Rage, Rap and Revolution: Inside the Arab Youth Quake

A generation once dismissed as politically supine has toppled two dictators and shaken up regimes across the Middle East. Who are the Arab youth, and what do they want?

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William Daniels / Panos for TIME

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Quran and several other Palestinian activists are now planning a wave of demonstrations to demand that Fatah and Hamas reconcile, the better to "fight the occupation in a much more efficient and productive manner." Quran is counting on young Palestinians to brush aside the failed policies of their elders. "They can't find any answers because they're stuck in the box," he says. "But when the youth comes in, they're going to see a new vision, and we're going to achieve the goals of our struggle."

Doing It for Themselves
The revolution of the young generation in the Middle East is theirs and theirs alone — spokespeople have been specific in dismissing the idea that they have needed outside assistance or have looked much to the outside for inspiration.

Even so, their actions have been such that policymakers far from the Middle East now have to react to a new reality, recalibrate policies long based on convenient relationships with despots and build connections with this new source of political strength. That's especially true for the U.S., which many Arab activists regard as the great power that enabled their oppressors. "The U.S. government was aware of the injustices in Egypt but continued supporting Mubarak because of self-interest," says a Bahraini activist who asked that his or her name be withheld. "No one can argue that Saudi Arabia is the home of human rights or democracy, yet America continues to support the regime."

Still, for the Obama Administration, there's good news too. So far, there have been few instances of President Obama being burned in effigy or of the U.S. flag being torched by angry mobs. The State Department insists that it has long been paying attention to the needs and aspirations of young Arabs. "This has been a key demographic for us for quite some time," says a State Department official. Funding for youth outreach has increased significantly in recent years. The U.S. now spends more to support democracy and governance in the Arab world every year than the $250 million it spent in total from 1991 to 2001.

Many programs are deliberately low-key, in part because an open association with the U.S. can be politically damaging. "It's really been very hard for most people in the Arab world to work directly with the U.S. government," says Ethan Zuckerman, one of the founders of Global Voices, an international network of bloggers and citizen journalists that has hosted regional conferences for Arab bloggers.

As the old order crumbles, the U.S. will want these new relationships to strengthen into lasting bonds. But Arab youths are unlikely to feel the need for U.S. support as acutely as the leaders who came before them. After all, they didn't need U.S. help to get rid of those dictators. "People said it couldn't happen, because the U.S. supported Mubarak, but still he fell," says the Bahraini activist. "Now we know we don't need the U.S. on our side to get what we want. Now we know we can do it for ourselves." Faced with such self-confidence, the Obama Administration must manage the delicate task of maintaining support for regimes in the region while telling Arab leaders, in public and private, to address the turmoil with more urgent reforms — all while trying to increase direct contact with the youths leading the uprisings.

That will not be easy. Foreign policy considerations couldn't be further from the minds of most members of the class of 2011. For young Arabs in Yemen, Libya and Algeria, there are regimes still to topple. The revolution hasn't yet gotten off the ground in Syria and is still in its early days in Bahrain. And in Tunisia and Egypt, the gains from the past two months need to be protected: there are political parties to form, elections to contest. The military council that took over from Mubarak has promised constitutional reforms and elections in six months.

Many of the young men and women who helped make the revolutions happen are keen to hold on to the sense of blissful dawn they have experienced for the first time in their young lives. Ahmed Khalil, scion of a wealthy Egyptian business family and a veteran of Tahrir Square, hasn't returned to work even though his plastics factory reopened several days ago: there are more important things now than making money, he says. Khalil, 29, is part of the "Revolution Friends" Facebook group that is exploring ways to channel the revolution's momentum into a civic-awareness campaign. He has printed leaflets, now being distributed throughout Cairo, calling on his fellow Egyptians to work "for a better Egypt and to protect the victory that you and I achieved with our own hands." (Sample suggestions: "Don't litter, don't blow your car horn for no reason, don't pay bribes, don't allow a police officer to humiliate someone in front of you, don't harass girls on the street, know your rights, stay positive, respect other opinions.")

And what of the revolution's rapper? El Général — his given name is Hamada Ben Amor — is disappointed he missed some of the action: he was jailed for three days during the Jasmine Revolution, and when Egyptian protesters invited him to perform in Tahrir Square, he couldn't go because he has no passport. Instead, he's written a new rap called "Vive Tunisie!" that honors Tunisian protesters and those killed during the uprising. There are shout-outs, too, to other youth movements. "I also speak about the program of freedom in Egypt, Algeria, Libya and Morocco," he says. The youth of the Arab world are not done yet.

With reporting by Aryn Baker, Abigail Hauslohner and Rania Abouzeid/Cairo, Nicholas Blanford and Andrew Lee Butters/Beirut, Vivienne Walt/Paris, Karl Vick/Ramallah, Erik Stier/Sana'a and Michael Scherer and Massimo Calabresi/Washington.

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