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The Arab Millennials Will Be Back

Posted on Jun 29, 2014

Photo by Denis Bocquet (CC BY 2.0)

By Juan Cole, TomDispatch

(Page 2)

Saif al-Islam Gaddafi seemed poised to eventually take over from his mercurial father, Muammar, in Libya.  Hosni and Suzanne Mubarak were said to be grooming their younger son Gamal to step into the presidency after the old man passed from the scene in Egypt.  In Yemen, President for Life Ali Abdallah Saleh was promoting his son Ahmad, a general in the army, as his successor.  Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali ‘s presidential palace was being eyed by his wife, social climber Leila Trabelsi, and his son-in-law, billionaire Sakher El Materi.

Ibrahim was jailed by a petty and vindictive Egyptian regime simply for being a sociologist and observing the reality around him (even if he was ultimately acquitted of wrongdoing).  One goal of the youth movements in Egypt and elsewhere was distinctly Ibrahimist: to destroy the principle of monarpublicanism, turn out those presidents-for-life, and ensure that their children did not succeed them.  All of them were to be made accountable for their family crimes after free and fair elections.

Because of those youth revolutions, Hafez al-Assad of Syria was the sole republican monarch who passed his country on to his son—and even then, Bashar has been able to cling to power in just half of his country and only by resorting to atrocities so extensive that they amount to crimes against humanity.  Elsewhere, the crown princes of the corrupt old republics are often in exile, court, or prison.  Saif al-Islam Gaddafi is on trial in Tripoli.  Tunisia is attempting to extradite Sakher al-Materi from the Seychelles Islands.  Gamal Mubarak is on trial for stock exchange manipulation.  General Ahmad Ali Saleh, the son of the deposed dictator, is being investigated on charges of embezzlement, while his father, accused of plotting a coup, has lost much of his remaining power.

Youth opposition to the emergence of royal dynasties in the Arab republics sprung not just from a distaste for the betrayal of republican political principles but from a conviction that such ruling families had become corrupt, nepotistic cartels.  As the U.S. embassy in Tunis observed in 2006, “In Tunisia’s small subset of commercial actors, it seems at least half of the elite are rumored to be somehow related or connected to the President.”


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In such circumstances, licenses for companies, jobs in the state bureaucracy, and other economic opportunities were monopolized by and for the ruling family and its circle of cronies.  The protesters saw this level of corruption as a brake on economic growth, leaving those outside the charmed circle doomed to work as menials, to unemployment, or to exile abroad.  Worse, if the plans for non-royal succession were implemented, these exclusionary, corrupt, and stagnant systems would be perpetuated many decades into the future.

Jumlukiyyah is now in the junk heap of history.

2. The age of presidents-for-life and complete lack of political accountability is coming to a close.

Even in neo-authoritarian Egypt, the new constitution allows a president only two four-year terms.  In some Arab countries, politicians have begun showing a willingness to step down when the public demands accountability or in order to uphold the rule of law or simply to avoid looking like the autocrats who had been angrily overthrown.  In response to a public outcry, Tunisian Prime Minister Ali Larayedh of the ruling Renaissance (al-Nahdah) Party, the largest in parliament, did so in early January in favor of a technocratic cabinet, which could be expected to fairly oversee new parliamentary elections.  It was the first voluntary civilian succession in the country’s history.

This May in Libya, a complete security mess, the minority Muslim Brotherhood faction in parliament and its allies attempted to put one of their own in the prime ministerial slot. They claimed that conservative businessman Ahmad Maitig had been elected with the requisite 120 votes; the nationalist opposition insisted he had only collected 113.  When the issue went to Libya’s supreme court and it ruled against him, Maitig relinquished his claim, citing the need to uphold the rule of law, and joining the ranks of Larayedh and other leaders who declined to cling to power and risk further polarization of their fragile societies.

Iraq stands in contrast, and serves as an object lesson in this regard.  Arab Spring protests broke out there in both Sunni and Shiite areas in early 2011.  In response, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki initially pledged not to seek a third term.  He soon thought better of the promise.  Nonetheless, Sunni Arab youth in Fallujah and elsewhere continued to use techniques borrowed from the Tahrir movement to highlight their marginalization in Shiite-dominated Iraq.

Early in 2013, Maliki’s troops shot down Sunni demonstrators coming to Fallujah, which led to further youth protests and demands for accountability for those deaths.  The government responded with more force.  Had Maliki accommodated the demands of those demonstrators, in both Sunni and Shiite areas, he might have been able to forge new forms of national unity.  Instead, by crushing the civil youth movements, he left the door open to the radical insurgents of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

3.  A more multicultural vision of how society should work is now on the Arab agenda.

Previous generations of Arab leaders and movements were often blind to the ways in which pride in the heritage of Arabic-speaking peoples could shade into discriminatory attitudes toward non-Arabs in Muslim-majority states.  Sometimes such societies had difficulty treating non-Muslims as equals.  Many youth activists were (and remain) dedicated to a more multicultural vision of Arab society.

The attempt of elected Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood to rule through a clique of fundamentalists (who constitute a minority of Egyptians) deeply offended activist youth.  Morsi rejected the idea of a government of national unity despite his narrow margin of victory and instead filled high offices with fundamentalist allies.  Last year, he was overthrown, at least in part because millions of youth and workers again took to the streets.  In the aftermath, explicitly religious or sectarian parties have been banned—though the military, which backed the mobilization of the young against Morsi, is again ascendant and has now turned on them, too.

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