Youth, Activism, and Inclusion in the 2010s: Studies from Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Morocco
I. Congenital Revolutionaries: The Sanguine Essence of Lebanon’s Youth
In Biology, there is a field of study known as Epigenetics that focuses on how an individual’s behaviors and environment can cause changes that affect the way their genes work. Epigenetics does not concern the actual nature or mutation of the genes themselves, but rather how the body changes the way in which it reads and expresses genetic sequences. To put it in other words, the tangible remains the same while the intangible alters in its manifestation. The manner in which a reaction usually takes shape can be forever changed because of its environmental influences, altering the nature of these interactions forever. If a woman has psychological stress during her pregnancy it can lead to pathological outcomes in the child when it is born.This concept of the nature of expression changing is present in a field of study considered a hard science that deals with things that can be observed, measured and tested repeatedly to ensure the result of objective truths. So, what of social sciences? If one’s environment can alter the way in which their genes are expressed, can it not do the same for how a society expresses itself based on the environment it exists in? A once generally peaceful society constantly exposed to a hostile environment can surely change how it expresses itself and responds to events in its environment over time. The ideological structure, nature and accepted norms of societies have constantly evolved as their environments have throughout history. A society where large-scale hostility and calamities are relatively anomalous will respond a specific way to its first catastrophe, but over time will make the necessary adjustments to survive when repeatedly subjected to adversity.
According to Lebanese folklore, the city of Beirut has been destroyed and rebuilt seven times throughout its 5,000-year history. Many would argue that it recently went through its eight destruction on August 14th, 2020 when over 2,700 tonnes of ammonium nitrate exploded in its port, causing over 200 deaths, 6,000 injuries, 15 billion US Dollars in damage to property and an estimated 300,000 people homeless. The history of Lebanon has been filled with hardships, wars, colonization, occupation and famine. However, since its creation as an independent state in the 1940’s, political instability and corruption have been the major sources of its hardships. In the period following the end of its fifteen-year Civil War that saw Lebanon occupied by both Syria and Israel, led to over 100,000 deaths and the exodus of almost a million people from 1975 until 1990, the country has existed in a constant state of instability. Generation after generation has fought against the government’s corruption and negligence of its citizenry, each time resulting in little to no change. Over the past two decades the country has seen revolution after revolution, with the country’s youth largely leading the charge. Even after so many failed revolutions, the youth continue to stand up against Lebanon’s repressive government hoping to achieve the change their predecessors fought for. In a conversation about the October Revolution of 2019, a cousin of mine, aged 30, who recently moved to the US last year stated, “I have lived through and participated in seven revolutions in my lifetime. Nothing ever changes, and it never will,” a sentiment shared by many in Lebanon. Yet time after time the youth continue to fight. For centuries the Lebanese people have been involved in political struggle, forever scarring their social memory across generations. The youth of Lebanon have no other option but to be revolutionary, it is inherent to their identity and society. Their collective historical experience has given them two options: capitulate or continue to resist in the face of futility. They have chosen the latter.
The War Generation
Lebanon was forever changed after its fifteen-year civil war. Tens of thousands of lives were lost, countless Lebanese became internally displaced, almost a million fled the country and the demographic make-up of the country and its regions were drastically altered forever. The war generation had desires of leaving the country they no longer could endure, and many gave up on the possibility of a stable and peaceful Lebanon. People growing up during the war and those born during it only knew Lebanon as an unstable, hostile country, one that did not match the memories of their parents and grandparents. The disconnect between generations was so drastic, one Lebanese woman who spent most of her adolescence in that period stated: “I was talking to my mother the other day and got really angry. I told her she never should have brought us up to think that the world was beautiful. Everything I grew up believing turned out to be wrong in the last few years. She should have trained us to know that life was not so nice, but she was training us for the Lebanon she knew.”
Lebanon’s government has historically been unwilling to provide its citizenry with basic social services, leading to overwhelming distrust of the government. To this day, the Lebanese people do not trust the government, with reports that only eight percent of Lebanese citizens trust the government in 2016 and only nineteen percent in 2018. For the generation that lived through the war, there was no reason for them to have hope for any change after its end.
Renewed Distrust: False Promises and Ta’if’s Shortcomings
The signing of the Ta’if Agreement in 1989, responsible for ending the war, promised a return to normalcy, and changes government that would better serve its constituency. However, the agreement did not live up to its claims, and continued to enable the corrupt and inequitable government and conditions. The agreement stipulated that the Syrian military would withdraw from Lebanon within two years but did not do so until 2005 after the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, which was widely believed to have been done or supported by the Syrian government. According to the agreement, a special parliamentary council was to be created that would establish a timeframe in which political sectarian would be completely abolished, but thirty years later no such council has been created. Rather than abolishing the sectarian system, it simply recreated it while modifying its sectarian power balance. The Ta’if agreement called for the disarmament of all Lebanese militias, with the exception of Hezbollah who maintained their claim as a resistance group against the Israeli Occupation of Lebanon from the early 1980’s until May of 2020. Even after Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah remains armed to this day while participating in both domestic and regional conflicts such as the Syrian Civil War with many Lebanese citizens and politicians view as contributing to Lebanon’s instability. These constant failures and the government’s inability to deliver on its promises to improve its citizens quality of life only led to more distrust in the system by the generations who lived through these eras.
Post-War Reconstruction: Failures of Liberalization
After the destruction of Lebanon’s economy and infrastructure during the Civil War, the country embarked on a reconstruction period led by then-Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a Lebanese businessman who had attained massive wealth in prior decades in the construction industry in Saudi Arabia and established close ties with the Saudi government, even gaining citizenship there in 1978. With his ascension to arguably the most powerful position in government, Hariri brought with his plan to rejuvenate Lebanon’s economy called “Horizon 2000.” Playing a major part in Horizon 2000 was the company Solidere, a public-private partnership in charge of redeveloping Downtown Beirut founded by Hariri in 1994 that to this day enjoys special legal privileges. Hariri’s attempts at liberalizing the Lebanese economy were met with many criticisms by his opposition, with many claiming he used his position as Prime Minister and 10 percent shareholder in Solidere to line his own pockets and those of Lebanon’s political elite, as well as pro-Syria officials. With the future of the Lebanese economy and its people largely in his hands, all Hariri gave them was an upscale, overpriced ghost town in downtown Beirut’s city center that no one could afford to live in. Once again the Lebanese government failed to make good on its promises and failed to improve the lives of its people.
The First Revolution Generation
While it had seemed that past generations of the Lebanese had lost any hope that the country would ever progress, attitudes seemingly changed in the mid-2000’s. By 2005, Lebanon had been under Syrian occupation for almost thirty years. Over the three decades of occupation the Syrian military had engaged in conflict with various Lebanese militias and its military, alleged assassinations of key political opponents and political manipulation, leading many Lebanese to grow to resent the country. After the Ta’if Agreement stipulated Syrian withdrawal and Syrian President Hafez Al Assad’s death in 2000, the Lebanese people began to further question Syria’s occupation as seeing as the mandate which granted them the right to intervene expired in 1982, with Lebanon requesting an end to their occupation in 1986. Still, Syrian President Bashar Al Assad and his predecessor continued to intervene in Lebanon both militarily and politically, instilling resentment in a generation of Lebanese people who only knew Syrian occupation and instability. On February 14th, 2005, Rafik Hariri, no longer Prime Minister, was assassinated in a car bomb attack in Beirut, an event that would set the stage for years of revolutions.
Rafik Hariri’s assassination woke the Lebanese people up. On February 21st, 2005 tens of thousands of Lebanese protestors rallied at Hariri’s assassination site demanding Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon, and blaming Syria and President Emile Lahoud, who was pro-Syrian, for the assassination. These protests were commonly called the “Cedar Revolution,” and would be the first of many revolutions in Lebanon over the next two decades. For weeks, Lebanese protestors held gatherings and rallies in Beirut’s Martyr’s Square. While anti-Syrian protests were not new to Lebanon, there was a shift in demographic participation. Previously anti-Syrian positions and protests were supported by Lebanon’s Christian population, but the Cedar Revolution saw the unification of Lebanese from all sects coming together to oppose the Syrian presence in their country. On March 2nd, Syrian President Bashar Al Assad announced that Syrian troops would withdraw completely from Lebanon within a few months, eventually doing so with the last of their troops leaving Lebanon on April 26th of the same year. However, the anti-Syrian protests did not go unopposed. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah called for a rally in Beirut in support of the Syrian government, with news outlets reporting somewhere between 200,000 to potentially over 1 million protestors in attendance.
The following year saw the beginning of a conflict between Hezbollah and Israel, with Israel claiming Hezbollah initiated it and vis versa. Conflict between the two in Southern Lebanon and Northern Israel had existed for years, making it difficult to say which entity initiated this specific conflict. The war lasted from July 12th until August 14th, and saw the deaths of over 1,100 Lebanese residents, 2.5 billion USD in infrastructural damage, between 2.5 and 3 billion USD in foreign income from visitors that year and an estimated $7 billion overall price tag for reconstruction. While many Lebanese admired Hezbollah’s strength against the much more powerful Israeli Army, others viewed it as another example of Hezbollah’s actions hurting the rest of the country. In the end support for Hezbollah in Lebanon drastically increased as their resistance to destruction was seen as a win, while support for the government once again took a hit for its perceived impotence against Israel’s attacks.
2006 – 2008 Protests
Not long after the end of the war between Hezbollah and Israel, political protests began to break out. After years of destructive and corrupt government policies and officials, empty promises, high unemployment and decades of armed conflict, the Lebanese people had seen enough. While the Cedar Revolution was opposed to the pro-Syrian government of Lebanon, this time protestors were opposed to the US and Saudi Arabia supported government. After weeks of tension, hundreds of thousands of protestors gathered in downtown Beirut, many of whom were Hezbollah supporters, to protest against Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. The protests continued for almost a year and a half, with violent clashes, assassinations, threats of invasion from foreign countries and hundreds of millions of dollars in losses until their end with the election of President Michel Sulaiman in May of 2008. It seemed as though revolution was inevitable no matter the government. The pro-Syrian government was toppled in support of their opposition. Shortly after, their pro-US and Saudi opposition’s government was toppled by a more pro-Syrian opposition.
The Decade of Protests
By the beginning of the next decade, the Lebanese people were no strangers to anti-government protest. Overthrowing governments, removing foreign countries’ occupying militaries and infighting over the governments structure were a regular occurrence. However, as economic and political conditions continued to worsen, the next decade saw even more anti-government opposition movements. The revolutionary generation of the 2000s had vivid memories of the civil war and its immediate aftermath. Unlike their predecessors, they had no memory of a beautiful and relatively stable Lebanon. They only knew instability and destruction. From this they produced the revolutions and protests of the first decade of the new millennium. The generation of revolutionaries that followed had a different experience. While their Lebanon was just as unstable and often destructive as that of their predecessors, their childhood and young adulthood was molded by revolution after revolution. Revolution and protest became the norm. The next decade would see at least five years with major protests and revolutions, internal armed conflict, the fight against ISIS’s insurgency, conflict with Israel and spillover from the Syrian Civil War. Yet and still, the Lebanese youth continued to fight against their corrupt government despite no logical reason for persistent optimism.
As the Arab world was rocked by the notorious “Arab Spring” of 2011, Lebanon was not immune to its impact. On January 12th, 2011, then-Energy Minister Gibran Bassil announced the resignation of ten Hezbollah affiliated opposition ministers, with the Minister of State Adnan Hussein later becoming the eleventh to do so, signaling the fall of Saad Hariri’s First Cabinet as Prime Minister after his father’s assassination. In February, hundreds of protestors marched in Beirut in opposition to the country’s sectarian political system. Between February and June of of 2011, at least six major protests occurred calling for the end of the sectarian political system and the disarmament of Hezbollah, with thousands participating from cities including Beirut, Baalbak, Sidon and Dora. Later in October, threats of the largest general strike in Lebanon’s history by the General Labor Confederation calling for higher wages and increased benefits were suspended after a deal was made with the government, but the teacher’s union rejected the deal and went on strike anyway, putting a halt to the country’s education system. 2011 was also the beginning of spillover from the Syrian Civil War in Lebanon, with consistent incidents of violent inter-country clashes, armed infighting and confrontations with ISIS in Lebanon until 2017.
Failed Governments: A Country with no President
After the fall of Saad Hariri’s government in January of 2011, Lebanon saw the formation of a series of governments, as well as their subsequent dissolution over the next half decade. Five months after the dissolution of Hariri’s government, Najib Mikati, appointed Prime Minister by President Michel Suleiman, had his proposed new cabinet approved. His government did not last long, however, with his resignation and its dissolution in March of 2013. A few weeks later, Tammam Salam received the necessary parliamentary votes to become Prime Minister, but was unable to establish a new government until February of 2014. The government was tasked with overseeing the 2014 Lebanese presidential election, but the country’s political parties could not reach the necessary two-thirds majority vote in parliament to confirm a president until after 46 rounds of voting October of 2016 with the election of President Michel Aoun. For over two years Lebanon had no President, leading to a reported 8% of Lebanese citizens with trust in the government, 17% in the legal system, 14% in political parties and 10% in parliament. Saad Hariri formed a new cabinet, then again in January of 2019 which lasted until his resignation in October of 2019 due to the October Revolution of 2019-20.
Throughout this period, Lebanon experiences a series of protests and revolutions. In July of 2015 Lebanon began to experience a waste crisis. Due to the government’s negligence, waste collection was stopped in the Beirut and Mount Lebanon regions. The waste companies eventually resumed collecting waste but had no location to discard it so they resorted to dumping it in places all over the city, causing a horrid stench. While the protests were sparked by the waste issue, they quickly evolved to anti-government, citing corruption, electricity blackouts and government inefficiency as motivations. After the government deployed army units in response to protests, Lebanese youth began assaulting officers from afar and destroying barricades. By the end of August, over 100,000 Lebanese, largely comprised of the country’s youth, took to the streets to protest against the corrupt government.
October Revolution and Beirut Blast
In October of 2019, the Lebanese government unveiled their plan to introduce new taxes on gas, tobacco and widely used applications like WhatsApp. While many outside of Lebanon called it the “WhatsApp Revolution” initially, crediting the applications proposed tax as the source of the revolution, it was only the tip of the iceberg. In 2019 Lebanon still did not have consistent and reliable electricity. The country’s internet speeds ranked amongst the lowest in the world. The economy was failing, with youth unemployment reaching 37% and overall employment estimated to be 25% in 2019. Within the week leading up to the protest, approximately 100 wildfires throughout Lebanon, burning over 3,000 acres of land. Due to their lack of equipment, the rapid spread of the fires and poor planning, the Lebanese government could not handle the fires alone and requested aid from a number of countries. In the midst of these wildfires, the Lebanese government unveiled their planned taxes to an already abused and hurt citizenry. Protests began the day the new tax plan was released and lasted for over eleven weeks straight through December, and eventually resumed weeks later in January. The first day of the protests saw one of the Minister of Higher Education’s bodyguards shoot stray bullets in the air as protestors approached his vehicle, causing protests to intensify in strength and number.
As the revolution raged on, protestors called for the end of the sectarian political system, legal accountability for the political and economic elite, the end of corruption and improvement in basic governmental services. Although there had been some level of cross-sect unity in past protests and revolutions, the October Revolution had strong effect of unifying the general public against the rich and corrupt political elite. They chanted anti-government slogans in the streets such as “everyone means everyone,” insinuating that the resignation of one politician will not quell them, and that all the political parties were responsible. The revolution saw violent clashes between the political groups such as Amal and Hezbollah and protestors, and the resignation of Prime Minister Hariri and his successor, Prime Minister Hassan Diab. All over the world, members of the Lebanese diaspora participated in protests from abroad, holding protests in front of Lebanese Embassies in Paris, DC, New York and countless other cities. Videos taken in Lebanon of the protests were spread through Instagram, Facebook, Whatsapp and Twitter, and international diaspora groups were formed to assist from abroad. It was the Lebanese youth who left their classrooms to stay in the streets all day and night for months on end. It was the youth who fought against armed bodyguards, police officers, militia men and hostile members of opposing political parties. The youth disseminated information to the diaspora and the rest of the world through social media posts and campaigns. They had been conditioned and trained for this moment their entire lives, and they did everything they could to try to make a dent in the corrupt system that is the Lebanese government. Although the Novel Coronavirus-19 Pandemic quelled the strength of the protests, they were rejuvenated after the disastrous explosion in the Port of Beirut. Within a week of the explosion, Prime Minister Hassan Diab announced his resignation. Shortly after, Lebanese diplomat Mustapha Adib was designated to become Prime Minister but stepped down within a month after being unable to form a cabinet. Less than a month later, Saad Hariri was reappointed Prime Minister, but has yet to form a cabinet. On the year anniversary of the October Revolution, protestors gathered all across Lebanon to celebrate its first anniversary, blocking roads and marching to the site of the Beirut explosion.
The youth of Lebanon have only ever known dysfunction, chaos and instability. There has never been a time in the life of anyone currently defined as “youth” in Lebanon where there has been true economic, political or social security and stability. A twenty-year-old in Lebanon right now would have experienced the occupation of two neighboring countries, five official wars and conflicts, countless assassinations of high-level politicians, extreme economic despair, the lack of basic governmental services like water and electricity, extreme governmental corruption and at least seven official government resignations. Even when faced with all this, they still continue to fight against a corrupt system they have no logical reason to believe will ever change. The youth of Lebanon are themselves a youth movement. Their mere existence as young Lebanese citizens is resistance against the oppressive and dysfunctional nature of their government. It is not by choice that the Lebanese youth are revolutionaries, their world has simply made it so.
II. Advancing the Democracy Path in Jordan: How the Engagement of Youth can Fulfill the Kingdom’s Democracy
Since the early 1990s, Jordan has forged toward a path of democratization, which has seen further developments over the past decade. The small Middle Eastern Kingdom withered the “Arab Spring” storm and looked to facilitate national reforms. Since 2012, Jordan has had 3 parliamentary elections, the last of which took place in November of 2020, and it has introduced the Decentralization Law and its subsequent Decentralization and Municipalities Elections of 2017, a year after its 2016 Parliamentary Elections. The 2017 Decentralization and Municipalities Elections saw the lowest candidacy age in Jordan’s history, 25, resulting in the elections of numerous candidates under the age of 30 who continue to do tremendous jobs in their governorates and municipalities. At the same time, youth remain politically active in elections, as their voter turnout in 2016 exceeded the national average. Despite these reforms, Jordan still faces a number of challenges pertaining to its democracy, including public participation in decision-making, a somewhat limited role of civil society, low voter turnout, and inadequate youth and women involvement, in addition to other challenges such as unemployment, stagnant economy, and corruption, all of which saw successive governments attempting to address.
The resolution of these challenges, particularly those pertaining to democracy in Jordan, begins with widening the scope of youth inclusion in both the political and public life, as the engagement of Jordan’s youth cohort can bridge Jordan’s democracy challenges, particularly due to their willingness to engage in democratic life, their support for democracy, their success in the Decentralization and Municipality Elections, and the qualities they bring to political and public life vis-à-vis the citizen framework, positing them as ideal candidates for what Jordanians prefer in a parliamentary candidate.
Jordan is considered a youthful state, with over two-thirds of its over 10 million population is under the age of 30 and approximately 30% are between 18 and 30 years of age. Jordan faces a particular set of challenges that it attempts to balance through what Steven David calls “omni-balancing. Specifically, Jordan lies at the heart of the Middle East’s geopolitical conflict, surrounded by a turbulent Iraq in the east, a war-torn and unstable Syria in the North, an oil rich but war-engaged Saudi Arabia in the South, and the region’s longest standing conflict in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in the west.
The conflicts in Iraq and Syria, which escalated tremendously in the last decade, have amplified Jordan’s economic challenges, especially with the closing of the borders, limiting interstate trade. In fact, Jordan’s transit trade to and from Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, and Europe used to amount to approximately 30% of its imports and 11% of its exports but took a tremendous hit with the Syrian conflict. Further, the influx of Syrian refugees placed extra burden on the Kingdom’s infrastructure and public service sector. These factors in addition to external debt have contributed to reducing Jordan’s annual GDP growth from 6.5% in 2000-2009, to 2.5% up to 2016, and to a mere 2% as of 2017.
This deterioration of the economy was anything but aided by the lack of natural resources and service-oriented economy, as unemployment continue to dwindle, particularly among youth whose unemployment rate stands somewhere between 30% and 35%. The ongoing global pandemic has further exacerbated these challenges, as 1 in 6 young people have lost their jobs.
In a study conducted by NAMA Strategic Intelligence Solutions and the International Republican Institute, the biggest challenges facing youth include economic problems mainly unemployment, price hikes, and low wages. Such protracted challenges propel young people to long for migration, as over half of Jordan’s youth indicated their intentions to migrate.
Jordan has traditionally responded to economic challenges with democratization, albeit “defensive” as Robinson describes it, which looked to widen the scope of liberal rights. Since 2012, Jordan implemented a number of reforms, particularly electoral, with the aim of widening public participation and representation and yielding an effective parliament. Yet, it still faces a number of challenges, manifested in ineffective political parties, somewhat low voter turnout, lack of confidence in the parliament, and inadequate youth and women representation in the parliament, albeit it has seen tremendous improvements at the Municipal level, as Hamza Tarawneh became the youngest mayor in Jordan’s history and managed to translate that success onto effective programs for his city.
This paper highlights a number of important concepts, provides an overview of youth movements in Jordan, illustrates the major challenges facing youth within democracy in Jordan, and advances why and how the engagement of youth can prove effective for the development of democracy in the Kingdom.
To demonstrate the reasons and means through which Jordan’s youth can develop the Kingdom’s democratic process, it is important to illustrate a number of key concepts. Defining democracy takes a number of different approaches. Patrick O’Neil defines democracy as a “system of government that promotes participation, competition, and liberty. David Beetham argues that it is imperative to start from foundational equality, particularly in relation to the equality of capacity in self-determination, rationality, and political equality as he reiterates Robert Dahl’s axiomatic definition. Dahl illustrates that democracy is defined on the basis of two measurable factors: the extent of citizen participation in the political process, or “political equality”, and the degree to which public contestation is accepted, or “political freedom”, under which civil liberties and political rights fall, including the various freedoms and candidacy eligibility, to name a few.
Further, Tilly reasons that democracy does not have a set path or universally acceptable conditions. He adds that identifying paths falls short of specifying any cause-effect relations. Instead, he adopts a political process analysis framework within which he argues that democratization is a movement towards broad and equal citizenship who are bonded by consultations and networks of trust, as the extent to which these factors are effective depend heavily on state capacity. Kohn reiterates Tilly and Putman’s emphasis on trust as a mechanism linking civil society with good governance. He adds that political subcultures are important to facilitate and reconcile opposing interests into consensual political solutions, as the argument illustrates that the associations such as recreational societies, women and youth groups, and cooperatives provide an effective prediction of democratic success. Berman adds another component illustrating that state political institutions have to be responsive in order for an active civil society to strengthen democracy. David Easton also affirms the importance of an effective political system in the overall political process as he indicates that demands and support can yield effective decisions or policies as outputs when the political system is strong and responsive.
Moreover, Robert Putman in Making Democracy Work emphasizes the importance of trust among the civic community in developing successful institutions, whereby a level of mutual trust among citizens can yield an effective democracy, even adding that such a vibrant civil society creates wealth, rather than wealth creating a civil society, meaning the process has to be bottom up. Jeffrey Abramson adds that such trust, especially state-society trust, grows when democratic institutions look to achieve two imperatives: anti-corruption and guarding against arbitrary rule, or in other words, to represent people’s interests.
Looking at youth and democracy, an important component is to unfold what youth generally call for through activism. Yohalem and Martin argue that youth’s civic participation is important for “their own individual development and as a vehicle for public contribution and community change.” The latter factor, referred to by Nermin Allam’s as the citizen frame, in which individuals demand, call for, or address challenges and issues that are of national and/or public concern rather than challenges that are perceived to represent one group. Such an approach was prevalent in the Arab Spring as well as the Post-Arab Spring demonstrations and apolitical activism.
Youth Movements in Jordan
To keep the timeline narrowed, the following provides an overview of youth movements in Jordan during the Arab Spring and Post-Arab Spring. In 2012, a wave of demonstrations broke throughout Jordan, held in all 12 governorates with the central location being “Al-Dakhilyah Circle (the Ministry of Interior Circle – also known as Jamal Abdel-Nasser Circle)”. While the demonstrations featured Jordanians of all backgrounds, youth held a central role, protesting deteriorating livelihoods, unemployment, and austerity measures. Came to be known as Hirak, these demonstrations did not ignore the demands of the wider Jordanian population, instead, “Hirak activists, essentially and expectedly, were magnifying them.”
Post 2012 demonstrations followed a similar approach, adopting the citizen frame, demanding improved conditions and better response to the economic challenges. This time demonstrating at the Fourth Circle, right outside the Prime Ministry, demonstrators were still predominantly made of young people, mostly university educated and skilled professionals including doctors, lawyers, and engineers. Demonstrators demanded the sacking of then Prime Minister Hani Mulki whose public confidence was the lowest recorded figure in Jordan’s history. Youth demonstrated against the worsening of unemployment rates, price hikes, proposed tax laws, and other austerity measures in addition to the Gas Deal, all of which were issues of concern for the wider Jordanian population.
Other notable efforts include a more organized campaign for abolishing Article 308 of the Penal Code, which looked to stop impunity of perpetrators and protect survivors of sexual based violence, and it was organized by many organizations including SIGI, JOHUD, and JNCW and gained major youth support, manifested in student initiatives and wider participation in the campaign activities and outreach.
Challenges to Democracy and Youth Participation in Jordan
At the heart of challenges facing youth in the democratic life in Jordan is the age of candidacy. The Constitution stipulates that a candidate must be at least 30 years of age at the time of assuming a seat in Parliament. On a positive note, the Decentralization and Municipalities Elections of 2017 featured a lowered candidacy age of 25 while that for the Parliament remains at 30, as the average age of the 2016-2020 Parliament started at 51 years. This age restriction limits young people from realizing their potential and transforming their citizen frame approach onto the legislature. Milton-Edwards illustrates that youth face higher barriers to political participation and are offered marginal invitation into participation and civic life, as they remain minorly included in learning and playing any key roles in the state’s decision-making process. With that, young citizens become apathetic, dissatisfied, disenchanted, and worse of all, susceptible to radicalization.
The second challenge pertains to the successive and short-lived electoral laws. Prior to each of the previous elections, particularly that of 2013 and 2016, incumbent Parliaments looked to mirror Jordanians’ demands for an effective and representative electoral law. The 2010 Parliamentary Elections adopted a single-member-district (SMD) one-person-one-vote system. In 2013, the law transformed into a mixed voting system, combining both SMD and proportional representation (PR) system, with the PR portion being 27 seats out of then 150 seats, which proved insufficient for any of the national blocs to assume any sort of majority within the 2013 Parliament. In 2016, the electoral law shifted towards an open-list proportional system for each of the multimember electoral districts, a system that was attempted again in 2020. With that, a staggering 84% of Jordanian young people believe that elections do not reflect the will of the people.
The third challenge is manifested in weak levels of trust in democratic institutions among youth in Jordan. For instance, a mere 15% of Jordan’s young population indicated having high or moderate confidence in the Parliament, compared to 23% for political parties, and 37% in the Independent Elections Commission (IEC), for an aggregated level of confidence of 25% in the “democratic apparatus.”
Why Youth Engagement is the Answer
There are a number of factors that posit the youth cohort in Jordan viably to drive the democratic process forward. First of all, Beetham’s equality assumption within the theory of democracy asserts that policy and political and administrative actions correspond to the preferences of a majority of citizens. Triangulating this assumption with Allam’s citizen frame, Jordanian youth have demonstrated a clear reiteration of the preferences of a majority of citizens, as they showed throughout the various demonstrations, protests, and other forms of activism that the needs of the people ought to be prioritized.
Secondly, looking at voter turnout in Jordan, we see a moderate to high levels of youth voter turnout. For the 2016 Parliamentary elections, youth voter turnout amounted to 35% for those aged 18-30, about one percentage point below the national average of 36.1%, yet those aged 18-24 turned out to elections at a higher rate than the average with 38%, showing a clear promise among recent graduates. As for the 2017 Decentralization and Municipalities Elections, the national voter turnout average amounted to approximately 31%. Youth aged 18-24, once again, voted at a rate higher than the national average with 33.3% whereas those aged 25-30 underscored with 27.1%. A caveat is that registration for elections is automatic in Jordan, thus, these numbers are calculated against the voting age and eligible voters. Looking at the 2020 Parliamentary Elections, the national voter turnout declined massively, culminating in a modest 29.9% arguably due to the ongoing COVID-19 global pandemic. While age disaggregated data is not yet available, observers note a low urban youth turnout but very high Bedouin youth turnout.
Overall, the younger cohort demonstrate high levels of engagement, voting above average, which reflects positively on their first introduction into the democratic life. However, disenchantment appears to catch up with them toward their second or third election cycle, contributing to a reduced voter turnout coupled with steady low confidence in the democracy apparatus, as indicated earlier. Voter retention is indeed a challenge globally, and Jordan is not an exception in this case. Jordan can perhaps bridge this gap by illustrating that political and public life have a central place for youth. The extent to which a person perceives the impact of their vote plays a large role in whether or not they choose to vote again.
Thirdly, not only did youth demonstrate a high voter turnout, but they also enjoyed some successful results, as they are increasingly seeking to contribute their voices at the national and local levels. As such, 5.4% of all candidates were aged under 30 years, for the first time in any elections in Jordan, with 27-year-old Hamza Tarawneh becoming Moab’s Mayor in Karak Governorate, and Zainab Zubeid, 30 years old, winning a seat in the Northern Badia district making her the youngest woman parliamentarian in the history of Jordan. Additionally, youth have supported and facilitated the electoral process by volunteering with the IEC to urge people to vote, as notably, over 200,000 young volunteers joined the Commission’s campaign in 2017.
The fourth factor pertains to youth’s general value system in Jordan. IRI and NAMA conducted a national survey in 2019 studying the state of democracy in Jordan. The study shows that youth care to a great extent about political reform in Jordan. In fact, Jordanian youth strongly believe that political, economic, and social reform should be introduced gradually rather than all at once, which reflects their belief that the process takes time. Moreover, approximately 58% of Jordanian youth demonstrate strong affinity towards pluralistic political system, which nationalist, left wing, right wing, and Islamist parties compete in parliamentary elections, as opposed to 38% for those who support a system that provides effective services without giving them the right to participate. For a country that faces major economic challenges, affecting youth in particular, this support shows strong affinity towards the essentials of democracy.
Furthermore, the majority of young Jordanians believe strongly in the importance of women inclusion in the decision-making process and across all sectors, including as ministers and prime ministers. Additionally, over two-thirds prefer electoral candidates who retain qualifications, political experience, and defined ideology. Young people’s value system leans in support of democratic ideals, and when they engage in national discourse, their demands reflect those of the broader population’s. Jordan’s youth are the candidates Jordanians want to represent their concerns.
Fifth, the central question, here, is have the interest, particularly economic interests, become ripe enough to represent at the political level? For over 30 years, the government has dealt with economic challenges with certain electoral reforms. With over two-thirds of the population under the age of 30 who are experiencing the worst of economic challenges, these interests have indeed become ripe and the opportunity should be provided for youth to provide fresh energy, alternative solutions, and revoice people’s concerns at the national political scene.
This leads to the sixth factor, which relates to Steven David’s omni-balancing. Further inclusion and proper engagement of youth in the political and public life in Jordan can address Jordan’s internal security dilemma, as they can (a) consistently voice Jordanians’ demands; (b) provide alternative strategies, solutions, and approaches to the economic challenges; (c) further the democratic ideals, especially social equality; (d) strengthen civil society; and (e) mend state-society relations, all of which are components contributing to the success and effectiveness of democracy as well as responding to the domestic side of omni-balancing.
How to Effectively Engage Youth in the Democratic Process
For these factors to be realized, youth are ought to be provided with the opportunity to widen the scope for their engagement in public and political life. Jordanian youth demonstrate a very high affinity and pride in their country, and when compared with other MENA youth, they come second only to Qatari youth. They identify quite closely with their country, with their cities, and with their fellow citizens. These affinities have finally begun to translate onto their involvement in public life.
Youth nowadays value volunteerism much more than they did before; they are engaging in voluntary work, association, initiatives, and campaigns, most of which address challenges of concern for the wider public, such as unemployment. The Ministry of Youth (MOY), particularly between 2019 and 2020, has worked tirelessly to amplify these factors. The Ministry has launched a number of programs and initiatives, including, but not limited to, four national assemblies for Jordanian entrepreneurs, “My Skills” Program, “Jordanian Volunteerism Days” Initiative, “Our Youth is Strength” Program, “Creativity and Innovation Camps” Program, and the “Jordanian Volunteerism Bank”, in addition to other multiple training programs and initiatives. These initiatives have reflected positive enhances in youth’s voluntary work and public life engagement, resulting in tens of youth-led initiatives.
Moreover, international organizations, particularly the National Democratic Institute (NDI) has worked intensively on youth engagement through the “Ana Usharek (I participate) and “Usharek+” programs, which aim towards growing youth’s interests and participation in political and civic life through introducing democratic ideas.
At the same time, it is important to not let these successes push us toward complacency. Milton-Edwards asserts that there remains a need to bolster government-led youth initiatives by supporting and strengthen MOY along with enhancing the coordination among government institutions, NGOs, and donors. She adds that curriculums should emphasize the importance of civic engagement in addition to incorporating a youth inclusion component for NGOs and CBOs’ registration process. She indicates, furthermore, that the private sector should strengthen its ties with the education system to contribute to resolving the challenges associated with waithood.
On the political side, the success brought about with the 2016 Decentralization and Municipalities Elections should be mirrored onto the Parliamentary Elections. This would widen the pluralism scope and mend the inclusion gap. It would result in more issues raised at the national level through a more representative parliament. Youth would be provided with the national and democratic platform to demonstrate the citizen frame, thus magnifying the concerns of the people. Milton-Edwards suggests that there is a need to foster youth political inclusion by lowering the candidacy age, introducing youth quotas in the parliament and even municipal councils, and emphasizing youth voter outreach campaigns. It is somewhat difficult to assert that lowering the candidacy age would directly contribute to voter retention, a challenge facing youth voter turnout post 25, but further engagement of youth in the decision-making process can rally voters through direct, issue-specific, and targeted messaging, which would be successful should it mirror the concerns of the people and counter it with clear solution-based policy campaigns.
Jordan has implemented a number of positive reforms over the past decade with the aim of facilitating an effective, gradual democratic reform. Jordan’s democratic journey still faces a number of challenges that hinder its efficiency and efficacy, particularly when it comes to the degree of youth engagement in political and civic life. The Kingdom also faces serious economic challenges, manifested in unemployment, price hikes, external debt, and declining GDP growth. Jordan’s youth population have been heavily impacted by these challenges over the past decade and have voiced their concerns through elections, demonstrations, and nontraditional activism such as online. This group has also demonstrated apolitical activism in the form of increasing voluntary work. Whether political or apolitical, Jordan’s youth echo the concerns of the wider population through what can be called the citizen frame. In this paper, I attempted to illustrate that the qualities youth possess, coupled with the mannerisms through which they practice activism in political and public life, posit them as ideal candidates to contribute at a larger scale to the resolution of the challenges Jordan faces. Jordan should capitalize on the successes brought about with the 2016 Decentralization and Municipal Elections and the initiatives implemented by the Ministry of Youth, to further widen the scope for youth engagement in public and political life, starting with lowering the candidacy age for Parliamentary elections.
III. Youth of Iraq and Lessons of the 2019 Iraq Protest Movement
The country of Iraq is no stranger to unrest. The country has undergone a series of coups throughout the 20th century that very few Middle East and North Africa (MENA) countries have seen. This custom was abruptly stopped after the rise of Saddam Hussein to power in 1979. This Baath party member succeeded in quashing dissent in the country by first going to war with Iran for 8 years, and then invading Kuwait with all the backlash and repercussions that followed, leading up to the American invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Iraq is undergoing a compounded crisis right now. The coronavirus is wreaking havoc in the country, while at the same time Iraqis are still pursuing a protest movement that just celebrated its first anniversary last October. This paper will argue that the 2019 protest movement in Iraq was categorically different than any other movement that the country had seen since the 2003 American occupation. It will also show the primordial role that youth played in this movement and how they succeeded through building a cross-sectarian nationalist frame.
After the American invasion of 2003, a new Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) was put in place. Paul Bremmer – the head of the CPA- spearheaded many actions, but two main actions will have dire repercussions for the future of Iraq. The first one was what he dubbed ‘de-Baathification’ of Iraq in a misguided analogy to the process of post-Nazi Germany. As we know now, this action led to the removal of hundreds of thousands of Sunnis from the military and the onset of the civil war and everything that followed. In parallel with this process, the CPA was responsible for establishing a power sharing mechanism or political apportioning called Muhasasa. Through this mechanism, each of the main communities in Iraq would have a seat at the table, so that Sunnis, Shia, and Kurds can contribute to running the country. The Muhasasa “restructured the political field and the state, empowering politicians who were championing sectarian identities as the dominant way to reclassify the social world.” These dynamics were happening at the same time and only fed into each other. The new sectarian make-up of the political landscape only exacerbated the sectarian lens through which that many communities started seeing themselves. This political apportioning which was viewed as a solution to the sectarian makeup of the country, ended up being the tool through which elites captured
Context of the Protests
Finally, the direct and latest link to the start of the protests is the ousting of the Counter-terrorism chief General Abdelwahab al-Saâdi. This general is credited with the successes of the Iraqi military against ISIS and was well loved across all sections of the Iraqi population. He was transferred from his post to another position within the ministry of Defense, in a move that everyone saw as a purge because of fears of his rising notoriety. Many observers saw this also from the lens of the battles of influence over Iraq that many foreign states are engaged in. One of the reasons Saâdi was seen as a potential threat is his trainings in the U.S., and his cross-sectarian notoriety, which was seen as a threat to the sectarian political apportioning that the elites of the country are managing.
On October 1st – the first day of the protests- young unemployed graduates, people were angry at the ousting of Saâdi, and people who came to condemn the poor social services and the partisan apportionment (Muhasasa) came to the streets of Baghdad (the Tahrir Square) and other cities (Missan and Wassit). The harsh state response pushed tens of thousands of Iraqis to join the protests in these 3 places, in addition to many other cities at the end of the first week of the protests. In the following weeks, state security agencies and unnamed gunmen and snipers opened fire on the protesters. Live ammunition was used against unarmed civilians, and tear gas ganister were shot directly into the heads of protesters, which led to brutal scenes on the ground.
A committee formed by the government after a general outcry to investigate the violence against protesters released a report in which they confirmed the death of 149 protester and 8 law enforcement agents, the use of snipers to shoot at protesters, and released a number of recommendations including the firing of multiple security agencies’ top officials if justice is to be served.
A Typology of the Protesters
One of the main areas of difference between this wave of protests and all other protest movements that came before is the cross-sectarian and cross socioeconomic base of the protest movement. Since the American invasion of Iraq, there were many social movements sweeping the country. Some of them were organized by the nascent post-2003 political parties, but others were managed and led by dynamics outside the political spectrum, the latest of which is the mass movement starting in October 2019. A typology that might be interesting in distinguishing between the movements linked to political parties and the ones that come from outside the political spectrum is that the ones outside political parties always emanate from socioeconomic grievances linked to the bad management of basic services such as water and electricity and the alarming rise of unemployment. Nonetheless, none of these past movements has ever led to as wide of a base as the one spearheading the movement.
The movement was led youth between 15 and 25 who never saw the reign of Saddam Hussein and who are fed up with the current political elite and the political apportioning (Muhasasa), who do not benefit from the system and who better off in a democratic system. Added to them are former Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) foot soldiers -also mainly youth- who found themselves excluded from patronage connections after the force was brought under the Iraqi military. Also, and since the initial march there was a big presence of young graduates who have been protesting for months and were met with harsh state response. youth from all classes of society joined the protests, students supported tuk-tuk drivers (mostly from poor and working-class neighborhoods), teachers, oil workers, unemployed university graduates, and artists all were represented in the protests.
Youth played a major role in showing up in the streets, managing the day-to-day operations of the sit-ins, running the media realm, supporting protesters on the frontline, building coalitions inside and outside the country, and many other aspects of running a full-scale uprising against a whole political system. A group of youth that some actually dub as the heroes of the movement are the tuk-tuk drivers who became a symbol of the protest. Until recently, the tuk-tuk symbolized the lost dreams of thousands of young Iraqis who had to improvise in light of a complete lack of economic opportunities. The tuk-tuk is actually not legal, which is the reason why they were mostly operating in the outskirts of Baghdad. One of the anecdotes of the movement is that the protesters named their first magazine “tuk-tuk” to symbolize the importance that tuk-tuks played in transporting the wounded, bringing medical supplies to make-shift clinics, transporting people in and out of the protests, and bringing food and other needed items to demonstrators.
Although the movement was leaderless as many accounts have shown, if a group was to be anointed leader it would be the youth of Iraq. They learned from the lessons of the first wave of the protests that swept through the MENA region. They also learned from their own internal waves of protests. But they also learned from what is happening in other MENA countries at the same time, and from movements from across the world.
To call for the protests, Iraqis successfully used social media platforms to urge their fellow citizens to take to the streets. For instance, the first time the hashtag #نازل_اخذ_حقي (I am going out to get my right) appeared was on September 21, 2019. Since then, this hashtag –in addition to the hashtag #نريد_وطن (we want a homeland) — have generated thousands of tweets, peaking around critical dates in the history of the protests.
The protests relied heavily (might be the biggest in the first and second waves of MENA protests) on national flags. The Iraqi flags came to symbolize and paint a picture for the hashtag (we want a homeland): the protests call for a homeland independent of any foreign interference or influence. It rejects any attempts to paint the protests in a sectarian lens and frame the protest within a citizen frame that was used in other localities.
Some of the chants on the ground also echoed this call for an independent nation. In one of those chants, a protest leader asks and then protesters respond: أنا إيراني؟ لا. أنا أمريكي؟ لا. أنا سعودي؟ لا. أنا عراقي؟ ياااااا. (Am I Iranian? No, Am I American? No, Am I Iraqi? Yes). The protests also heavily relied on music. I am hesitant to entertain a cultural argument here. The Iraqi population is known for its love for music, and this might have jumped into the protests. Many songs were made specifically to cheer the protests and protesters. Furthermore, the protesters created vigils for the dead. The vigils contained flags of Iraq, on them photos of the dead and screen shots of their pictures or social media conversations, candles, and roses are ornamenting the vigils.
The “Turkish restaurant” represents a strategic position for both the security forces and the demonstrators. The restaurant faces Tahrir Square, which made it an important spot for security agencies to monitor multiple waves of protests since 2011. Protesters understood this aspect and made taking over the restaurant a strategic goal. At some point, the restaurant housed over 8000 protesters who organized different activities such as singing, arts, and photography. Tuk-tuk drivers played a crucial role within the restaurant ecosystem; they were responsible for delivering everything protesters need from food to medical supplies. The symbolism of the building was so powerful that protesters in other cities took over buildings and named it “The Turkish Restaurant”.
Throughout the protest movement, the Iraqi media has been engaged in all sorts of attacks against protesters. They vilified them, they accused them of treason, of serving foreign agendas, of being puppets of the U.S. The media very often used the term “Joker” to refer to a conspiracy against Iraq supported by the U.S. The same language was used by political/religious leaders vilifying protests and protesters. One TV personality in particular that was the target of many of these attacks is Ahmad al-Bashir who runs a satirical show on the German channel DW al-Bashir Show, and who was considered by many as the voice of the movement abroad.
Why is This One Different?
As stated before, this movement is not the first to rock Iraq since 2003. There are certainly similarities with previous movements, especially that of 2018. They both came in the midst of government formation negotiations. Then, they both have started from socioeconomic grievances to expand beyond it to call for political reforms (albeit in 2019 the protesters called for the system to be overthrown). Also, the state response is very similar, in the fact that they both were faced with outsized violence.
Nevertheless, the movement of 2019 is unique in that even though the protests called for many reforms in multiple sectors, if there should be a theme that united all the protesters is that they wanted an end to the political apportionment (Muhasasa). They blamed political parties for the fate of Iraq, and as a result, protesters set fires to the offices of multiple political parties in Nasiriya, Dhi Kar, Wassit, and other localities. This is a new development in social movements in the modern history if Iraq.
To show their rejection for Iranian influence over Iraq, protesters set fires to Iranian consulates in Najaf Sharif twice in a few days. They also burned the Iranian consulate in the city of Karbala, burned the Iranian flag in the front of the consulate, and put the Iraqi national flag instead. The events can have significant repercussions for the future of Iraq: the events show that Iran does not have the same level of reverence that Iraqis showed it before, and this is also a major development from any previous movement in modern Iraqi political history.
Finally, one of the most enduring lessons of the protests and the one that can deeply transform the Iraqi society in the future is the demystification and the religious and the ceasing to consider the religious figure (The mullahsرجال الدين، أصحاب العمامات، الملات) sacred.
In a country like Iraq, political violence has been intertwined with the history of the country. The 2003 U.S. invasion has only made matters worse by setting up a political apportioning system called Muhasasa. This system allowed for the representation of Shia, Sunnis, and Kurds in political positions. This system which was set up to overcome the communal differences ended up exacerbating them and locking out millions of Iraqis from the networks of privileges that were formed as a result.
As a result of a collation of multiple constituencies, Iraqi youth have spearheaded the movement and created a citizen framework that overcame the sectarian and ethnic differences that the ruling elites used to keep the networks siloed. The movement was partially successful -as it is still happening at the moment, and because there ought to be sometime between the end of the movement and an objective assessment of all its goals. But as it stands today, the movement was first successful in making the end of the whole political system a primary goal and the end of the Muhasasa system a clear first step. Also, they were successful in framing the movement as a cross-sectarian, cross generational, and cross-class movement that encompasses all Iraqis under one flag and for one homeland. Finally, the movement was able to break away from the tight grip that religious figures came to play in mainstream Iraqi politics and demystify mane of their most poignant arguments.
IV. Youth Inclusion in the Decision-Making Process in Jordan and Morocco
Academic research has zoomed in on many demographic categories, from gender to race and from ethnicity to religion; yet, academic research has not focused on youth an important demographic unit. Youth in academic research is generally reactive to issues likely to be faced by youth, and they tend to be perceived as either an issue in themselves, a cause for an issue, or victims for an issue, with examples featuring issues related to education such as retention, truancy, and lack of resilience to waithood. Nonetheless, the geopolitical global context and the role played by youth throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region during the Arab Spring and beyond made many governments and researchers start giving youth more emphasis as a solid, contributing group, with an agency to play an important role in various sectors.
Furthermore, youth in mainstream literature have been viewed as either perpetrators or as victims of violence. While in the past they were viewed as the promise for a greater future, this has not been the case for youth lately. They are rarely perceived as viable decision-makers; stakeholders, or contributors to the decision-making process, particularly in the MENA region. Such a reality contradicts another one. It exposes the fact that youth are some of the most active political actors in the region. In fact, Rased in Jordan showed that young Jordanians contributed the highest voter turnout in the 2016 Parliamentary elections and in the 2017 Municipalities and Governorate Councils Elections, with the average turnout of young voters was 38%, higher than the national average of 36%. Moreover, in the 2017 local elections, 5.4% of all candidates were aged under 30 years, with some notable successes, such as the 27-year-old Hamza Tarawneh, who won as Mayor in the municipality of Moab in Karak.
While both Jordanian and Moroccan youth feel disenchanted with the electoral process, we see Jordanian youth going to the ballots more than their Moroccan counterparts. At face-value, this can be explained by the discrepancy in the level of the democratic process in the two kingdoms, whereby Morocco has had a longer history of elections that Jordan, thus its young voters are likely to be more disenchanted and turn to alternative forms of participation. In Fact, Moroccan youth are always leading social and political movements that spring up every now and then. They favor the alternative form “politics from below”, mainly through voicing their opinions on the internet, and especially, in political demonstrations and protests. Saloua Zerhouni illustrates that youth activism in Morocco is not defined primarily by the formal spaces of participation but by the degree of influence they can achieve through other venues.
Many countries in the MENA region are going through what is known as a youth bulge, which tends to dominate rhetoric associated with youth. Lin defines youth bulge as a demographic pattern where a large share of the population is comprised of children and young adults. He adds that youth bulge is often associated with developing or least developed countries. As a phenomenon, it is a result of a success in reducing infant mortality coupled with high fertility rates. Inayatullah seconds Lin and illustrates that a youth bulge can be seen through three scenarios: either leading to civil conflicts, creating social conditions to ensure their employment, or can help in national or global peace building or development, as these scenarios fit within the wider narrative of youth as either perpetrators or victims, or as demographic dividend or a time bomb.
Lin explains that if countries facing a youth bulge manage to incorporate young adults into the workforce, dependency ratio will decline and the level of average income per capita would normally increase, turning youth bulge into a demographic dividend. On the other hand, if states do not manage to capture the opportunity and youth are unable to find employment and income, it would turn into a demographic bomb, and with that, a youth bulge would become a large group of disenchanted young people likely to become a source of sociopolitical instability. If we were to apply this concept onto youth engagement in decision making, we find similar results. The more engaged they are, a state’s policymaking would benefit from a dividend. If a state chooses to alienate this group, it would likely face unstable consequences.
Enter the 2011 Arab Spring movements; with a large mass of politically alienated and socioeconomically disenchanted youth. It did not take long for states in the region to start promoting a message that supports youth inclusion in decision making. Perhaps the most essential of which was the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2250 on Youth Peace and Security, which called on member states to engage youth meaningfully in the decision-making process. This resolution was the culmination point following a series of historic events calling for youth inclusion, including the World Programme of Action for Youth; the Guiding Principles on Young People’s Participation in Peacebuilding; the Global Forum on Youth, Peace and Security; the Amman Declaration on Youth, Peace and Security; and the Global Youth Summit against Violent Extremism and the Action Agenda to Prevent Violent Extremism and Promote Peace. These global efforts were met by many local similar efforts and positive messages.
While Morocco and Jordan are among the countries of the MENA region that are engaged in this kind of rhetorical messaging promoting policies supporting youth inclusion, many reports create the feeling of disappointment and disenfranchisement of youth in these two countries. These zigzags in narrative are perplexing for youth, especially that the resolution was ironically drafted in Jordan with heavy presence from Morocco. To that end, this paper studies the extent to which the policies promoted by Morocco and Jordan are serious in dealing with the inclusion of youth in the decision-making process. Through the various disciplines examined, we find that Morocco and Jordan are lacking in terms of youth political inclusion despite the rhetoric in support of it.
Importance of Research
The importance of the question asked is manifold. The demographic weight of the youth populations is hard to miss. In morocco, the median age is 29, persons aged 15-29 comprise for nearly 25% along with over 26% aged under 14. In Jordan, the median age is 22.4, persons aged 15-29 comprise for 28% of the total population, and over 70% of the Jordanian population is under the age of 30. In terms of the working force, Moroccan Youth represent 28.7% of the workforce but have an unemployment rate of 26.7%, four percentage points higher than last year. Furthermore, 80% of the nation’s unemployed people are aged 15-34. As for Jordan, youth unemployment rate stands at 36.7%. While youth labor force participation rate for Jordanian youth is outdated with around 27% in 2010, it is estimated to be lower than the average of the same indicator for the same age group in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.
% of population aged 15-29
% of population aged under 14
Labor force participate rate
The magnitude of youth populations in Morocco and Jordan makes an investigation of their roles in decision making even more important. A look at the available data from these two countries on the number of elected offices led by youth reveals an under-representation of youth in multiple levels of the decision-making apparatus. Looking at the Jordanian context, none of the MPs are under the age of 30. This is the direct result of stipulations in the constitution that members of parliament must be at least 30 years old. A large proportion of young voters are therefore prevented from being able to run for the parliament. Candidates for local elections (Municipalities and Governorate Councils) must be at least 25 years. People under the age of 30 are unrepresented in the Jordanian Parliament. In fact, the youngest MP is Zainab Al Zubaidi at 30 years of age, with the median age of an MP in the Parliament is 51 years of age. For local elections, about 6% of all candidates were under the age of 30, which inspired young voters to achieve some 46% voter turnout, about 12 points higher than the national average. In Morocco, a mere 1.5% are under the age of 30 in the Parliament, with Yassine Radi being the youngest at 24 years old. It is also worthy to mention that Moroccan youth have a reserved quota of 30 seats in the parliament though it extends the definition of youth in parliament to encompass those aged up to 40. This quota was also adopted following the 2011 Arab Spring.
Candidacy age (Parliament)
Candidacy age (local councils)
Number of Youth MPs under 30
% of MPs under 30
The disparity between the youth demographic data in Morocco and Jordan and their political representation leads to question the policy choices and political rhetoric of these states in official and public conversation. Representation is vital for democracy, especially when it incorporates true plurality, which means that all groups of society get equal representation in decision making. This seems to exclude women and youth. According to International Parliamentary Union, of the 45,000 parliamentarians around the world, only 2.2% is under the age of 30, and over 30% of world elected lower houses have no representation under 30 while over 76% of world upper house have no representatives under the age of 30. It is worthy of mention that more than 40 countries have none. These numbers illustrate the true magnitude of this trend globally.
As was clear from our attempt to back our paper with demographic data on youth populations, this age group is very elusive and hard to define. In fact, while youth in the Moroccan Parliament are those aged 23-40, in the Jordanian context they are generally identified as those who are under 35 in an attempt to highlight minor successes, albeit, the general consensus remain that the age is 30. As such, these discrepancies, whether between the two countries or even within each country individually, illustrate the absence of an agreed upon definition for youth in decision-making on one hand, and in general on the other hand.
On the whole, the United Nations has two overlapping age group definitions: adolescents who are those aged between 10 and 19, and youth who are those aged between 15 and 24. UNDP’s Youth Strategy illustrates that they focus on youth aged 15-24, the range may extend to incorporate those aged up to 30 or even 35. This is designed, purposefully flexible, to ensure that the strategy can be applicable within the national context and to be responsive to the diverse needs to youth in each country. As for the Arab league, it has its own definition of who are youth. It considers youth as those aged between the ages of 15 to 29. In Jordan, youth were defined as those aged 12-30 in its National Youth Strategy of 2005-2009, before it was amended to divide youth into two groups: those aged 10-17 and those aged 18-30 in its Implementation of the National Youth Strategy Project 2017-2019. In Morocco, on the other hand, people who are between the ages of 18 and 35 are all considered youth.
To continue with our attempt to clarify the concepts that are approached in this paper, the concept of youth political inclusion and youth engagement is important to define here. youth participation, according to the UNGA, is defined as “economic participation, relating to work and development; political participation, relating to decision-making processes; social participation, relating to community involvement; and cultural participation, relating to the arts, cultural values and expression.”
This definition was altered to incorporate a more serious definition, as to enable them to be actively engaged in shaping lasting peace and contributing to justice and reconciliation, as they represent a unique demographic dividend that can contribute to lasting peace and prosperity if inclusive policies were put in place. Furthermore, definitions of youth participation include “creating opportunities for young people to be involved in influencing, shaping, designing and contributing to policy and the development of services and program. Youth engagement is often associate with labels such as “meaningful” and “effective”. As such, it identifies youth engagement as a participatory process in which their ideas, expertise, and perspectives are integrated within a program, policy, and institutional decision-making structure, especially when they affect their lives directly.
Youth engagement in academia, whether in the decision-making apparatus or in socioeconomic life, appears to be a mere response to an issue, often perceived to be faced by youth, and only youth. Such a thought can also be seen in, and perhaps adopted from, the idea of engaging students in school/university activities as a means to prevent them from falling in problematic patterns. Moreover, it comes as a response to the perception that youth are always at risk. Youth engagement is often associated with the approval and incentives to be given by adults, such as certifications and grades. Fletcher indicates that there is an apparent confusion between “youth engagement” and “youth inclusion”. He adds that engaged youth are those experiencing sustained connections in ways adults approve of and acknowledge, particularly in schools, youth specific programs, and athletic programs. Disengaged youth are those who are not engaged in such connections which adults approve of. Such definitions imply a protective narrative and an active control of youth in order to ensure they do not harm themselves or their societies. As such, youth inclusion and even engagement has served to respond to those at risk, which includes school dropouts, drug abusers, and adolescents with personality disorders.
Other negative approaches that feature in literature include an emphasis on deeming youth “uninterested”, “indifferent”, and “apathetic” to engagement in decision making. Boyte cites that youth are perceived in mainstream literature to have a universal hatred towards public affairs, disgusted with adult hypocrisy, furious with their apparent inaction towards social issues, cynical about older styles of protests, and seem disenchanted with mainstream means. He adds that education does not have a positive impact on changing these perceptions.
There are many voices and schools of thoughts that make youth participation a cornerstone of a healthy state. Proponents of sustainable human development posit that development requires the participation of all members of society, from the framing of the priorities to the implementation of development projects. Amartya Sen in his seminal book Development as Freedom argues that the role of the state is to expand the capacities and choices of all members of the community, including its youth. Youth capacity building includes including them in decision making and mentoring them to take the lead in the future. This is the more important since all types of societal decisions will affect youth for a longer term than older people, since youth will stay on this earth for longer times. For instance, decisions related to climate change and the environment in general will affect the youth for longer, and therefore, their inclusion is primordial to create participatory and inclusive decisions.
Another dynamic that is participatory and requires the inclusion of all members of society is democracy. Democracy is based on creating the space for all people to voice their opinions in public decision making, to participate and compete within a liberal setting. Therefore, there would not be any democracy if the largest demographic group is excluded from participating in political and other forms of decision making. The political implications of youth exclusions from decision making create the need to posit this issue within disciplinary frameworks.
Research tackling youth engagement in decision making also highlights a number of advantages to the overall political process and the quality of decisions made with their inclusion on the table. Zeldin, McDaniel, Topitzes, and Calvert argue that when youth and adults contribute, they can ultimately produce an effective combination of power and energy, which ultimately improves decision making in an innovative and productive way. The authors add that with youth engagement, not only does decision making improve, but adults in decision making improve too. In fact, they tend to impact adults positively. Adults would thrive under the role of “visionary leaders”.
As stated above, the issue of youth engagement has political implications. Therefore, questioning whether states would benefit from engaging youth as opposed to disengaging them is needed. With the events of the Arab Spring, Morocco and Jordan were cheered by the international community for dodging the winds of the Arab Spring and being a model for how to engage with the streets, coopting some, and coercing others. Nevertheless, what is not discussed are the underlying structural problems that linger in both countries, such as unemployment and inequality. Therefore, these states might have an incentive to ‘control’ youth and not allow them to play a role in public life.
Jordanian and Moroccan youth do have a sense of government control over them to disable them from playing a meaningful role in the decision-making process. The Arab Barometer reports that about 57% of Jordanian youth and a staggering 80.1% of Moroccan youth either have very little trust or do not trust their respective governments and council of ministers. Moreover, about 55% of Jordanian youth and 51% of Moroccan youth feel a limited guarantee or no guarantee at all to participate in protests and demonstrations. Additionally, some of government policies appear perplexing for youth in Jordan and in Morocco with about 79% and 70%, respectively, feel that “sometimes, politics are so complicated that they cannot understand what is happening.”
A look at youth’s place in decision making in Jordan and Morocco would not be complete without looking at their place in society. Some of the most significant concepts in human geography are the concepts of place and space. John Agnew outlines that “space refers to the location where and place refers to the occupation of that location.” He cites scholars such as Tuan, who indicates that space is general and place is particular and Taylor who indicates that space is commanded/controlled while place is lived or experienced.
Applying these concepts onto youth engagement in decision making, we can articulate that space is the avenue where youth can be engaged such as government councils, parliament, and local councils, whereas place refers to the experiences (or lack thereof) of youth in such spaces. In essence and in a cyclical manner, place questions youth’s place in the decision-making apparatus. While governments in these two states, through their rhetoric, assert openness and willingness to enhance youth’s place in spaces of decision-making, in reality, the extent to which youth are offered the opportunity to experience these spaces politically, socially, and artistically are either stagnant or diminishing. In both states, youth centers and particularly public parks are a great example for this. Such “free” spaces where youth can gather, discuss, exchange ideas, and perhaps engage politically are either highly restricted or nonexistent, thus limiting youth’s chance to engage.
The absence of these spaces can be explained through cultural desertification phenomenon, which refers to the “the absence of social, public spaces and projects that build an intellectual or recreational identity.” It also refers to the absence of community identity and belonging and a dearth of spaces for open, productive dialogue. NAMA Strategic Intelligence Solutions, in a study conducted in partnership with the LSE Enterprise, articulated that cultural desertification is the absence of social public spaces and projects, which leaves youth with nowhere to turn except the increasing number of mosques, or highly organized and well-funded religious groups, that seem to offer such venues. The phenomenon is ever present in Jordan where a mix of poverty with the lack of necessary infrastructure whereby youth can build their own alternative culture is exacerbated with the lack of environmental beauty, unsatisfactory management of public parks, and the absence of cultural institutions that can build a culture of discourse and openness. NAMA and Harper outline that these factors, not only disable youth from fulfilling their place in the decision-making apparatus, but also increase their susceptibility to violent extremism.
Neoliberal state policies have allowed a flow of foreign direct investment that is reshaping the image of Amman. Multiple new malls and developments are rising around Amman without any regard to the symbolic value that many places hold for Jordanian youth, such as public parks. This situation is further worsened when these newly developed avenues such as malls and the Abdali Boulevard are exclusive to foreigners and couples, and thus, are not inclusive of the general Jordanian youth. Similarly, in Morocco, Konrad Bogaert in his book on the impact of globalization on the authoritarian structure in Morocco and the power of displacement and gentrification in shutting down public spaces of which youth used to take advantage. In examples from Casablanca, Rabat, and Tangier, the author provides testimonies from youth who complain about the replacement of public spaces by megaprojects that are too exclusive for them to patronize. Speaking to a Moroccan rapper who is known for his criticism of the political establishment, he confirmed that he actually had a political upbringing within a political party, but when he saw that his prospects of finding his place and to make his voice heard, he moved to rap, which landed him in jail in 2014 for “offending a state institution… [and] harming public morality”.
In Morocco and Jordan, an argument can be made of the transfer of political engagement of youth into other spaces. The most important alternative spaces for youth in Morocco and Jordan for expression and coalition are the arts and the digital sphere. The Arab Spring could not have been sparked without the support and the anonymity that digital platforms provide. The penetration of social media platforms in Morocco and Jordan is remarkable, with an average of 25% of youth in both states have an account on Facebook or other social media platforms and an average of 34.4% of Jordanian youth and 37.7% of Moroccan youth spend an average of 2-5 hours daily on such platforms. Youth in Morocco and Jordan are using artforms to express themselves. The ultras and rap in Morocco, and comedy and music in Jordan have played an important role in keeping youth connected in terms of ideas and groups in the midst of the absence of traditional public spaces and governments’ practical indifference towards meaningful youth inclusion in decision making.
Youth How? Policy Analysis
Conversations about inclusion of youth in decision making are happening globally, and these conversations have public policy implications. Morocco and Jordan have crafted youth strategies that came as an answer to these global conversations around youth inclusion. These strategies are all but effective. In fact, the latest Jordanian National Youth Strategy dates back to 2005-2009 in which the last stipulation indicated a review to occur in 2009 in order for the successive strategy to follow in 2010. 10 years later, the zigzag between the Ministry of Youth and Sports and the Higher Council for Youth in addition to the UNDP’s inefficiency resulted in an absence for a strategy document. Instead, the three institutions are engaging in an implementation project, for a strategy that was never drafted. Furthermore, this specific zigzag between the two public youth institutions in Jordan (the Ministry and the Council) is the direct result of the government’s indifference towards youth-specific strategy. When the government seeks to cut its public spending, the Ministry of Youth and Sports would be discontinued.
A similar situation is featured in the Moroccan context. The Ministry of Youth and Sports, supported by the World Bank and The Council of Europe have failed to produce the long-sought National Integrated Youth Strategy, which has been in the process of formulation since 2012. In both states, the allure of the amendments in their last published strategies are all but realized. They fail to tackle what is deemed sensitive for youth. Their emphasis on radicalization is limited to bullying and domestic abuse, and their emphasis on inclusion remains within the realm of community engagement and voluntary work. The lack of depth in the discussion of these strategies can be also attributed to the lack of political will.
One attempt to overcome the very low number of young people in pollical office, Morocco has since the 2011 parliamentary elections began implementing a quota for youth in parliament: at least 10% or 30 seats will be allotted exclusively to people below the age of 45. Many youth organizations have campaigned for more representation in public office, and some of them raised the pressure during the Arab Spring. With the Moroccan regime faced with the potential of a youth burst in the same way it happened in neighboring countries, it found itself forced to make concessions and spread resources beyond its traditional networks of privilege.
Another policy tool that is used by different countries including Jordan and Morocco is mock institutions. In Jordan, youth are encouraged and guided into creating a mock parliament to provide them with an opportunity to learn the work of representatives, with student councils and multiple inter-university Module United Nations (MUN) conferences. In Morocco, the state helped youth to create a parallel government that will shadow the work of ministers in the actual government. This is done to allow youth to familiarize themselves with public office and prepare them to take the lead in the future. It is worth noting here that these mock institutions have no real power whatsoever, and their role is purely symbolic, and in face, nonexistent. Mock governments provide an opportunity for regimes to channel youth’s energy and an opportunity for recruitment. They also remain exclusive for young people with privileged backgrounds, as the type of education institution they attend play a significant role for them to be exposed to these spaces. Furthermore, it is precisely these institutions that exemplify the lack of seriousness for governments to engage youth in decision-making. While their narratives promote inclusiveness, their actions scream exclusivity. It communicates to young members of society that politics is not for youth, but should they want a voice, they are given a podium without a microphone.
There are a number of other policies and political circumstances that have disabled youth engagement in the decision-making process. In both Jordan and Morocco, the economic hardships endured by the people, and especially by youth, in the face of high unemployment rates have shifted the attention towards economic policy and economic inclusion rather than political. Badly planned economic policies, including tax laws, have centered youth’s involvement in the public sphere towards calling for economic reform rather than political reform that can enable them from realizing their true place on the table. Emphasis on the World Bank and the IMF and the impact of their policies on the two states have shifted young voices towards calling for better economic planning. Similarly, the multiple changes to the political scene in both states, such as successive government changes and parliamentary underperformance have created an unattractive image for youth, even when it comes to student councils in public universities, which has become associated with student violence.
Jordan and Morocco’s exclusion of young voters from having the opportunity to be elected to decision-making is in contrast to international efforts aimed at ensuring inclusivity of youth. UN Security Council Resolution 2250, which was sponsored and championed by Jordan, called for “Member States to consider ways to increase inclusive representation of youth in decision-making at all levels in local, national, regional and international institutions.” Both states have also been a strong advocate for the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which aims to “ensure responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels”.
Furthermore, increased participation of youth in government reflects positively on the plurality of society, by definition improves decision making, and “ensures responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels”. The prevailing logic states that the more demographically versatile the legislature is, the wider its scope of interests becomes. It also facilitates empowerment amongst those who are represented.
As Jordan and Morocco strive to strengthen their democratic institutions and maintain their roles as models of peace and pragmatism in the region, a diverse range of voices must be empowered to create government institutions and decision-making apparatus that are built by many for the benefit of all. In order for the Jordanian and Moroccan governments to represent the social fabric of the nation, the serious and meaningful inclusion of young people in the political process is a prerequisite. Utilizing the intellectual value of youth and empowering young people to legislate a more just and equitable future is paramount to the success and sustainability of the nations. Youth deserve not only power in the voting booth, but meaningful participation as a stakeholder in the decision-making process. They ought to be involved in policy planning, design, discussion, formulation, execution, and evaluation. The current status falls short of providing the young with such means. The two states remain advocates internationally and locally, but their actions are far from their narratives.
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