Following a January uprising in Tunisia, demonstrations against long-entrenched authoritarian regimes have spread across the Middle East and Africa. We asked Lehigh faculty members to weigh in on “why now?” Experts in education, social movements and Islamic philosophy pointed to a common denominator: a new generation of youth.
“Revolutions usually have three causes: long-term oppression, short-term pressing problems and an immediate instigating cause, which can be anything,” says Aladdin Yaqub, associate professor of philosophy and expert in Islamic philosophy. “In this case, the Arab world has been oppressed for decades by autocratic rulers and royalties. The short-term cause is the high unemployment among the youth, including college graduates. The most immediate instigating cause was a young Tunisian man setting himself on fire.”
“Young organizers and new opposition organizations have been laying the groundwork for this kind of change,” says Ziad Munson, associate professor of sociology and expert on social movements. “While the spark for the protests may have been spontaneous, they wouldn’t be possible without an enormous amount of consciousness raising, networking and organizing that activists have done over the last several years.”
This, Munson says, is combined with other factors causing this social revolution: the global economic downturn—making these populations particularly ripe for mobilization—and old and ossified authoritarian leaders.
Although small in number, there are schools throughout the Middle East that teach in English and offer what they call an American curriculum, says Ron Yoshida, professor of education. He reviews Middle Eastern schools seeking American accreditation.
“Imagine observing a woman from the Middle East, dressed in an abbaya and hijab, teaching 5th grade students about the American Revolution and using words like freedom and liberty,” he says. “Imagine in Egypt being on a school grounds in which the American flag flies overhead.”
“For years, information raised expectations for ‘freedom,’ to consider ideas beyond those the government promoted such as equity and social justice. The old song, ‘How you gonna’ keep ‘em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree?’ rings so true,” Yoshida says. “Almost all of these people have never been out of their countries, but the world came to them every day via the new communications infrastructure.”
Alexander Wiseman, associate professor and coordinator of Lehigh’s Comparative and International Education Program, says there is little attention being paid to the firm hold formal education has taken throughout the Middle East.
“Formal education brings all school-aged youth together with a shared curriculum and structure and serves to create a sense of identity and nationalism unlike anything possible before,” Wiseman says.
“This is in many Middle Eastern countries the first generation that has been largely literate, educated, and part of a community that was not bounded by what their family, immediate religious community and local political leaders gave them access to,” he says. “The rising generation of Middle Eastern youth sees their future not in terms of what is immediately in front of them, but in terms of what they think they should have and know others have.”