When Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old university graduate forced to sell vegetables on the streets of his hometown in Tunisia to support his family, set himself on fire on Dec. 17, he could not have known that his death would launch the so-called Jasmine Revolution now unfurling across the Middle East.
Humiliated because of his menial job, harassed by corrupt officials demanding bribes and residing in a repressive state ruled by a dictator, Mr. Bouazizi was living a bleak existence that was no different from that of millions of other young people in the region. But his suicide became a catalyst for a generation that has said "enough" and spontaneously taken to the streets to demand change from the assorted collection of presidents-for-life, kings and sheiks who have ruled them for ages.
In Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Algeria and Yemen, the violent demonstrations of the past weeks are largely driven by the stifled generation of the Arab baby boom: 100 million young people 15 to 29 years old who make up 30 per cent of the Middle East's population. Their hopes and ambitions have been frustrated by corruption, high unemployment, lack of political freedom, soaring costs of living and growing income inequality - and their leaders have been unable and unwilling to invest in solutions to these problems.
The protests have come as a shock to many in the West, who are accustomed to viewing the region through the prism of Islamist terrorism and the threat its young people pose to global security. Yet the chain of unrest was set off not by a suicide bomber shouting, "Allah u Akbar," but by an underemployed young man who harmed no one but himself.
To drive home the point, protesters in Yemen wore pink, rather than the green associated with political Islam, to demonstrate their peaceful intentions. Whether they succeed in coming weeks remains to be seen.
Similar protests in 2009 in Iran were greeted the world over by rapturous expectations of a Twitter-powered Green Revolution. Yet Tehran weathered that wave through a brutal crackdown and the government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad remains in power today.
Still, the fact that so many people were inspired to act by Mr. Bouazizi and not a religious fanatic such as Osama bin Laden speaks volumes about the aspirations of young people in a region whose human and economic potential lie largely untapped and who present both a daunting challenge and a huge opportunity not just for their respective countries but for the world.
Part of the problem lies in the fact that the young people in the streets are far better educated than their parents.
Seventy-five per cent of Arab youth have enrolled in secondary education - and in places such as Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, more women are going to university than men, according to figures from the Middle East Youth Initiative at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington, D.C.
Yet many Arab leaders continue to invest in upgrading military hardware and expanding security services rather than economic development, a structural holdover both from the Cold War and the post-9/11 era, during which the West was preoccupied with combatting Islamist violence.
Yet it is these young people who will be expected to solve the regional policy crises that their parents' generation has failed to grapple with, such as religious extremism, the Arab-Israeli peace crisis and dwindling oil reserves, and for now they have taken matters into their own hands.
"It is exciting what is happening; first what is important to note is the West is completely irrelevant," said Emile Hokayem, a senior fellow for regional security for IISS Middle East, a think tank in Bahrain. "They are not encouraged or supported by the West. It looks like they are just demonstrating for their own reasons. People are driven by very legitimate and genuine economic and social grievances, not by an ideological agenda. The way those protests are being organized, it is not by your mosque or the old-school socialist party, but something different."
Some Arab leaders appear to be taking note. In Algeria, where citizens rioted over soaring food prices this month, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika may shuffle the cabinet. Meanwhile, King Abdullah of Jordan, facing rallies demanding economic and political changes, has urged Parliament to speed up economic reforms.
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