The ACRPS' sixth annual conference on the democratic transition opened in Tunisia on Friday, 22 September. This year's meeting, devoted to the theme of “Arab Youth, the Generational Shift and Democratic Transition” will be held over three days in the resort town of Hamamet, a short distance from the Tunisian capital. In his opening address, HE Dr. Mehdi Mabrouk, the Chief of the Tunisian bureau 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?
Abdelfattah Madhi, an ACRPS researcher who is also the Coordinator of the Democratic Transition series of conferences, began his address with an explanation of the significance of Tunisia as a venue for the conference. As Madhi explained, the Tunisian experience had demonstrated to the world that democracy was possible in an Arab country provided that all political actors within the country were in consensus on the need for democracy and could resolve their political disputes through political means. Madhi also spoke of the significance of this particular conference examining the role of youth, and of the role played by a new generation of Arabs in bringing about genuine democracy in the Arab region.
In closing, Madhi also described the extensive level of interest which the conference attracted across the Arab region, with the organizers receiving an initial 160 research proposals, of which 100 were accepted in principle. Of these, authors submitted 94 completed drafts, out of which a total of 37 presenters were invited to take part in the meeting in Tunisia.
Understanding Arab Youth
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.