It’s no coincidence that so many of the people you see demanding change on the streets and squares of Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia, Yemen and other countries in the Arab world are young.
They’re the expanding majority, for one thing. Two of every three people in the Middle East are under 24. Half of greater Cairo’s 18 million people are under 30.
And they’ve had it.
“Kefaya!” (enough) is the Egyptian Arabic word heard loud and clear in many of the protests. It’s also the unofficial name of a grass-roots political reform movement in Egypt, but it has taken on a far wider and deeper meaning in recent days. It has become a cry of anger, of despair — and of determination. Young people in the region have had enough of being ignored. Enough of being abused. Enough of being silenced. Enough of being forgotten. Enough of being left behind as the rest of the world rushes ahead.
“The regimes and the leaders are the ones under fire, but it’s really about despair over the future,” said Sami Alfaraj, director of the Kuwait Center for Strategic Studies, in an interview with the Associated Press.
Egyptian opposition leader and Nobel Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei
admitted as much. “It’s all [led by those age] 30 and below … who want a future and a hope,” he told a reporter as the protests gained momentum.
Food shortages — and food prices — in many Arab countries are increasing. Jobs are decreasing. Opportunities for young adults with good educations to get ahead often depend on family “connections” and bribes. Political, social and religious freedoms vary from country to country, but they generally fall far below the liberties Arab young people see their counterparts enjoying in other parts of the world.
David, 23, an Egyptian-American follower of Christ, will never forget the first time his parents took him to visit relatives in Egypt. He was talking loudly on the street when his parents nervously told him to be quiet.
“I can say what I want!” he protested.
“No you can’t,” they sternly warned him. “This is Egypt!”
In that moment, David understood why his grandfather, an Egyptian Christian pastor, had left his beloved homeland many years before. “Why do people come to America, like my grandfather?” he asked. “Because of the freedom of speech and religion. These are the kind of rights every human deserves and that we don’t have in Egypt.”
Not yet, but change might be coming.
Customs die hard in ancient societies, however. The youth-oriented culture that dominates the West remains a foreign import in the Middle East, despite the nightclubs and pop scene in Cairo, Beirut or Amman. Youth still defers to age, parents, elder brothers, tribal chiefs, imams, kings. Young, unmarried men have little standing in most communities. Young women — even less.
MORE THAN HALF THE WORLD
But the sheer number of young people has skyrocketed throughout the region —and in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Europe and North America are aging; much of the rest of the world is getting younger.
“If you look worldwide at the percentage of the population under the age of 30, it’s more than 50 percent,” says Mike Lopez, director of the International Mission Board’s student mobilization team. “That age group is going to make a significant difference, for better or for worse, in the state of global affairs in the future. How are we addressing this in our evangelism strategies?”
By 2009, the number of college students worldwide had more than doubled — to 130 million — over the previous 50 years, according to Ken Cochrum, strategist for student-led movements at Campus Crusade for Christ.
“If taken as a whole, this generation of college students would constitute the world’s 10th-largest country,” Cochrum reported in the August 2009 edition of Lausanne World Pulse. Forward-looking governments “have realized that their future depends upon a well-educated population who can compete in today's borderless ‘glocal’ economy.”
Those governments, joined by corporations and advertisers, “invest millions of dollars each year attempting to influence students and the choices they will make for the rest of their lives,” Cochrum observed. “What about the church? What level of urgency and intentionality do we give to making disciples and building Christ-centered movements among students today?”
Today’s students, he stressed, “will determine tomorrow’s culture. ... The next few years represent a significant window of opportunity.”
That certainly applies in the Middle East, where millions of students and other young adults have had “enough” of the old way and want something new. They’re looking to others their age to lead the way.
There’s a historical precedent worth considering: Jesus, who spent part of His childhood in Egypt, was about 30 when He started turning that part of the world upside down.