Why There's No Turning Back in the Middle East

The combination of youth and technology is driving a wave of change in the Middle East. Fingers crossed: it may turn out just fine

  • Dominic Nahr / Magnum for TIME

    The year of the revolutions began in January, in a small country of little importance. Then the protests spread to the region's largest and most important state, toppling a regime that had seemed firmly entrenched. The effect was far-reaching. The air was filled with talk of liberty and freedom. Street protests cropped up everywhere, challenging the rule of autocrats and monarchs, who watched from their palaces with fear.

    That could be a description of events in Tunisia and Egypt as those countries' peaceful revolutions have inspired and galvanized people across the Middle East. In fact, it refers to popular uprisings 162 years earlier that began in Sicily and France. The revolutions of 1848, as they were called, were remarkably similar in mood to what is happening right now in the Middle East. (They were dubbed the springtime of peoples by historians at the time.) The backdrop then, as now, was a recession and rising food prices. The monarchies were old and sclerotic. The young were in the forefront. New information technologies — mass newspapers! — connected the crowds.

    Except that the story didn't end so well. The protesters gained power but then splintered, fought one another and weakened themselves. The military stayed loyal to the old order and cracked down on protests. The monarchs waited things out, and within a few years, the old regimes had reconstituted themselves. "History reached its turning point, and failed to turn," wrote the British historian A.J.P. Taylor.

    Will history fail to turn in the Middle East? Will these protests in Yemen, Bahrain, Jordan and beyond peter out, and in a few years, will we look back at 2011 and realize that very little actually changed? It's certainly possible, but there are two fundamental reasons the tensions that have been let loose in the Middle East over the past few weeks are unlikely to disappear, and they encompass two of the most powerful forces changing the world today: youth and technology.

    The central, underlying feature of the Middle East's crisis is a massive youth bulge. About 60% of the region's population is under 30. These millions of young people have aspirations that need to be fulfilled, and the regimes in place right now show little ability to do so. The protesters' demands have been dismissed by the regimes as being for Islamic fundamentalism or a product of Western interference. But plainly these are homegrown protests that have often made the West uneasy as they have shaken up old alliances. And what the protesters want in the first place is to be treated as citizens, not subjects. In a recent survey of Middle Eastern youth, the No. 1 wish of the young in nine countries was to live in a free country, although, to be sure, jobs and the desire to live in well-run, modern societies ranked very high as well.

    Young people are not always a source of violence. The West experienced a demographic bulge — the famous baby boom in the decades after World War II — that is known mainly for fueling economic growth. China and India, likewise, have a large cohort of young workers, and that adds to those countries' economic strength. But without economic growth, job opportunities and a sense of dignity, too many young people — especially young men — can make for mass discontent. That is what has happened in the Middle East, where the scale of the youth bulge is extreme — perhaps the largest in the world right now. From 1970 to 2007, 80% of all outbreaks of conflict occurred in countries where 60% or more of the population was younger than 30. And even places where the baby boom produced growth are not without problems. The peak years of the West's bulge came in the late 1960s, a period associated with youth rebellions and mass protests.

    Journalists, politicians and scholars have all noted the Middle East's youth problem. But the region's governments have done little to address it — youth unemployment remains staggeringly high, by some measures close to 25%. The oil boom has certainly helped the Gulf countries pay off their people in various ways, but more than half of those who live in the Middle East are in lands that do not produce oil. Moreover, oil has proved a curse in the rich countries, where the economies have little to offer other than extracting hydrocarbons, where armies of foreigners do all the work and where regimes continue to offer their people a basic bargain: we will subsidize you as long as you accept our rule. Rattled by recent developments, Kuwait and Bahrain both decided to give all of their citizens bonuses this year ($3,000 in Kuwait, $2,700 in Bahrain).

    Those payments are a reminder that in the Middle East, there are two modes of control: mass repression and mass bribery. Perhaps the latter, used in the Gulf states, will prove more effective — though in Bahrain, the regime faces specific challenges, with a Sunni minority ruling over a Shi'ite majority. The broader predicament facing both systems, however, is a population that is increasingly aware, informed and connected. It's too simple to say that what happened in Tunisia and Egypt happened because of Facebook. But technology — satellite television, computers, mobile phones and the Internet — has played a powerful role in informing, educating and connecting people in the region. Such advances empower individuals and disempower the state. In the old days, information technology favored those in power, because it was one to many. That's why revolutionaries tried to take over radio stations in the 1930s — so they could broadcast information to the masses. Today's technologies are all many to many, networks in which everyone is connected but no one is in control. That's bad for anyone trying to suppress information.

    Of course, the state can fight back. The Egyptian government managed to shut down Egyptians' access to the Internet for five days. The Iranian regime closed down cell-phone service at the height of the green movement's protests in 2009. But think of the costs of such moves. Can banks run when the Internet is down? Can commerce expand when cell phones are demobilized? Syria has only now opened access to Facebook, but its basic approach remains to keep the world tightly at bay — which is a major obstacle to economic growth and to tackling that vital problem of youth unemployment. North Korea can stay stable as long as it stays utterly stagnant. (And that stability is for the short term anyway.) For regimes that need or want to respond to the aspirations of their people, openness becomes an economic and political necessity.

    The modernizing imperative — societies need to embrace more openness to make progress — is why I am allowing myself to be optimistic about the progress of the youth revolutions. It's easy to be disappointed when looking at the Middle East's sad recent history. And yet something in the region feels as if it is changing. Warren Buffett once said that when anyone tells him, "This time it's different," he reaches for his wallet because he fears he's going to be swindled. Well, I have a feeling that this time in the Middle East, it's different. But I have my hand on my wallet anyway.