MENARY Monitor: 2021 End of Year Review
The State of Youth in the MENA Region
In mid-March 2021, MENAACTION launched the Middle East and North Africa Region Youth Monitor (MENARY Monitor). MENARY Monitor, which been running for 47 straight weeks, provides weekly overview of all youth-related news and updates from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region within 7 categories: (a) politics and political engagement; (b) economics and entrepreneurship; (c) conflict; (d) development; (e) education; (f) environment; and (g) COVID-19. In analyzing each of the 7 categories, this report provides in-depth analysis of the state of youth in the region over the second half of 2021, with emphasis on the challenges and opportunities along with short-term recommendations for government and nongovernment organizations to address the challenges and leverage the opportunities.
Politics and Political Engagement
Throughout the reporting period, citizens across the MENA Region erupted in various political movements and protests, as socioeconomic conditions continue to worsen across the region. Demonstrations across the region ranged in purpose, including: 1) denouncing the use of force by security forces; 2) digital suppression of the Palestinian cause; 3) declining economic conditions; 4) increase of political repression; and most notably, 5) lack of effective and structural governments.
These protests, while vary in focus, are tied to the main underlying issue of lack of government responsiveness to the needs of citizens. In parallel, the demonstrations also represent a political investment by youth to create constructive change within, in many cases, nonfunctional governments. In countries like Iraq, Libya and Lebanon, where government corruption is rampant, youth protest to demand the dismissal of corrupt politicians. Meanwhile, Sudanese and Palestinian youth protested against their respective security forces that continued to meet civil movements with violence against citizens.
To address regional concerns and demonstrate their ability to play a central role in their countries’ decision-making processes, youth across the Middle East led various efforts that aim to address local concerns. Tunisian youth for example developed a social media platform where citizens can address their concerns over the country’s youth unemployment rates and, by doing so, providing a platform where citizens and decision-makers can connect.
Tunisian, Lebanese and Egyptian youth activists discussed with and urged their local governments to develop an open space for youth political engagement. Morocco and Iraq both held elections in 2021. Iraq’s elections, which were held several months early in response to the mass anti-government protests that began in October 2019, marked the lowest turnout in Iraq’s history, with only 41% of eligible voters participating, according to Iraq’s Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC).
The final results, announced more than a month later due to calls for a recount and intensified rejection from losing parties, showed that Iraq’s populist Muqtada al-Sadr won the most seats—73 out of the 329 seats in the incoming parliament—followed by Taqadum with 37 seats, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) with 31 seats, State of Law with 33 seats, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) with 18 seats and Alfatah alliance with a low 17 seats. Election results triggered an animus response from Iran-backed militias in Iraq, where on November 7, 2021, Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi survived an assassination attempt after drones laden with explosives targeted his residence in Baghdad.
In Morocco, as the government began to finalize election results, many newly elected youth representatives began entering office, untrained and lacking the knowledge to effectively meet the needs of the government and their constituents. In October 2021, the new government began addressing some of its priorities, including boosting youth employment, improving the health and education sectors. While the government did select a large number of youth within its ranks, many of them are first-time candidates that need training to effectively meet the needs of citizens.
Economics and Entrepreneurship
Governments across the Middle East have continued to attempt and address the economic decline caused by the COVID-19 Pandemic. While governments made various promises in expanding the labor market—with a focus on the employment of youth in the regions—unemployment rates nevertheless continued to increase throughout the reporting period, leading to a stagnant economic decline and deterioration of living conditions in the region. The economic conditions in Lebanon especially have dramatically declined, pushing many Lebanese youth to leave the country.
Most notably, in the year of 2021, 70% of Moroccan youth and 45 percent of Jordanian youth have seriously considered emigrating abroad, mainly linked to the high unemployment rates in the country.
Several regional initiatives were launched in 2021 to address respective countries’ economic concerns, including: the development of youth programs in Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt and Jordan to address youth unemployment, launch of several courses to improve youth entrepreneurship, organization of grant-based opportunities to support youth employment in the region, and launching a youth dialogue series to increase youth employment in diverse sectors. Some programs were launched to focus on vulnerable communities, such as women and persons with disabilities.
The withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan in 2021 has exacerbated the security situation in the country, as it enabled the Taliban to advance its nation-wide control. The withdrawal was met with various negative impacts, including the digression of women’s’ rights, democracy building, and a collapse in the education, freedom of expression, and financial/social independence.
The war in Yemen between the Houthi forces and Saudi-led coalition continues to be ongoing in its seventh year, with no end in sight as fighting intensifies and casualties grow among the Houthi and general Yemeni population. At least 10,000 children have been killed or maimed since the conflict’s beginnings in 2014, and thousands more have been recruited into the fighting.
An estimated 2 million children are internally displaced. The trend of youth being entrapped and losing lives within this conflict will unfortunately continue into 2022 as neither side of the conflict – the Houthis or the Saudi-led coalition is willing to give up an inch. Saudi-led bombings continue to wreak devastation and loss of life among Yemeni youth.
The impact that the conflict in Syria has had on girls includes a rise in cases of child marriage as consequence of a lack of education and job market opportunities. Libya ended 2021 on a slightly more stable note that is heading towards a positive step in 2022. After almost 10 years of fragmentation and civil war, a Ceasefire Agreement between the Government of National Accord (GNA) and the Libyan National Army of the General Command of the Armed Forces was signed on 23 October 2020. The resulting creation in March 2021 of the Libyan Government of National Unity (GNU) established a provisional governmental structure while striking a delicate balance between regional power brokers and stakeholders throughout the nation.
One of the most remarkable conflicts of 2021 was an escalation of violence occurring between the Palestinian parties and Israel which resulted in war in Gaza in addition to weeks of violence in the West Bank and Jerusalem, beginning in May. This was the deadliest eruption of violence between the Israeli-Palestinian fronts since 2014. 113,000 Palestinians were displaced from their destroyed homes at the peak of the conflict, and already precarious livelihoods and infrastructure decimated.
Throughout 2021, regional leaders and youth have made several notable efforts to address development in the sectors of health, sustainability and training, capacity building, innovation and technology, and cultural preservation. Youth have led efforts to create structural change through a gendered lens by publishing a guide on the struggles women face in the fight for gender equality and preventing violence against women in all sectors. Several stakeholders such as the African Development Bank, Germany, and the UAE have also launched funding initiatives that aim to address social stability and opportunity for youth in the region. Training opportunities also played a critical role in shaping youth engagement in 2021.
Over the second half of 2021, there were approximately 71 reported activities providing training and capacity building for youth in the MENA region, many of which aimed to develop youth’s employment and entrepreneurship skills. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, youth began developing engagement opportunities via social media and online campaigns. For example, Moroccan youth launched an online campaign called “Click and Protect”, which aimed to mitigate cyberbullying and provide youth with the tools necessary to combat this issue. To further develop technological opportunities in the region, several countries have implemented youth-oriented workshops that aim to expand youth’s knowledge on various technological developments. This included engagement with artificial intelligence, discussions on the future of social media, and STEM awards.
COVID-19 has had a dramatic impact on the education sectors in the region. While the shift to online education was effective in different parts of the world, in the Middle East internet connection remains to be a looming issue that has led to the decrease of educational development in the region.
Access to both the internet and the devices necessary to participate in online education was determined by a family’s financial situation, as highlighted in the featured article “An ‘Illiterate Generation’—One of Iraq’s Untold Pandemic Stories.” Meanwhile, the battle for gender equality in education remained at the forefront for the region. Youth-led initiatives in Universities addressed various concerns, including civic education training and environmental advocacy. Various research-focused initiatives were conducted to address supporting young writers and novelists in the development of their writing skills.
The MENA region has faced several environmental concerns that were addressed by government and youth initiatives throughout the year. The impact of climate change on the region has negatively impacted citizens in Jordan for example, which is ranked the second water poorest country in the world. The low water levels have affected children’s hygiene, student enrolment, attendance, and performance.
Food scarcity was highlighted as one of the main concerns in 2021’s International Youth Day. The region’s dependence on food imports continues to negatively impact the development of the agricultural sector.
Youth across the region led several online initiatives to address environmental concerns, including the “Be Positive and Support Your Climate” campaign; “Supportives” campaign; “Say No to Climate Change” campaign; and “Climate Health” campaign. With concern over the impact that climate concerns will have on children in the region, states began taking initiatives to address challenges that vulnerable households face. This included a $250 million project in Morocco to support the economic inclusion of youth in rural areas and improve the marketing efficiency and environmental sustainability of agri-food value chains and $300 million for cash transfers for vulnerable communities in Tunisia.
In 2021, governments across the region continued to enforce COVID-19 restrictions. And while youth in the Middle East continued to launch awareness-raising campaigns to prevent the spread of the new Omicron variant, restaurants, hotels and other public sectors have taken steps to breach protocols. Restaurants in Iraq breached COVID-19 restrictions by paying bribes to security officials. Mandatory vaccination policies in Morocco were met with protests due to the lack of clear messaging on government protocols.
Youth in the region have launched several campaign initiatives to address citizen concerns over vaccine skepticism. By highlighting the negative impacts and side effects of COVID-19, online campaigns in Morocco pushed for citizens to get vaccinated. In Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, a group of youth launched an initiative to increase the number of oxygen generators in their respective local hospitals. Several education campaigns were launched in Egypt and Iraq to raise awareness on COVID-19 precautions.