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Opinion: Arab Youth Have No Trust in Democracy

In this column, Roberto Savio, founder and president emeritus of the Inter Press Service (IPS) news agency and publisher of Other News, writes that from a high point in the aftermath of the Arab Spring revolutions, Arab youth have largely lost their trust in democracy, betrayed by the return of the army to power or the clinging of the old guard to power regardless of the costs.

ROME, Apr 27 2015 (IPS) - The results of a survey of what 3,500 young people between the ages of 18 and 24 – in all Arab countries except Syria – feel about the current situation in the Middle East and North Africa have just been released.

The report of the survey, which was carried out by international polling firm Penn Schoen Berland (PBS), is not a minority report given that 60 percent of the population of the Arab population is under the age of 25, which means 200 million people. Well, the outcome of the survey is that the large majority of them have no trust in democracy.

Roberto Savio

Roberto Savio

The word democracy does not exist in Arabic, being a concept totally alien to the era in which Muhammad created Islam. However, it is worth noting that the concept of democracy as it is known today is also relatively recent in the West, and we have to wait from its origins in the Greek era for it to make a comeback at the time of the French Revolution.

It became an accepted value just after the end of the Second World War, and the end of the Soviet, Nazi and Japanese regimes.

As a matter of fact, it is still not a reality in large parts of Asia (just think of China and North Korea) and Africa.

Then we have governments, as in Hungary where Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is openly preaching a style of governance à la Russian President Vladimir Putin, followed by several of his esteemers, including the National Front party in France, and the Northern League in Italy. But few have such a negative view of democracy as young Arabs.

After the Arab Spring revolutions in 2012, a massive 72 percent of young Arabs believed that the Arab world had improved. The figure dropped to 70 percent in 2013, then 54 percent in 2014, and now it stands at just 38 percent

After the Arab Spring revolutions in 2012, a massive 72 percent of young Arabs believed that the Arab world had improved. The figure dropped to 70 percent in 2013, then 54 percent in 2014, and now it stands at just 38 percent.

According to the survey, 39 percent of young Arabs agreed with the statement “democracy will never work in the region”, 36 percent thought it would work, while the remaining 25 percent expressed many doubts.

It is clear that the Arab Spring has been betrayed by the return of the army to power as in Egypt, or by the clinging of the old guard to power regardless of the costs, like Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

If you add to this the fact that 41 percent of young Arabs are unemployed (out of a total unemployment figure of 25 percent), and of those 31 percent have completed higher education and 17 percent have graduated from university, it is not difficult to understand that frustration and pessimism are running high among Arab youth.

It also contributes to explaining why so many young people feel attracted to the Islamic State (ISIS) which wants to topple all Arab governments, defined as corrupt and allied to the decadent West, and create a Caliphate as in Muhammad’s times, where wealth will be distributed among all, the dignity of Islam will be enhanced, and a world of purity and vision will substitute the materialistic one of today.

This is why ISIS is attracting youth from all over. Besides, according to experts, for the terrorist to have a geographical space and run it  as a state, where hospitals and schools function and there is a daily life to prove that the dream is possible, represents a great difference with previous terrorist movements like Al-Qaeda, which could only destroy, not really build.

But the survey also reveals something extremely important. To the question “which is the biggest obstacle for the Arab world?”, 37 percent indicated the expansion of ISIS and 32 percent the threat of terrorism. The problem of unemployment was mentioned by 29 percent and that of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by 23 percent.

It is worth noting that the threat of a nuclear Iran was mentioned by only 8 percent (contrary to the declarations of Arab governments), while 17 percent consider that the real problem is the lack of political leaders, while only 15 percent denounce the lack of democracy.

It is important to note that no interviews were carried out in Iran, which is not an Arab country but is a Muslim country. However Iranian Muslims are Shiites and not Sunnis, as in all Arab countries, except for Iraq and Bahrein, and perhaps Yemen, where Shiites are a majority. Of the world’s total Islamic population of 1.6 billion people, Shiites make up only 10 percent.

It is within Sunnite Islam that a dramatic conflict is going on, where Wahabism, a Sunni school born in Saudi Arabia and the official religion of the Saudi reigning house, has now split into those who want to return to the purity of the early times and those are considered “petrowahabists” because they have been corrupted by the wealth created by petrol (they are also called sheikh wahabists because they accept government by sheikhs).

Saudi Arabia has been spending an average of 3 billion dollars a year to promote Wahabism. It has built over 1,500 mosques throughout the world, where radical preachers have been asking the faithful to go back to the real and uncorrupted Islam.

It was with Osama Bin Laden that the Wahabist movement escaped from the control of Saudi Arabia, very much like the radical Hamas movement, originally supported by Israel to weaken the Palestinian Liberation Organisation and Yasser Arafat, turned against the Israeli state. It is not possible to ride radicalism.

The survey also reveals that young Sunnis see ISIS and terrorism as their main threat, but we are talking here of a poll which should represent 200 million people between the ages of 18 and 25. Even if just one percent of them were to succumb to the call of the jihad, we are talking of a potential two million people … and this is now being felt acutely.

The polarisation inside Sunni society (Shiites are not part of that – there are no Shiite terrorists) is felt as the most important problem for the future.

In Europe and the United States, this should be the clearest of examples that ISIS and terrorism are first and foremost an internal problem of Islam and that to intervene in that problem will only unify the Arab world against the invader. (END/IPS COLUMNIST SERVICE)

Edited by Phil Harris   

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, IPS – Inter Press Service. 

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