October 2022Analysis

In the Footsteps of Revolution: The New Youth of the Middle East

Hamzah Khan
International News Editor

Large-scale youth movements have been a consistent staple of most revolutionary forces in the Middle East, from Iran to Egypt, throughout the 20th century. A precarious group, the youth of the Middle East have been described as a revolutionary social class, defined by both their successes and failures during periods of societal unrest and revolution. For example, the Arab Spring, which was initially celebrated as heralding a new era of democracy in the Middle East, failed to deliver lasting change or improvements in the daily lives of most young people. 

Since 2019, a new generation of young people have raised the torch of resistance against corrupt political systems across the region, heading movements that are largely non-ideological in nature but determined to create systematic change. Three movements in particular highlight the dissatisfaction with the status quo and the revolutionary nature of the youth: the freedom protests in Iran, the Tishreen movement in Iraq, and the Unity Intifada among the youth of Palestine. These movements have utilized social media to mobilize mass popular uprisings, while refusing to align their movements with established political factions, widely viewed as corrupt and ineffective, within their countries. 

The most recent wave of protests in Iran began on September 16, when Kurdish-Iranian woman Mahsa Amini died in the custody of the Iranian ‘morality police.’ She was arrested several days earlier for allegedly wearing her hijab loosely, and she later collapsed in a police detention center. The Iranian police claim she died due to pre-existing health conditions; however, her family alleges that she was beaten while in police custody and died as a result. Immediately after reports of her death were publicized, protests erupted across more than 80 cities and especially intensified in the capital of Tehran. Women began to publicly burn their hijabs, in a display of defiance against the Islamic Republic. 

More than 320 people have died and thousands more have been injured or arrested in the protests so far, which mark the largest uprising in Iran since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Chants of “Death to the dictator” filled the streets on October 26 as thousands commemorated the 40th day since Amini’s death, a tradition within Shiite Islam. These protests have been defined by the leadership of young women from all over the country, bringing together multiple generations, demographics, and ethnicities in solidarity against the repressive policies of the Iranian government. They also build upon previous large-scale protest movements like the Green Movement in 2009 and the gas protests of 2019 in which the government killed nearly 1,500 people.

Members of Gen Z have notably been at the forefront of the Iranian protests, using tools like social media to spread their messages. For weeks, the hashtag “#womenlifefreedom” has been trending across social media, amplified by young Iranians within the country and abroad. The average age of arrested protestors in Iran is 15, showing the determination of these young protestors being driven by their desire for a better life. Many young women in Iran see themselves in the 22-year-old Amini, and for them, these protests are about their survival. The protests were significant enough to force Iran’s Supreme Leader to make a statement denouncing the movement as “riots” inspired by foreign actors like the United States. and Israel. This youth movement represents a shift from previous protests in Iran, however, as it is not ideologically aligned with any political movement within or outside of Iran, instead representing the collective dissatisfaction among the youth of the country combined with decades of political repression.  

Since 2011, the youth of the Middle East have largely not seen improvements in their standards of living. Although people under 30 make up more than 55 percent of the population across the Middle East and North Africa, the unemployment rate among people aged 15 to 24 is over 28 percent, one of the highest youth unemployment rates in the world, according to the OECD. More than 30 percent of those unemployed have a college degree, further highlighting the lack of opportunities in the region. Of people aged 18 to 25, 75 percent also report rampant societal inequality and pervasive corruption that bleeds into their daily lives. These numbers make widespread unrest among the youth of the Middle East unsurprising. 

The situation has been particularly tenuous in Iraq, which has experienced a U.S.-led invasion, sectarian civil war, and ISIS insurgency all within the span of two decades. These tragedies coupled with decades of political and economic instability have made the country a tinderbox for revolution. The beginnings of the movement took shape in October 2019, when student unions across Iraq took to the streets to protest new university policies by the government and demand political reforms and better living conditions. The movement was initiated by young people in Baghdad and the south of Iraq who demanded government reforms, jobs, security, and better living conditions. They also called for a complete overhaul of the deeply flawed political system and the entrenched political elites that have exploited the country for decades. 

The ISIS insurgency left Iraq in a dire economic position after the violence left thousands displaced and government resources depleted. During the ISIS insurgency, many young Iraqis became involved in civil society, gaining valuable experience in organizing and political activism. The government’s failure to respond to the subsequent economic downturns and skyrocketing unemployment left many young people who had recently gained military experience fighting ISIS, ready to turn their frustrations on to the government. They used these skills to mobilize large groups of people across the country to take to the streets and demand reforms, primarily using social media to do so. Hashtags like “We want a homeland,” and “Tishreen protests,” quickly trended across social media platforms and activists themselves were surprised at the turnout on the streets. According to ICG, “Tishreen began as a youth grassroots uprising and gained strength as traditional engines of popular mobilization joined.”  The government reaction to the protests was harsh, resulting in more than 600 deaths and injuries to more than 20,000 protesters, reports Amnesty International.  Much of the crackdown came from government-supported paramilitary groups, resulting in a greater uproar from protestors. 

The Tishreen Movement resulted in significant reforms of the Iraqi political system, however, including the resignation of then-Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi and changes to the sectarian Iraqi electoral system. Like the protests in Iran, part of the success behind this movement was because of the non-ideological nature of the protestors, according to the Washington Institute. Iraqis by and large were disillusioned with the dominant political factions in politics, be they the Sadrists, Kurds, Sunnis, or pro-Iran alliances. While established political movements like the Sadrists and Iraqi Communist Party supported the Tishreen protests, they were never directly involved with the movement. Many Tishreen activists ran in the 2021 parliamentary elections on anti-establishment and anti-corruption platforms and won big in many southern constituencies, reports Middle East Eye.  

The Tishreen Movement continues to this day, as the government has yet to resolve many of the demands made by young people, according to Al Jazeera. Thousands of young Iraqis took to the streets this October to commemorate the anniversary of the Tishreen Movement, whilst the country is embroiled in a political stalemate. Young people who make up nearly 60 percent of Iraq’s population are largely excluded from the political system due to the sectarian nature of Iraqi politics, which prevents new parties based on ideology rather than ethnicity from gaining traction, according to Chatham House. After gaining major concessions in 2019, young Iraqis today have pressured the government to move beyond the infighting and a new prime minister was recently appointed, according to the Middle East Institute. The role young people have played in addressing the political crisis, while largely overlooked, remains one of the lasting achievements of Tishreen. 

Similar to Iraq, the youth of Palestine have faced a tenuous political limbo in the dual challenges of the Israeli Occupation, described as apartheid by most prominent human rights groups both within Israel and around the world, and the geriatric and corrupt leadership of the Palestinian Authority. Palestinians are further divided between two non-contiguous areas of land, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, which are ruled by opposing parties Fatah and Hamas, respectively. Palestinians in annexed East Jerusalem are denied the full rights of Israeli citizenship and regularly face dispossession of their homes and revocation of their residency in East Jerusalem, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. 

The new generation of Palestinian activists are also disillusioned with the established Palestinian political factions of Fatah and Hamas under the Palestinian Authority (PA). The Palestinian Authority, which was established in 1993 under the Oslo Accords, was created to be a temporary governing body until a Palestinian State could be established. The Oslo Accords, however, never stipulated the actual formation of a Palestinian State and only established some Palestinian autonomy in some parts of the West Bank and Gaza, leading to a territory that is militarily occupied by Israel and governed by the Palestinian Authority. Thus the Palestinian Authority came to be seen by many as a corrupt oligarchic leadership that was an extension of the Israeli Occupation rather than a meaningful advocate for the Palestinian cause. Similar to Iraq, the PA has failed to improve living conditions for average Palestinians while political infighting has made them a useful tool for Israel to continue its occupation, according to Brookings

These circumstances, combined with the Israeli bombardment of Gaza in May 2021 which killed at least 129 civilians including 66 children, and the continuous dispossession of Palestinian land in areas like East Jerusalem, Masafer Yatta, and the Naqab, sparked a youth-led uprising of Palestinians across the region in what has become known as the Unity Intifada. This uprising built on the Great March of Return from 2018, when thousands of Gazans marched to the border between Gaza and Israel demanding an end to the debilitating blockade described as “collective punishment” by Amnesty International. They were instead met with live ammunition from Israeli forces who killed 219 protestors and injured over 36,000, according to the UN. This Unity Intifada has united Palestinians within both Palestine and Israel in resistance to what they view as decades-long campaigns of ethnic cleansing and settler colonialism, according to Al Jazeera

This Unity Intifada has also been dubbed the “TikTok Intifada” by many observers, highlighting the role of the new tech-savvy generation leading the protests. Since May 2021, Palestinians have had unprecedented success at promoting their cause on social media, creating trending hashtags like “#SaveSheikhJarrah,” in reference to a Palestinian neighborhood facing eviction and displacement in East Jerusalem, and with videos of Israeli airstrikes on Gaza and their aftermath garnering millions of views on TikTok, reports BBC News. The youth were also successful in organizing a general labor strike on May 18, 2021, which was supported by all Palestinian political factions and included participation from Palestinians throughout the West Bank, Gaza, and even within Israel, reports Al Jazeera. The efficacy of Gen Z’s advocacy of the Palestinian cause through social media has been a remarkable break from past uprisings where media censorship prevented the Palestinian cause from being articulated, while mainstream media sources provided extensive coverage to the claims of the Israeli government.

Due to constant settlement expansion in the West Bank, much Palestinian youth have abandoned the two-state solution supported by the PA and much of the international community and are instead calling for a single state for Jews and Arabs with equal rights for everyone, according to the Arab Center of Washington, DC. This generation is different from previous ones as many of them have grown up under the hybrid governance of both Israel and the PA, but have not experienced the economic and educational opportunities the framers of Oslo had envisioned. As nearly 70 percent of the Palestinian population is under the age of 29, the ability of the youth to mobilize in large numbers and separate themselves from the established Palestinian political factions has proven to be an effective front of resistance against the Israeli Occupation and has garnered international support, according to the Washington Institute

The UN reports that 2022 has already been the deadliest year on record for Palestinians in the West Bank due to increased Israeli raids that have resulted in 130 deaths, including 28 children, reports Middle East Eye. The increased raids by Israeli forces come after a rise in armed attacks against Israeli soldiers throughout the West Bank, primarily in Nablus and Jenin, which have become the centers for armed resistance against the Occupation, reports Al Jazeera. Many of these young men were previously arrested by Israeli forces, which are notorious for arbitrarily jailing hundreds of Palestinian teens. There are about 270 in Israeli prisons at any given moment, according to Haaretz. The Unity Intifada echoes previous Palestinian uprisings, combining both civil and armed resistance to the Israeli Occupation, due to concerns that have been ignored for decades by both Israel and the Palestinian Authority. 

These youth-led movements are by no means the only contemporary youth protests in the Middle East, but they continue to build upon and learn from the failures of previous attempts, continuing to mobilize every day. These protest movements would not be possible without previous uprisings which may have failed in accentuating political change but succeeded in mobilizing civil society and inspiring new generations of activists. Political movements do not exist within a vacuum and the struggles of young people in Iran, Iraq, and Palestine, demonstrate collective attempts to demand more social and economic freedom. The non-ideological nature of these protests, consisting of young people simply demanding a better life, combines past ideas of youthful revolutionary movements with contemporary modes of advocacy including social media. These movements have become impossible to ignore.

Image Courtesy of Dan H, Flickr

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