Under the them of "Arab Youth, the Generational Shift and Democratic Transition", the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies hosted the sixth conference on Democratic Transition, during 22-24 September 2017 in Hamamat, Tunisia.

In his opening address, HE Dr. Mehdi Mabrouk, the Chief of the Tunisian Branch of the ACRPS, spoke of the vital role played by the youth in the Arab Spring. Mabrouk then went on to give an overview of the setbacks suffered by the activists who led a wave of revolutionary change in the Arab region beginning in 2011. Before passing the stage on to the next speaker, Mabrouk posed a question: could the political conflict over democratization in the Arab region be understood through the prism of a generational conflict?

Understanding Arab Youth

Speakers on the first panel of the opening day.
The first session was dedicated to a number of presentations discussing the conceptual underpinnings of the generation. Almanji Alzaidi, spekaing first, offered an overview of the concept of a generation and its applicability to the sociology of youth. Alzaidi made clear that a generation remained a “flexible” concept within the social sciences, and criticized those who were too willing to adopt its literal, quasi-biological definition. Alzaidi also described the importance of distinguishing between various types of generation and of generational sub-units. Alzaidi also addressed several theoretical issues related to the concept of a generation, making clear his opinion that a generation could only be understood in the context of wider societal changes. In terms of political science, the concept of there being a “political generation” suggested the existence of a cohort of individuals who shared a given political consciousness, and that they would be prepared to create political change given the right circumstances and the appropriate foundational event. Alzaidi also made clear that the use of the concept of a generation and of generational change only recently became a point of concern for Arab social scientists, and that these terms continued to have their own connotations, set out in moral and literary terms and that these failed to convey the reality of struggle and conflict which was otherwise a part of the generational shift.

The next speaker on the panel was Ahmed Al Tuhami Abdelhay, whose paper argued that generational shifts led not only to changes in political participation, but also held out the conceptual possibility of understanding wider political development and also democratic transition. Abdelhay also made clear that a generational shifts could in their turn be viewed as a reaction to the prevailing political orders which in turn helped to shape the political consciousness of a “political generation” but that these might not necessarily, in the end, lead to a more democratic or more politically engaged new generation.

Abdelhay was followed by Jaber Algafsi, whose paper argued that a “political generation” was not necessarily defined by a similarity of ages, but could be brought together by social and political factors which created a “youth ideology” and which created a shared awareness of that ideology and its importance to a specific issue or group of issues. Algafsi pointed out how these concepts could be used to better understand the Tunisian case, where interconnections across an entire generation compensated for the lack of a rigid apparatus of a political party, whichw ould have been the mainstay of political parties. Algafsi also pointed to the “youth ideology” of Tunisia, and the widespread sense of egalitarianism among its people, and particularly amongst young Tunisians.

An open question-and-answer session which followed the three speakers focused on a number of specific topics, including the concept of a generation and of the “digital generation” as well as “social capital”. Speakers also pointed out the huge accomplishments of Arab youth, making clear that anybody seeking to marginalize the young in Arab countries today. Participants in the first day of sessions continued to explore the question of Arab youth, and its relation to wider democratization.

The first panel on this second day was moderated by ACRPS researcher Abdelfattah Madhy and dealt with the theme of “Islamist Youth: Political Orientation”. Mahmoud Abdelhafeez, speaking on that panel, used his presentation to argue that repression and security measures aimed at curbing political involvement by young Islamists were futile. Instead, argued Abdelhafeez, these measures simply allowed for a series of persistent political crises. Abdelhafeez also discussed the battle between Islamist youth and the state authorities across the region for dominance over nationalist rhetoric, in which Arab governments resorted to portraying any group clamoring for expanded political or economic rights as traitors to the nation. 

Abdelhafeez proceeded Mohammed Juweili, whose paper examined how Tunisian youth related to the Salafist ideology, particularly with regard to questions of faith, ideological belief and violence. Juweili, whose work was based on a field study surveying 1,200 young Tunisians between 18 and 30 years of age in the Governorate of Greater Tunis. Juweili reported the surprising result that 30% of young Tunisians included in his study stated that the Salafist conception of religious faith served their religious needs, while most of the respondents expressed the view that Salafism should not be a political force in their country. Similarly unexpectedly, however, more than 50% of Tunisian respondents expressed their acceptance of young girls wearing the hijab at primary schools and kindergartens. Juweili concluded that Salafism was successful in making inroads among young Tunisians because of its ability to strengthen social bonds. Juweili also expressed the view that the strength of Salafism among young Tunisians was due in part to the frailty of socializing institutions within the Tunisian state, which would have otherwise strengthened public confidence in the country’s secular ethos.

Abdelhafeez was followed on the panel by Egyptian scholar Yasser Fathy Mohammed, whose paper focused on the political orientation of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and specifically on the politicization of young Brotherhood members at Egyptian universities. Mohammed covered a number of issues, including a widely reported divergence between the official stance of the Muslim Brotherhood and its youth wing, explaining that the distinctions between these two groups developed gradually.

A second panel focused on Tunisian youth. The first speaker, Tunis-based Shaker Alhoukeen, focused on the duality of “youth” and “revolution” and on the role played by young Tunisians in the country’s revolution. Alhoukeen came to the conclusion that the generational shift alone could not explain the Tunisian revolution and, indeed, that such an approach could not produce a clear and coherent understanding of the Tunisian revolution. He concluded that, while young Tunisians played a clear role in the rebellion, attempts to depict Tunisia’s 2011 revolution as a “youth movement” were as misguided as attempts to write the youth out of the narrative of the Tunisian revolution.

ACRPS researchers Hamzeh Almoustafa and Sofia Hanezla closed this second panel with their joint paper covering the political conciliations which defined post-revolutionary Tunisia. Almoustafa argued that when political conciliations took place between traditional political blocs it froze out new forces from participating fully in the country’s political life, effectively creating a dormant political scene. Hanezla added that the marginalization of Tunisian youth, and the failure to address their economic, security and political concerns, also failed to benefit Tunisian political parties.

Youth and Revolution

Speaking on the first panel of the final day, Mohammed Belrached elaborated that the lack of political participation on the part of Arab youth was now a defining feature of the regional political landscape. This applied, said Belrached, even to Tunisia—despite the fact that Tunisian had led the country to revolution only a few years ago. Another speaker on the panel, Elhadi Bouwachma, focused in his paper on the case of Algerian youth whose country, he said, had become inhospitable to the young, forcing them to migrate or driving them into violence and anti-social behavior. This, the speaker said, served to intensify feelings of alienation on the part of Algerian youth and to estrange them from the authorities of their country. Speaking on the experience on another region entirely, Faisal Alhassan Mahboub discussed the role of youth in political transition in Yemen between 2011 and 2015. Mahboub used his intervention to highlight a few of the accomplishments of Yemeni youth activists, including their successful efforts, alongside other political and social forces, to restructure the Yemeni military, and to displace the sons of deposed president Ali Abdullah Saleh from positions of influence in the state apparatus, before the path to democratic transition in Yemen was sidelined. Finally, Farah Ramzi gave a presentation on the political attitudes of political science students at Cairo University. Ramzi’s paper covered the political involvement of the students in her cohort, and specifically their involvement in any protests.

Mohammed Foubar was the first speaker on the second panel of the final day. Foubar offered a sociological reading of Moroccan state policies towards the country’s youth, and the government’s inability to involve the youth in the political process, despite the many and varied talents of young Moroccans. Foubar pointed to the Arab-wide revolutionary momentum of 2011 which he credited with giving rise to a Moroccan youth movement which also precipitated constitutional reform and governmental plans to better integrate the country’s youth in political decision-making, although the latter ultimately did not come to fruition.

Rahma Bensulieman offered a parallel, sociological reading of the Tunisian youth movement and young Tunisians’ approach to questions of transitional justice. Bensulieman reiterated the point that the involvement of Tunisian youth in the country’s peaceful revolution was unguided by any political leadership or formal structures. According to her, the lack of formal hierarchies in the Tunisian revolution, and its lack of a deliberate planning, led to the supremacy of the collective among the revolutionaries. This served to unify the goals and harmonize efforts by the activists.

Finally, Shadwa Ramadan spoke of the sexual harassment/sexual violence as well as other forms of exclusion to which Egyptian women activists were subjected during both the period of rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and of former president Mohammed Morsi. Ramadan argued that Egyptian women, including women activists who took part in the revolution, never attained the level of political participation which the extent of their participation in the revolution warranted.