Stirrings of Freedom Among the Arab Youth?

Americans are bombarded with alarming reports from the Arab Middle East about intensifying anti-U.S. sentiments and escalating threats to their security.

In the eyes of many Americans, the Muslim Middle East has become simply a caldron of anti-Americanism and out-of-control violence. But the headlines from the region have missed an important trend percolating among the younger generation in various Arab countries.

From universities in Cairo, Amman, Beirut, Tunis, Algiers that have become de facto safe havens of civic protest across the Middle East, to soccer arenas, and anti-Iraq war demonstrations, the subtext of this generation's public expression is a deep yearning to be free and enfranchised.

The most breathtaking example of the phenomenon for me was a teen panel at a conference organized by the Arab Thought Foundation in Beirut last month. Eight men and women in their late teens from across the Arab world sat on a panel before 1,000 academics, politicians, diplomats, and activists. One after another, the teens stunned their elders into embarrassed silence with vehement scolding of their countries' leaders, not the U.S. or even Israel.

"You have failed us," shouted a Saudi teen. "It is about time women are put in charge to undo the wrongs done."

Panelists talked from direct personal experience, directing their anger not just against harsh political and economic realities at home but also at their parents' fatalism and defeatist passivity. Colleagues in the audience said they were "shocked" and "moved" by the teenagers' passion, bluntness and freshness.

"It was heartening," one said. "There was no finger-pointing at Zionism or imperialism."

The Freedom Generation

In the past few years, after interviewing and circulating among young people in the region and witnessing the new, powerful trends and stirrings, I call the phenomenon "the freedom generation." Young men and women from all walks of life are challenging the autocratic status quo and demanding an active political role in shaping their countries' future. Young people under 30 — almost 60 percent of the region's population — are unsettled about the economic deprivation, political oppression and the conflation of their religion with terrorism.

But unlike their elders, they are not blinded by official propaganda into placing the blame on outsiders for their predicament. They recognize that the root causes of the profound crisis facing the Arab world lie within traditional Arab structures, namely authoritarianism and unreformed patriarchy. They see the shortest route to a better life in reforming their societies and affecting change in their own leadership.

Take a sociology graduate from the Lebanese University whom I met at a demonstration against the U.S. invasion of Iraq in Beirut. Yes, her sign said "No to American imperialism," but the longer I talked to her, the more I realized her anger was directed closer at home, at the dismal failings of her government. She and her generation feel disenfranchised and let down by Arab rulers.

In Egypt, Yemen, and Jordan, I witnessed the new social protest phenomenon that is spreading across the region: Politically repressed people gathered together in anonymous masses at a soccer match or a demonstration against Israeli and U.S. policies often turn into antigovernment rallies with waves of young people rooting for regime change from within.

At a recent soccer match involving Saadi Gadhafi, Libyan leader Col. Moammar Gadhafi's soccer-playing son, fans from the opposite team reportedly chanted "Saadi, Saadi, son of the ruler, your fate will be the fate of Uday." The phrase — it rhymes in Arabic — refers to one of the sons of Saddam Hussein who was killed in an American raid.

In this sense, Iran appears to have provided a model for the Arab youth. Its rebellious young men and women led the freedom march in the Muslim world.

Opportunity for United States?

Conventional wisdom has it that Arabs and Muslims do not take personal responsibility for their problems of political oppression, economic deprivation, and terrorist fervor and, instead, blame Western imperialism. But that's just not what a startling number of youth believe now. Although young men and women find many faults with the Western powers, they lay the blame for their plight squarely at the feet of their own oppressive regimes.

No, this is not wishful thinking but the beginning of a genuine emergence of a social movement. Of all political groups, the young hold the key — by their demographic weight, activism and freedom-loving spirit — to the transformation of closed Arab societies.

It's a hopeful note for the United States, if its leaders play it correctly. If the United States is genuine about promoting democracy in the world of Islam, it must not be afraid to take risks on peoples' choices. It must push its autocratic allies to open up the political space and dramatically expand political participation and representation. It must also invest in Arab civil society by conducting exchange programs, granting scholarships to women, and investing in health and education programs. Too much of American money is dedicated to propping up the government and military sectors in these societies.

This freedom generation, if enfranchised, will not be as pliant as Arab autocratic rulers. But it could bring a new democratic dynamism to the region, and in the long run, defuse the crisis in Arab-American relations. By being in charge of their own destiny, young Muslim men will reject Osama bin Laden's nihilism and begin the difficult process of institution- and nation-building. There would be no need then for the U.S. Army to get bogged down, as it is now, in nation-building in that part of the world.

Fawaz A. Gerges is a professor in Middle East and international affairs at Sarah Lawrence College, and is an analyst for ABCNEWS.