Youth unemployment and underemployment in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) are among the highest in the world. Unemployment looms somewhere around 25%; only Sub-Saharan Africa has higher rates. Unemployment rates are highest among educated youth with high school and university diplomas and even higher for females.  Among youth who find employment, the overwhelming majority of them labor in insecure, very precarious circumstances with no fixed contract, benefits, and unlivable salaries. Their inability to secure a livelihood prolongs their dependence on parents, their ability to marry and form families, and also pushes them, especially males, into second and third jobs.  High school and college graduates, thus, have a great deal in common with their less educated  laboring counterparts when it comes to the insecurities of the job market and degradation of labor rights in a period of late neoliberalism. This is symptomatic of an ever expanding bifurcated working class comprising those with high levels of education who have become déclassé` and those with little or no formally acquired skills whatsoever – a characteristic of societies elsewhere, including Europe, but writ large in the Southern Mediterranean.

Most of the countries in the region undergoing upheaval are characterized by huge disparities in wealth and unemployment. Issues concerning economic engagement and distribution are at the heart of the struggles involved in most cases, certainly in the Tunisian and Egyptian cases. It remains to be seen whether the democratic changes that are being promised will be deep rooted or simply serve as a cosmetic exercise with other members of the ruling oligarchy simply replacing the man (the rulers have invariably been men) at the helm. There already have been protests in Tunisia in this regard, and the most recent struggles in Egypt do not augur well.

The call is for an economy that incorporates large amounts of youth in meaningful employment and which provides greater and meaningful educational expansion at all levels.  This economy must be complemented by a greater democratic politics of redistribution that is believed to be capable of addressing the country’s deep rooted social and economic inequalities. One also wonders whether this is a digitally mediated revolution intended to allow a greater middle class sector, extending beyond the present oligarchy, to gain a greater share of the cake. In short, is a country like Egypt having its version of a bourgeois revolution?

In a conversation with Antonio Dall’Olio, the Director of Pax Christi International (Italy), a Cairo Professor referred to the fact that the Islamic world lacked a ‘French revolution’ as well as a Vatican Council II which ushered in a process of renewal in the western world. (5) Is the former occurring right now in specific Arab contexts such as the Egyptian one? To what extend would this larger bourgeoisie connect with the aspirations of a larger social sector including that expanding precariously-living working class that incorporates people with skills and qualifications which were formerly the  staple of the middle class, albeit perhaps the petit bourgeoisie?

These economic and social considerations, however, raise further questions: How is digital technology enabling youths to acquire skills for greater participation in a broader and more meaningful labor market? And more to the point, will this generation use their skills for political mobilization and revolutionary change to work in the service of work and redistributive justice?

So while these revolutions pose questions regarding the use of the digitally mediated technology for revolutionary purposes and how digital networking can lead to street and cross-border mobilization, they also raise issues about what the economic future holds in the transition and post-transition contexts. The economic factor is not to be underplayed in these situations given the marginalization of the many for the lavish benefits of the few, for the most part, the traditionally western backed oligarchy (certainly in Egypt and Tunisia); members of the ruling families have, alas, pandered successfully to the whims of even progressive western organizations such as the International Council for Adult Education which made Susanne Mubarak Honorary President for 1994-1998, as period issues of its otherwise very progressive and social justice-oriented journal Convergence indicated!

What alternative economic policies are necessary to accommodate these skills? What alternative proposals are being put forward for a different economic approach that counters the situation of mass unemployment among youth in the area? What role does digital technology play in this regard? Is the increase in use of digital technology contributing to a further brain drain among youth? On the contrary, would a greater democratic liberalization of the country lead to a re-draining of digitally savvy Arab youth who can now work from the comfort of their home in Egypt? They would thus eschew the kind of post-9/11 anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiments prevailing in the countries to which they emigrated. Could the democratization of Arab states lead to more digitally mediated cross-border economic ventures involving youths of different Arab countries? We would add that these economic ventures can complement the political digitally mediated ones which, it has been argued, gave rise to a veritable Pan-Arab youth movement. And finally, how does one bridge digital inequality with these economic considerations in mind?

Answers to these questions can only emerge gradually as events in this long struggle for democratic and economic renewal in the Arab world continue to unfold, alas at a huge cost in terms of human lives. The revolution has just started and it remains to be seen whether it will be brought to the political conclusion augured by those who took to the streets and shed their blood in the process. As if this is not worrying enough, one wonders what the future holds beyond the change in power structure in terms of addressing important economic issues and ending the cycle of poverty in which many people in the region find themselves. This is where some of the most formally educated and experienced persons, many of whom appearing on the media abroad, will need to step up to the plate.

It is also imperative that foreign imperialist interests must be kept in check. The situations differ from country to country, as well as the resources available. Tunisia has organized political parties which were outlawed by the ousted leader. Others need time to get the representative democratic act together, characterised by ‘redistributive justice’.

Perhaps a short term –and we insist ‘short term’- national ‘technical’ government, as was often the case in Italy (the Dini and Amato governments), might have to be formed to set the process of national social and economic reconstruction in place, while the foundation for a long term democratic system is laid. Striking the balance between different tribal and societal interests is key in certain contexts both for democratic and economic renewal. Striking a balance between democratic and economic reconstruction will also be key further down the road.  Ousting from power, as a result of mass unemployment and economic marginalization, was ultimately that which crooked a beckoning finger to the autocratic leaders in Egypt and Tunisia.


(1) See http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/jan/29/egypt-mubarak-tunisia-palestine.

(2) See  Linda Herrera. “Egypt’s Revolution 2.0: The Facebook Factor” in Jadaliyya. February 12, 2011. http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/612/egypts-revolution-2.0_the-facebook-factor

(3) See the many contributions to Linda Herrera and Asef Bayat (eds.) (2010), Being young and Muslim. New Cultural Politics in the Global South and North, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

(4) See footnote 17 in Peter Mayo (2007), ‘Gramsci, The Southern Question and the Mediterranean’ in Mediterranean Journal of Educational Studies, Vol. 1, No. 2, pp. 1-17. Available free online: http://www.um.edu.mt/__data/assets/pdf_file/0004/39379/24_MJES_1222007.pdf Reproduced from an interview with Dall’Olio by Michael Grech in his book, Knisja tat-Triq (Street Church), Malta, 2006.

LINDA HERRERA is Associate Professor in the Department of Education  Policy, Organization and Leadership at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is a social anthropologist with regional specialization in the Middle East and North Africa. Her work examines the intersection between education and learning as  local practice and global process.  In the past five years she has  been compiling learning biographies of Arab youth to understand how they are learning citizenship dispositions and doing politics in a digital era.  Her publications include: with Asef Bayat (Eds. 2010) Being Young and Muslim: New Cultural Politics in the Global South and North. New York: Oxford University Press; with Carlos Alberto Torres (Eds. 2006) Cultures of Arab Schooling: Critical Ethnographies from Egypt. New York: State University of New York Press; (2008) “Education and Empire: Democratic Reform in the Arab World?” International Journal of Educational Reform. 17(4): 355-574. http://campus.iss.nl/~herrera/empire.pdfications

PETER MAYO is Professor in sociology of education and adult education as well as Head, Department of Education Studies, University of Malta. His books include gramsci, Freire and Adult Education (Zed Books, 1999), subsequently republished in five languages, Liberating Praxis (Praeger, 2004; Sense, 2008) which won a 2005 Critics Choice Award, American Educational Studies Association, Learning and Social Difference (with Carmel Borg, Paradigm, 2006) and Public Intellectuals, Radical Democracy and Social Movements. A Book of Interviews (with Carmel Borg, Peter Lang 2007). He also edited Education in Small States (Routledge, 2010) and gramsci and Educational Thought (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010). He is a former President of the Mediterranean Society of Comparative Education and is co-series editor of (with Antonia Darder and Anne Hudson) of the Palgrave-Macmillan book series, ‘Postcolonial Studies in Education’ and series editor of Sense book series ‘International Issues in Adult Education’.


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