After you dig down through the swirl of policy consequences, the geopolitical strategies, the impact on regional allies, and the history of support that the Mubarak regime has garnered from America, you end up with the Arab kids. How will they be affected? What will their politics be as a result? They may become a Generation of 2011, profoundly marked by this year’s experiences, aspirations, achievements and frustrations.
Five years of teaching undergrads in Doha, Qatar, has given me some appreciation for the conflicts of this generation and the deep ambivalence these produce. My students are overwhelmingly Muslim, mostly Arab, though they come from countries ranging from Bosnia to Bangladesh. They are of the elite, comfortable in English, well traveled and familiar with the singers, movie stars and athletes that pass for the culture of global teenagers. They are at least a match for their American peers in self-involvement, along with the high expectations of what is their due just for, well, being born.
Yet, unlike Americans, this is a generation confronted with the escalating, frequently rigid demands of family, tribe, religion, traditions and nationality. Paralleling these pressures are the equally intense lures of the West – the material comforts, the education, the movies and music, the online connections and, even, the individual freedom. Both sets of conditions often match and depend on the other; often increasing at the same time. Each year in Doha brings more covered women in abayas tasting the forbidden fruits of speaking to boys on cellphones. The unresolved tensions remain, producing a surface apathy, interrupted by spasms of anger.
My students see the uprisings in Egypt and elsewhere as young people launching messy attempts to reconcile these two sets of pressures. They are trying to gain control over nations and governments that seem out of control, or indifferent to the deeper changes going on around them. How to match political values and organizations with the underlying transformations already changing these young people will remain the overriding challenge in the decades ahead; a challenge for which the term “democracy” only hints at a resolution.
They know Egypt and Egyptians. They are conflicted. They want President Hosni Mubarak gone; they want democracy; they want peace. They’re not sure they’ll get any of them. They worry about disorder. Freedom is a nice enough concept, but they’ve grown up with wars in the neighborhood and strongmen in charge. Most of those in my international relations class expected an unpleasant anarchy to follow if government’s authority was removed for too long from Cairo streets. None expected cooperation to spontaneously emerge from the populace. Nor is anyone expecting Mubarak to leave without more blood being shed. Could the United States do anything about it? Of course. American hesitation seemed to puzzle them. Aren’t superpowers supposed to tell client states what they should or should not do?
If luck holds, we are entering a disruptive, loud and unsteady period, marked by even more uncertainty. But violently repressing this movement will drive these young people toward their most anarchic impulses. It will underline the truth of those who most completely reject the West with all its seductions. And in the absence of a domestic left, that means the rise of the preachers of hate. Americans have too much at stake in the region not to do everything we can to keep the guns at bay.
Back in Washington there are undoubtedly lots of voices and pressures tempting American policymakers to “not lose” another Iran, or to choose order over disorder, friends over enemies. The lessons from Tiananmen and Tehran shouldn’t be that America supports popular democratic uprisings only when they are against autocratic regimes that we oppose. Egypt is a case where our national values match our long-term regional interests. Don’t radicalize this coming generation.
By Gary Wassserman, a visiting professor of government at Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar.