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The Middle East’s Youth: Key to ISIS’s Success and Demise

On December 17, 2010, 26 year-old Mohamed Bouazizi was selling produce at a market in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia without a permit when police confiscated his goods and publicly humiliated him. As one of the sole providers for his family, unable to reason with the corrupt authorities, he found himself hopeless and destitute. As an act of protest, Bouazizi set himself on fire in front of a local government building, thus fortuitously igniting an outburst of anger amongst Tunisians, who promptly took to the streets in solidarity to protest their social and political grievances. The initial success of the Tunisian Revolution instigated the Arab Spring’s euphoric wave of revolts that engulfed the Middle East from Tunisia to Yemen. Perhaps the most promising aspect of this widespread outburst of political expression was the awakening of the Middle East’s youth, seeing a reflection of their struggles in Bouazizi’s reality.

The Middle East’s Youth Reality

Due to the unique nature and composition of the Middle East’s youth, their role in the Arab Spring proved particularly significant. About 60 percent of the region’s population are under 30, twice that of North America. This demographic bulge illustrates the central position youth hold in the society, culture, and politics of the region; the survival of any form of democratic government dependent on their input and participation. However, the current socio-political conditions that the Middle East’s youth face have been extremely hostile, fermenting widespread discontent. Youth suffer from a lack of educational opportunities, unemployment, and alienation from participation in the political process. Extraordinarily high levels of youth unemployment, reaching a region-wide 10.3 percent at pre-Arab Spring levels, created a charged and politically aware youth base, dangerously unable to channel their energy productively.

As if that wasn’t enough, because youth are often seen as a threat to authority, many Arab governments actively dissuade them from participation. Perhaps the most important symptom of these conditions is the difficulty youth experience in building personal identities and creating a sense of purpose. From this perspective, the initial uprisings of the Arab Spring, followed by the widespread violent collapse, were products of the powder keg of political disenfranchisement waiting to explode.

Turning to Radicalism

The sense of hope and euphoria that accompanied the Arab Spring proved short-lived. Currently, only 38 percent of young people in the Middle East think that the Arab Spring left the region better off, with similarly dismal numbers believing in the possibility of democracy. With the seeds of hopelessness and desperation sown, radical groups such as Daesh got their big break, preying on political grievances. Through a multi-pronged approach aimed at the youth, they have been able to fill the void of purpose — both political and personal — left gaping by the authoritarian dictatorships and regional conflict. They have repeatedly provided what state governments have not, instituting a more robust system of order, dissolving the corruption of previous regimes and providing almost everything from healthcare to bakeries.

An example of their political appeal can be seen in their pledge to protect Iraqi Sunni communities from the maltreatment that they had endured under Nouri Al Maliki’s Shia government, which resulted in a deeply entrenched civilian and militant support base. More importantly, the deep inner resentment experienced by youth and its effect on their identity is what has provided the biggest recruiting advantage. With personal ambitions unfulfilled and little faith in their own abilities to achieve substantial change, a self-doubting youth in a desperate search of purpose provided the perfect components to the Islamic State’s scheme. Daesh cultivated its roots in the Middle East’s youth by instilling a vision of a political utopia along with a newfound sense of identity and belonging. This is what has enabled Daesh to spread easily throughout the most troubled territories of Syria and Iraq.

A Failed Approach

Logically, the only way to permanently cripple Daesh’s growth is through denying them the young demographic that they so clearly rely on by providing youth with alternative outlets for political and social expression and, more importantly, with control over their futures. With this in mind, both the United States and the international community must move Middle East policy beyond the confines of counterterrorism.

We have essentially embraced a reactionary stance, overlooking the core issues and ignoring opportunities to prevent the outbreak of civil wars, regional conflicts, and the destabilization of already fragile states by radical groups. Calls for more “energetic” diplomacy and building the defense capabilities of Arab states are logical, but these alone have never gotten the job done. For example, diplomatic attempts to reform Nouri Al Maliki’s oppressive government in Iraq have proven largely unsuccessful in the face of corruption, while building the defense capabilities have all-too-often resulted in empowering brutal security services like Egypt’s military that further subjugate youth. Without thorough reform, counterterrorism tactics do not tackle the central cause of terrorism and radicalization: widespread discontent and suffering under poor governance and authoritarianism.

A Path Forward

Currently, the Middle East is far too complex for a universal policy paradigm, and requires a constantly evolving method of addressing the roots of the region’s issues. More aggressive diplomacy, enhancing security capabilities of democratic parties, and general state building must contribute to the overall stimulation of the youth base region-wide. However, the most critical issue to be addressed is the opposition of many Arab governments to the inclusion of the region’s youth in the political process. Youssef Qahwaji, a youth activist and data analyst at USAID in Jordan whom I recently talked to, argued that only after addressing the government hostility towards youth inclusion, can further initiatives be successful in engaging young people. According to him, it’s not that current youth-oriented programs are inherently flawed, in fact NGOs “already have a lot of funding, ideas, and external support.” The issue is “the ongoing projects don’t really fit with the political situation and culture in the region.” Projects are implemented as if in countries that don’t experience political pushback and they haven’t been adequately tailored to maneuver the obstacles put forth by governments. A youth-led political book club meeting would have a very different effect in Egypt than it would in New York. Therefore, it is vital to assert diplomatic pressure on hostile governments in order to convince them of the benefits of a politically and socially engaged youth population. For example, if the United States were to reevaluate its substantial military and economic aid to Egypt and use it as leverage for negotiation, the current government could be pressured to ease up on anti-protest and assembly laws. This would allow youth to profit from discussions, networking, and the simple benefits of political and social inclusion.

Another obstacle is the fact that many young people are providers for themselves and their families, and are often skeptical of government or foreign run initiatives. This is where the support of locally-led youth initiatives becomes paramount. We can look to Tunisia as an example, where some of the most effective and powerful initiatives were formed, including the human rights organization Fanni Raghman Anni (Artist Against My Will), which expresses opinions on political and social issues through theater and art, drawing debate on issues like the death penalty and suicide. While these initiatives give the region’s youth a voice in their political process and a constructive presence in their societies, their most important impact is that they fill the void of purpose.

Sure, military force is a necessary component in the fight against ISIS, but this crisis must also be used as evidence of the urgent need to diversify Middle East policy. Throughout the history of U.S. intervention in the region, our counterterrorism tactics have been overwhelmingly unsuccessful in stemming the growth of terrorism, further aggravating the issue by causing destruction and instability and resulting in what seems like a violent game of whack-a-mole.

When Mohamed Bouazizi took his own life out of desperation in 2011, the international community, especially the Arab world, should have taken it as a reality check. Bouazizi’s inadvertent statement resonated throughout the region because he represented a microcosm of the Middle East’s youth, a reality that would become the fuel for the uprisings of the Arab Spring and radicalization that followed. Bouazizi’s case inspired an entire generation because his reality was not unique at all. By tackling the same concerns that Bouazizi experienced and giving the region’s youth a voice in their society and politics, we can curtail ISIS’s recruiting advantage and permanently thwart their expansion.