Protests continue to sweep Egypt, as the world waits to see if President Hosni Mubarak will be forced from office. Those protesters are not alone. The movement leading the demonstrations in Egypt credited inspiration for their actions to the protesters in Tunisia, and a later protest in Yemen credited the Egyptians. What's going on?
According to Foreign Policy, the successful ouster of autocratic president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali struck a chord with many young, angry Arab populations ready to protest. Writes Ellen Knickmeyer, "The unhappy youth in Tunisia are not alone in the Arab world. On Jan. 25, tens of thousands of young Egyptians took to the pavement in Cairo and other major Egyptian cities in the largest challenge to President Hosni Mubarak's regime in a generation. Other crowds have shaken the streets of Sanaa, Algiers, and Amman."
She also notes, "And rather than the Arab world's usual suspects -- bearded Islamists or jaded leftists -- it is young people, angry at the lack of economic opportunity available to them, who are risking their lives going up against police forces." Why is the Middle Eastern youth so angry? Much of the frustration can be traced to extremely high unemployment rates. As Knickmeyer notes, the unemployment rate for young people in North Africa and the Middle East, who make up sixty percent of the area's population, is four times higher than the average rate in the region.
So why these countries, and not poor nations in general? CNN's Fareed Zakaria argues that it's not just the joblessness that sparks unrest in these populations; it's the "frustrated expectations" of a group that feels it should be receiving more from society than it has. He notes that far from failing, the Tunisian economy had been growing at five percent a year, and the Egyptian economy "much faster than that." The dictators ruling these countries were unable to accomodate the increasing demands of the nation's youth. As Zakaria puts it, "It is this revolution of rising expectations that often undoes a dictatorship because it is usually unable to handle the growing demands of its citizens."
What are these "growing demands"? Historian Basheer Nafi of the University of London's Birkbeck College told Al Jazeera today, "My feeling is that we are witnessing a second wave of the Arab liberation movement ... In the first wave, the Arabs liberated themselves from colonial powers and foreign domination. I think now, the very heart of the Arab world, the backbone of the Arab world, is leading the move towards freedom and democracy and human rights." There has been a lot of talk about the effect of Twitter, Facebook, and other social media on the revolutions, but one of the largest effects seems to be the anger incurred when these services are denied. In Tunisia, some commentators called it a "WikiLeaks Revolution" because of the unrest stirred by the government blocking the critical leaked cables. In Egypt, anger has flared over the government's early decisions to block Twitter and Facebook, and to later take the unprecedented step of shutting off the Internet entirely. While social media certainly helped the protestors to organize and communicate, it seems one of their most powerful roles was to serve as a catalyst when they disappeared. As Salman Shaikh of the Brookings Institute points out, "Due to the phenomenal growth of secondary and university-level education, literacy rates among the region's youths have skyrocketed in the past 40 years. The percentage of people living in Arab cities has risen by 50% in the same period." Literate, cosmopolitan people want to communicate. Therefore, argues Shaikh, "Propelled by the young and the digital revolution, citizens will demand nothing less than the right to choose and change their representatives in the future."
The Tunisia riots were set off by a the self-immolation of a 26-year-old man named Mohamed Bouazizi, who killed himself after police seized vegetables he was trying to sell. Michele Penner Angrist, writing in Foreign Affairs, argues that in authoritarian societies, "... people bear an internal cost -- to their sense of autonomy and personal integrity -- of pretending that the status quo is acceptable. And when the cost of pretending becomes intolerably high for a few citizens, sudden and surprising mass protests can erupt." This was the case, she says, with the horrifying suicide of Bouazizi, which other Tunisians felt was too terrible to ignore. After the momentum begins, she writes, "The actions of these few can trigger similar actions by others, who, when they see how many others feel as they do and are willing to show it publicly, join in the opposition. The larger the number of protestors becomes, the more others are willing to join them."
So will these protests continue to spread through the region? It is most likely too soon to tell; after the Tunisian president fled, it was reported that Cairo residents chanted "Mubarak next," but few thought that the massive Egyptian protests would begin so suddenly, and it remains to be seen what the ultimate outcome of the protests will be. However, Marc Lynch in Foreign Policy sees reason for hope. "There are strong reasons to expect most of these regimes to survive, which we shouldn't ignore in a moment of enthusiasm. But we also shouldn't ignore this unmistakable new energy, the revelation of the crumbling foundations of Arab authoritarian regimes, or the continuing surprises which should keep all analysts humble about what might follow," he acknowledges. However, he adds, "The Tunisian example has offered the possibility of success, and models for sustained action by a decentralized network, after a long and dispiriting period of authoritarian retrenchment. Al-Jazeera and the new media have played their role in reshaping political opportunities and narratives, but it is people who have seized those opportunities."
From Yemen to Algeria to Jordan, the BBC reports protests both large and small. The average age in the countries hovers around 25, the jobless rate about 10 percent, and Internet use anywhere from a sixth to a quarter of the population. While it is far from certain, the potential for a "new Arab liberation" movement is entirely possible.