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Arab Youth Rising & Europe's Entitlement Kids: Contrasting Portraits Of A Generation

The young people on the two shores of the Mediterranean each have demands, but the sense of possibility embodied in North African and Arab quest for freedom is utterly absent in European youth protests.

Sunset or dawn? (Ahmad Hammoud)
Sunset or dawn? (Ahmad Hammoud)
Gerd Held

Amidst all the uncertainty surrounding the rebellions in North Africa and the Middle East, one thing is sure: these are uprisings of young people. A new, questioning generation is manifesting, breaking away from the narrow confines imposed by their families and religion. And despite the precariousness of their situation, they have succeeded in making themselves heard.

When the late American political scientist Samuel Huntington spoke of an Islamic youth boom, he was assuming that the huge numbers of young people in the Arabic nations would necessarily turn towards fundamentalism. The assumption wasn't at all far-fetched: cases abound of restless youth seeking answers in totalitarianism.

But things have turned out quite differently in the Arabic countries – and most pundits, blinded by their "Islamic culture" fixation, have missed it. They have underestimated the hunger for life felt by large numbers of young people in those countries.

And, in so doing, they have left the rest of us wondering just how much we really know about the Arab youth. It now seems obvious that, for an explosion of that magnitude to take place, an invisible groundswell must have been building up for years.

Our failure to foresee the recent events is all the more puzzling as the past is full of precedents: on the northern shores of the Mediterranean after World War II, for example, a spirit of freedom and a new vision of life burst in the face of dictatorial regimes and hidebound thinking. Like today, that spirit manifested itself mostly through the young, and it was geared not to fighting or nation-building but driven by intense curiosity, a hunger for all that is new and different that life has to offer.

A short, autobiographical novel set in Valencia in the late 1950s, by Spanish writer Manuel Vicent wonderfully illustrates what happened back then in Europe. The powers that be — the Franco regime and the Catholic Church — were still firmly ensconced in Spain, but small windows were starting to open up all over the country, and the pubescent Manuel was looking through them. His initiation becomes that of the Spanish society.

Vicent's account is light and tender — he relates how the pungent smells of incense and onions filled churches and schools, how the Procession of the Holy Virgin was only at a stone's throw from the "City Bar," where you could watch the legendary Angelita Corbi shake her tits. He tells of how paella was made and dished out at street stands, brought aboard by way of welcome to a ship from the 6th U.S. fleet, and how (despite strict censorship) the curves of Hollywood stars beckoned from posters slapped up on city walls, and filled his dreams. Nat King Cole sang about "ansiedad"—the yearning for love and the anxiety that it might pass you by.

Manuel Vicent's story is only a novel, but it reveals much better than any political discourse the stuff, the fabric, that went into creating what would later become the successful Transicion — the peaceful transition to democracy in Spain. What Vicent described in his book was the amazing coexistence, the tandem of old and new, of tyranny and anarchy, pious righteousness and lust for life.

Dependency and destruction

And perhaps that the passage to freedom that is taking place in all the Mediterranean countries now should be seen as a tandem of the beautiful and the ugly, the good and the bad, for in all of them there is as much light and joy of life as dependency and immaturity. The Spanish precedent also shows that modest improvements to the standard of living are enough for people to find freedom attractive once again.

The Spanish youth of the "50s didn't need a guaranteed minimum income to find freedom. Fighting a Civil War such as their parents had known was also not on their minds. Manuel Vicent's story depicts a generation that wasn't issuing any ultimatums: no accusations were made and no "down withs!" were shouted. There was no feeling of entitlement, self-pity or anger either. That was a questioning generation, capable of surprise and delight, sometimes shy but always hungry for life. Being young had its own meaning: it wasn't just a waiting room to the adult world, and an unchanging, fixed-in-concrete adult world at that. It was about discovering things for yourself, not expecting others to give them to you.

This spirit is totally foreign to the young inhabiting the northern shores of the Mediterranean today. Just look at what's written on posters in Athens or Madrid. There's no trace of the energy that comes from wanting to live life in new ways — just anger at the thwarting of expectations that their societies and education have led them to imagine they were entitled to. A feeling of hatred for all things institutional comes through too, and fierce destructiveness.

In their protests, the young people in southern Europe — who are used to spending their time in educational institutions that "support" them — can only repeat what they've been led to expect and demand that the state deliver full-time jobs that match their educational qualifications. Their entire lives thus become nothing but claims. This is a generation that is already thinking of its social security benefits. It is a perfect example of the social product the EU transfer union has created.

The whining of this self-described European "lost generation" is nothing short of an embarrassment. Meanwhile, on the Mediterranean's southern shores, a far larger number of young people in much poorer Arab countries have the strength to demand freedom and break free from the past.

Read the original article in German.

Photo - Ahmad Hammoud

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Future

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