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Egyptian demonstrators hold their national flag during demonstration in Cairo on Jan. 27, 2011 demanding the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak. (AFP/Getty Images)
Egyptian demonstrators hold their national flag during demonstration in Cairo on Jan. 27, 2011 demanding the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak. (AFP/Getty Images)

Enough! Why thousands of young Arabs have taken to the streets in protest Add to ...

Of course, Egypt isn't Morocco. The problems of unemployment and economic backwardness here are sharpened by the country's strategic importance in the region. The secular regime is considered a bulwark against Islamist terrorism and an important U.S. ally because it is one of two Arab states - the other is Jordan - that recognize the state of Israel.

That's why the White House took a much keener inetrest when, emboldened by their Tunisian bretheren, Egyptians dared to begin challenging President Hosni Mubarak's 30-year rule this week.

Security forces confronted protesters with tear gas and water cannons on the streets, bridges and public squares of the capital Cairo and major cities such as Alexandria, Suez and Assuit until a curfew was imposed Friday night.

Protesters, some of whom are college graduates have defied the ban against demonstrations under the emergency laws that have governed the country since Mr. Mubarak came to power.

They may believe they have little to lose: those with a secondary education or above made up 95 per cent of unemployed youth in 2006, the last year for which statistics are available. "Change is the solution," the front page of the opposition newspaper Al-Wafd declared on Thursday.

The demonstrations have been leaderless, although the Egyptian opposition figure and Nobel laureate Mohamed El Baradei returned to Cairo from his home in Vienna, promising to join the protesters only to be placed immediately under house arrest on Friday.

As if chronic unemployment weren't a depressing enough fact of life for young Egyptians, their troubles are compounded by another problem common in the Middle East: the high costs of marriage.

The cost of a wedding in Egypt is about $9,000 (U.S.) in a country where the per-capita income is $3,700, according to a report by Brookings and the Dubai School of Government.

The groom and his family are expected to pay for the reception, housing, furniture, appliances and gifts of gold to the bride. In the West, couples usually accumulate material goods over years, but in the Arab world the groom must have a household prepared before a girl's family agrees to marry her off.

It is a significant issue because in Arab culture men and women are considered adults by society only after they are married. Until then, they must live at home as children even if they are in their 40s.

In oil-rich states such as the United Arab Emirates, rulers pay for mass weddings to encourage their young citizens to settle down and become productive members of society. Large wedding halls are rented for the occasion, men and women are segregated into two rooms and the catering, clothes and even dowries are paid for by the sheiks of Dubai or Abu Dhabi.

The Egyptian government, however, like many others without reserves of oil, cannot afford such largesse, particularly since 20 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line.

Why now?

One question that remains is why the unrest is spreading now, considering the grievances of the Arab world have been around almost as long as their unpopular rulers.

Technology may be one part of the answer. Al Jazeera, the region's most popular satellite channel, has endlessly broadcast jubilant and passionate scenes of Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution to living rooms of ordinary Arabs, while social networking sites have been important for Egyptians in getting their messages heard.

Young Arabs are also far more connected to the world thanks to mass tourism, and they are keenly aware of what their societies lack compared with their counterparts in the Western world. They expect a higher standard of living, such as good houses, a car and other material goods that their parents had. Arab women are becoming used to financial independence and working outside the home.

But a full answer may be elusive. "I don't think political science is going to explain what is happening," Mr. Hokayem said. "I think psychology is most important. That, in a way, is indiscernible for political analysts."

In Ryszard Kapuscinski's celebrated book Shah of Shahs, which chronicles the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, there is a moment when an ordinary man in a crowd of protesters is approached by a truncheon-wielding policeman who shouts and orders him to leave. The man does not budge. The policeman backs off.

"We don't know whether the policeman or the man on the edge of the crowd already realize what has happened," Mr. Kapuscinski wrote. "The man has stopped being afraid - and this is precisely the beginning of the revolution. Here it starts."

Hamida Ghafour is an author and journalist who has reported extensively from the Muslim world. She is currently based in the Netherlands.

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