#191      22 min 38 sec
Blame it on their youth: Generational forces in an evolving Middle East

Political economist Professor Emma Murphy examines the social conditions that confront young Arabs in the Middle East, and argues that the youth of today will ultimately remake and redefine the region. Presented by Jacky Angus.

"It's perfectly possible to try and find some kind of regionally more authentic version, which will be a mixture perhaps between democratic political processes and formats, but constrained by some elements of social conservatism." -- Prof Emma Murphy




Prof Emma Murphy
Professor Emma Murphy

Emma Murphy is Professor of Political Economy in the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University. Her early work focused on aspects of Palestinian and Israeli politics and political economy (including Israel: Challenges to Identity, Democracy and the State, with Clive Jones, Routledge 2002), and North African political economy (including Economic and Political Change in Tunisia: From Bourguiba to Ben Ali, Macmillan 1999).

More recently she has been working on information and communications technologies in the Arab region, publishing a number of articles addressing related issues of public sphere and political culture. This has included articles on ‘Theorizing ICTs in the Arab World: Informational Capitalism and the Public Sphere’ in International Studies Quarterly, 53, 2009, and ‘The Arab State and (Absent) Civility in New Communicative Spaces’ (Third World Quarterly, 32, 5 2011) and an edited volume (with Mahjoob Zweiri 2011) on ‘The New Arab Media: Technology, Image and Perception’.

She also recently published The International Politics of the Red Sea (with Anoush Ehteshami, Routledge 2011), and is currently working on the themes of Arab Youth Politics, and Food Politics in the Middle East.

She is co-editor of the Thompson ranked journal Mediterranean Politics, and a member of the Area Studies Research Excellence Framework Panel. She is also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and an Academician of the Academy of Social Sciences.

Emma presented at the Middle East In Revolt: the First Anniversary conference held at the University of Melbourne in March 2012. This conference was organized by Freedom House and the University of Melbourne

Credits

Host: Jacky Angus
Producers: Kelvin Param, Eric van Bemmel
Audio Engineers: Kelvin Param and Gavin Nebauer
Voiceover: Nerissa Hannink
Series Creators: Eric van Bemmel and Kelvin Param

View Tags  click a tag to find other episodes associated with it.

 Download mp3 (20.7 MB)

VOICEOVER 
Welcome to Up Close, the research talk show from the University of Melbourne, Australia. 

JACKY ANGUS 
I'm Jacky Angus. Thanks for joining us. How significant is it that many of the uprisings of the Arab Spring of 2011 and 2012 appear to be led by young activists? After all, revolutions, by their very nature tend to attract the young and ardent. For Professor Emma Murphy, a specialist in international relations from Durham University, this is a more complex issue than first appears. She argues that in order to understand what's going on in the Middle East today, youth as a research category needs more careful attention from researchers. Welcome to Up Close, Professor Emma Murphy.

EMMA MURPHY
Thank you very much. It's a pleasure to be here.

JACKY ANGUS
Now why hasn’t the research literature adequately addressed the phenomena of Arab youth today and why do you think this is important?

EMMA MURPHY
Well there has been quite a lot of work done on Arab youth, but it tends to be done from very specific disciplinary perspectives and it hasn’t really been engaging with their role in the Arab Spring in a serious way. There's a lot of popular attention given in the media to waves of young people filling the streets to the use of technologies which are associated with the youth, like Facebook. But, though it hasn't been a real effort to try and understand exactly how we should understand what being young means, and what youth as a social category really mean in this context.

JACKY ANGUS
Well what are the main characteristics of the current cohort of Arab activists that help explain these various revolts, the specific conditions in the various countries?

EMMA MURPHY
Well it's interesting you ask about activists because really the major feature of all of this is the sheer scale of the numbers going out onto the streets and the connection between this broad swathe of young people and the activists, if you like, the top of the pinnacle of the actions that they're taking. I think that's the first characteristic. It's the sheer scale of this. At the moment about 60 per cent of Arab populations are under the age of 29, which means that a very large  part of the population are sharing common experiences of feeling that their traditional society is not keeping up with their life styles or what they would chose as lifestyles. Their values, what they would select as values. So I think that sheer scale is the first characteristic. The second is those shared experiences, which are very much to do with unemployment. Over half of some populations, when it comes to young people, area actually unemployed, which is just an extraordinary level of unemployment. Most of these young people have got what we would consider to be fairly significant levels of education. We have very high numbers of graduates, university graduates, who are unemployed. In fact the highest numbers in the world of university graduate who are unemployed. So they have all those dashed expectations and hopes and aspirations, and I think those are really common characteristics.

JACKY ANGUS
Can the rapid spread of the recent political revolts be largely attributed to these factors or is there something else in there as well?

EMMA MURPHY
I think the rapid spread - nobody really understands why it's happened now or how it has spread from one country to another, quite as rapidly as it has. But the same conditions, by and large, existed in a number of Arab countries. Youth unemployment, other economic problems, most significant of all, the lack of political freedom, of course, existed in Libya, in Egypt, in Tunisia, in Syria. Bahrain is slightly different because it has a very large sectarian issue at the heart of it. But it still suffered from political problems, serious political authoritarianism and large scale economic discrimination against the Shia part of the population. So these problems are shared, and I think that explains why, when one group see the next group next door, managing to break free of the political authoritarianism, then they take up arms as well, not literally take up arms but…

JACKY ANGUS
Yeah, because what actually what was surprising is that not many arms were involved until later on in the fracas in most of those countries.

EMMA MURPHY
Well I think that's because populations didn’t have access to weapons. Also because the nature of the uprising was very much one of civil disobedience and civil protest, not a choice to take up arms against regimes. The conditions were very different. In Tunisia, for example, at the beginning, the army refused to take up arms against the population, even when the President specifically instructed the Commander in Chief to do so. So of the army is not turning weapons on you, then the only weapons that are being used are the small weapons which are being used by security forces, the Mukhabarat, which was still working for Ben Ali. In Egypt it was pretty much similar, although there was slightly more violence on the part of the regime. But of course, in Libya, the regime went full out with its armed forces against its own population. And then the decision for protesters is much harder. It's much harder not to take up weapons if you can find them and if you can get supplied by them. That was also a big issue, who was pushing weapons into Libya?

JACKY ANGUS
I wonder if we could look at a bit more, to the lives of these young people. You've mentioned that some of them are unemployed - or a large majority - that they're young, that they’re in touch with a lot of the social media. What about their actual lives? I mean, if they don’t have jobs, it means they don’t have money, it means they live at home, presumably, with their parents, which is a traditional sort of way. They can't get married. Can you tell me what it must be like to be a young person who's frustrated politically and every other way, in the Middle East?

EMMA MURPHY
Well I think it's quite visible. You can see it for yourself. If you go down the main Bourguiba Street in Tunis or if you walk through the streets in Cairo, you'll see swathes of particularly young men, just sitting at café tables or by the side of the street on chairs. They have nothing to do. They are frustrated. They are bored. They are really noticeable. To be honest it can be quite intimidating, just the sheer numbers of young, particularly men, on the streets. For girls, it's much harder because there is still a social convention that would inhibit many girls from taking their place in that public arena, so they would just be stuck at home, going to visit friends or of course, going to internet cafes and trying to log on and see what's going on in the rest of the world. There's a lot of youth culture, popular culture, which expresses this. It can be in musical forms, rap and rai music, football and football chanting often expresses this frustration; efforts to migrate. About a third of young people in some surveys have actually expressed their desire to emigrate permanently from their Arab country of residence. You can see it in the kind of Facebook activity that they take part in. There was a very famous blog by a young Egyptian woman. Well she wasn’t that young; she was in her 30s. It was all about trying to get married. It seems a bit frivolous that she was just blogging about her efforts to meet the right man or how she was going to choose him. But actually it was a real political statement about the possibilities and opportunities that just don't exist for young people to go out and engage in the kind of activities, go to work, maybe meet somebody there. It's all still very socially conservative. Yet, young men are not able to get married for precisely the same reasons. They don’t have an income; they still depend on their mother to give them cigarette money. I mean, if you’re a man in your early 30s and you still need your parents to provide you with cigarette money or the money to pay for your one cup of coffee while you go out and sit with your friends in the street, with nothing to do all day. I think these things are fairly evident in the daily life when you go there.

JACKY ANGUS
One of the interesting things was that the young women came out onto the streets in large numbers to support the revolutions, particularly in Egypt, I understand. Well that's an interesting development, isn’t it?

EMMA MURPHY
Well women played quite a considerable role in the nationalist struggles back on the 1930s and 40s and 50s. And Palestinian woman have always been very active in their own political struggles. So in some ways it is surprising, simply because one expects women to have a more conservative role. But actually when you think of how many of those women are highly educated now, they too have high expectations, which have been dashed by the lack of opportunities and by a general social retrenchment by their parents' generation, as a way of protecting society when there are so many economic and political hardships. So I don't think it's that surprising that women are out on the street. I think what is more interesting is what happens to women now, once the political regimes have fallen.

JACKY ANGUS
Yeah. I'm Jacky Angus and I'm talking to a political economist, Professor Emma Murphy from Durham University. We’re talking about Arab young people and the uprisings of 2011 and 2012. Now despite their idealism and the pro-democracy rhetoric of a lot of these young people, the majority of them have never actually experienced liberal democracy. They've grown up in, as you say, in an authoritarian climate and mostly very traditional Muslim culture. So how likely is it that they'll be able to forge a democratic civil society?

EMMA MURPHY
Well I think there are large numbers of them. Not all, by any means, but large numbers who have had sufficient access to news and information about what’s going on in other parts of the world, who have maybe travelled. Certainly they are educated, that they're perhaps a bit more sophisticated than we give them credit for, and more able to define for themselves what they mean by democracy. Of course, one of the problems is, it's one thing to know what you want. It's another thing to be able to actually operationalise that, especially when there are components in your society which very definitely don't want liberal democracy. I think it's going to be a learning process, that process of actually making it work. It probably won't end up looking quite like the liberal democracy that you have in Europe, if they do manage to manifest some form of democracy. But it's perfectly possible to try and find some kind of regionally more authentic version, which will be a mixture perhaps between democratic political processes and formats, but constrained by some elements of social conservatism.

JACKY ANGUS
Yes, I was thinking of the social conservatism involved in resisting freedom of religion and sexual equality, two very important points that obviously are very pre-eminent in Egypt today.

EMMA MURPHY
Yeah. Well this is going to be a different struggle in different countries. You know in Tunisia, 98 per cent of the population come from the same Muslim sector, Sunni Islam, whereas in Egypt you have a very large minority who are Coptic, not Muslim at all. Even among the Muslim population you have some differentiation. So the discussions and debates about how to manifest those in the political systems are going to be different in different counties, I think. And we have yet to see how that works out.

JACKY ANGUS
So you think that the political vision that they have would sustain this Facebook generation? It occurs to me that of course not all the young people have access to internet and Facebook… 

EMMA MURPHY
Absolutely.

JACKY ANGUS
…and so on and they rely still on their mobiles. How do you see this panning out across the Middle East, in terms of young people who really can't always get on the net, but rely on their friends perhaps?

EMMA MURPHY
I think the use of the internet has perhaps been a bit overstated. It certainly played a role, but for large parts of the uprisings on question, the internet was actually not available. Even the mobile phone systems were down. You need more than the internet or Facebook or a mobile phone to get people onto streets, to take the risk of standing up to policemen or soldiers with guns. You certainly need more than the internet and Facebook and mobile phones to actually create a political process thereafter.

JACKY ANGUS
Yes.

EMMA MURPHY
So I wouldn't want to overstate it. And of course, the level of access is very different in different countries. So in Yemen, for example, less than four per cent of the population have access to the internet, whereas in Tunisia, about 40 per cent of the population are on Facebook. So, you know, there is a massive differentiation there, in the role that it plays, how it's manifested itself and what you can do with it after you've brought down a regime. So I wouldn’t want to overstate it and I also wouldn’t say that their understanding of democracy is a virtual democracy. And I don't think they’re particularly idealist about it, either. I think they're very well attuned to the problems and difficulties that they're going to have in creating something that is acceptable, which meets the demands for political freedom, which the majority, if not everybody, has. Even the Islamists want political freedom with something that matches their own local national and sub national identities, and which they feel comfortable with.

JACKY ANGUS
It sounds a tall order. I'm thinking particularly of the conflicts that'll necessarily arise between perhaps this young cohort that you speak of and some of the old, nationalist diehards - the Nasserists in Egypt, for example - who have experienced revolution but have a very different idea of how to implement reform and how to bring about pluralism. Some of them are pretty ambivalent about letting young people have too much power. Would that be a fair assumption?

EMMA MURPHY
Absolutely, it's a fair assumption. But again, it works out in different ways in different countries. In Tunisia the older generation managed the process up until the elections. There are still some of the older generation of politicians who are taking prominent roles in the new government. But at the same time, the way the political process has worked its way through has brought new generations into politics, into the operational side of politics. And there's certainly a replacement of the elite with younger figures, whereas I Egypt, obviously as long as the military SCAF is effectively in power, it's holding that tied back. The Muslim Brotherhood has very much tried to keep the older generation in power and keep the younger generation controlled. But even there, the younger generation are going their own ways, setting up their own political parties, in some cases outside of the Muslim Brotherhood's main control. So I don't think they can - they can't fully contain this wave for very long. They're going to have to give way. When we talk about young people, we’re really talking about people up until they're 40s, because your life is still effectively the life of a young person 'til a lot later in the Arab world than it is maybe in other countries, precisely because if these economic and social constraints.

JACKY ANGUS
So does this apply even to a society that's had a long standing, tribal approach to governance, like Libya, for example?

EMMA MURPHY
I think this is one of the big unknowns, but it's certainly true that in Libya - and again, we’re down to the specifics of individual countries here - possibly in Yemen as well, tribes continue to play a very significant role at the level of society. Precisely because the institutions of government were so weak and so, in Libya, effectively absent. And tribe does operate on a patrimonial basis where age matters and seniority matters. But at the moment you can see that because the government is new and very weak and nobody's quite worked out what's going to happen. But once they actually have to create political structures, electoral processes, democratic political parties, all the things that normally they’re aspiring to, or that the young people are certainly aspiring to. That’s going to challenge those age related structures very much. Probably young people will emerge at the forefront of setting those structures up, and trying to make them work, precisely because they offer the alternative to the old tribal systems.

JACKY ANGUS
That means that presumably political education is going to be very much at the forefront in these areas.

EMMA MURPHY
Absolutely. Absolutely. 

JACKY ANGUS
I'm Jacky Angus and I'm talking to political economist Professor Emma Murphy from Durham University. We're discussing Arab young people and the uprisings of 2011 and 2012. Now in the West, as we know, there's a general mistrust of politicians and that may well be healthy, but it's certainly an increasing disillusionment with democracy. Now is that likely to affect Arab youth, do you think, because at the moment, they're fairly idealistic about what politics and politicians can achieve?

EMMA MURPHY
I think there's no respect for conventional politics at all. What they want is a new form of politics and a new form of politician. But I don't think they’re naïve or over idealistic, they're certainly not ideological. I think they have pretty clear ideas about what they want. I’m not sure they're quite so clear about how they’re going to get there. I think certain activist groups, which are leading the youth wave, and most clearly articulating youth aspirations, are very connected in with transnational and sometimes international youth movements and groups, which discuss issues like democracy, and what the role of a politician is and how politicians should be held to account. So they do have some quite developed ideas on this. Again, the problem is going to be putting it into place. I think as young people work their way through this, yes there'll be a certain amount of cynicism, but compared to what they've had in the past, I think they have the will and the energy to try and make something better.

JACKY ANGUS
Now given that there's a diversity amongst youth, it's not sort of monolithic, and there are sort of Islamist elements in there, as you've pointed out. How likely is it that a more authentic - in a religious sense, authentic - version of democracy will emerge, one that takes account of the key elements of say Muslim governments? 

EMMA MURPHY
I think it's going to be a question of negotiating a whole series of compromises that are not so much about just religion but about a wider understanding of local identities, and how those can be expressed in political structures. When, for example, one looks at the vote in Tunisia or the vote in Egypt, where the Islamists did better than people actually predicted, I think, in both countries. Certainly in Egypt, the Salafists on the extremer end of political Islam, did better. We're still trying to really understand how they did so well. I think part of it is to do with the fact that they were the best organised of all of the political groups. Part of it is that they had brand recognition. Part of it is that they were considered credible because they had led the struggles against the previous regimes, and they had taken the blows, and been in prison and they had sort of credibility. But part of it, I think, is also that they express and identity and aspects of identity that has been repressed for an awful long time by regimes which have been stridently secular and which have almost imposed secular cultural codes, for example, banning the wearing of Islamic dress - even very minor versions of Islamic dress. I think this is something of a sort of fight back of local identity, feeling we have to be free to express the people we are. And it's not necessarily about we’re all Islamic, in favour of an Islamic state, we don’t all want Sharia. We just want to be free to be Muslims in ways that we haven’t been allowed to before. So I think it's going to take time for all of these things to be negotiated, to settle down a bit and for us to see what the final picture would look like. But I think it’s more about a traditional, local identity that is also compatible with modern identities.

JACKY ANGUS
Yes. What you've just said is very interesting and I'm thinking of Turkey and its version of Islamic government. Do you think that Turkey is going to represent a model to be followed by some of these countries that are now finding their way, in terms of an authentic democracy?

EMMA MURPHY
In some ways, yes it does. I think both the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and the Tunisian Nahda Party would like to propose to the outside world they could replicate some version of the Turkish model. I’m not sure how much that is actually for international consumption because Turkey has kept very good relationships with America, for example, with the West overall and has managed to sort of portray itself as a credible player on the international scene, whilst being a Muslim state with a very distinct Muslim identity. Also, the Turkish model is one of economic success, by and large. So it’s quite good to propose to your own domestic populations that if you have this very moderate Islamic government, you can also replicate economic success after decades of not such good performance. And in some case, it's pretty dismal performance. But in reality, I think they’re also very aware that Turkey is not Arab, and the Arab-ness is a very strong part of their own identities. Within that, Egyptian-ness or Tunisian-ness or Yemeni-ness…

JACKY ANGUS
Yes.

EMMA MURPHY
I think they're very keen to stress their own local identities as well. So it’s a little bit ambiguous. It's a convenient model to talk about right now, but with a few caveats, I think. And they certainly don't want any kind of neo-Ottomanist Turkey trying to spread its influence around the region on the back of all of this.

JACKY ANGUS
Thank you very much indeed, Emma Murphy. 

EMMA MURPHY
My pleasure.

JACKY ANGUS
That was political economist, Professor Emma Murphy from Durham University. Relevant links, a full transcript and more information on this episode can be found at our website at upclose.unimelb.edu.au. Up Close is a production of the University of Melbourne, Australia. Our producers for this episode were Kelvin Param and Eric van Bemmel, with audio engineering by Gavin Nebauer, Up Close is created by Eric van Bemmel and Kelvin Param. I’m Jacky Angus. Until next time, goodbye.

VOICEOVER
You've been listening to Up Close. We’re also on Twitter and Facebook. For more info visit upclose.unimelb.edu.au. Copyright 2012, the University of Melbourne.


show transcript | print transcript | download pdf