x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

The Arab Spring: started by the young, controlled by the old

The revolution has aged: in the first democratic election since the turmoil began, Tunisia elected a greying political class.

Rached Ghannouchi (R), leader of the Islamist Ennahda movement in Tunisia, smiles as he meets his supporters after the announcement of the country's election results Thursday. The party won 90 seats in the 217-seat assembly.
Rached Ghannouchi (R), leader of the Islamist Ennahda movement in Tunisia, smiles as he meets his supporters after the announcement of the country's election results Thursday. The party won 90 seats in the 217-seat assembly.

TUNIS // When the Arab Spring was born, it had a young face. On the streets of Sidi Bouzid, then Tunis, then Cairo, Benghazi, and beyond, it was 20- and 30-somethings who hit the pavement to demand change in the face of tear gas and bullets.

They were lauded as a new, internet-savvy generation fed up with the archaic dictators of the past.

But 10 months later, the revolution has aged. In the first democratic election since the turmoil began, Tunisia has elected a greying political class. More than half the candidates for the new Constituent Assembly to draft a new Constitution over the next year were over 46. And the leaders of the three most successful parties are all over 65. Two of these men lived in exile in France for 20 years, removed from the hard reality that spurred revolution.

It's often said revolutions eat their young, but rarely has it been such a feast. On the streets of Tunis and across the Middle East, the young revolutionaries have been taken aback. A movement that spread on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube is today being run by a generation that lived without computers most of their lives. Now, if the Arab Spring fails to incorporate the younger generation, it could meet the fate that so many revolutions do - leaving out those who first sparked change.

"The people on the streets in January all went back to their normal lives because other people came back from Paris and started talking on behalf of 'the people'," argues Moez Ali, a founder of the newly-created Union of Independent Tunisians for Liberty. "We who made the revolution were not organised to keep control of it."

"It was a missed chance with liberty," agrees Raouf Raissi, a human-rights activist and an independent newspaper publisher who believes the revolution has been merely in name. He believes one corrupt political class — that of ousted President Zide El Abidine Ben Ali — has simply been replaced by another ageing, self-interested cadre. "Those who marched for liberty became its orphans."

In many ways, the young revolutionaries were never a match for the organisation that older parties boasted by the time the barriers of dictatorship fell. When Ben Ali fled, parties such as Ettakatol immediately kicked their underground political machinery into gear. Exiled leaders began coming home from years abroad organising a political class-in-waiting and an abundance of funds.

No one was better prepared for a homecoming than Rached Ghannouchi, the 71-year-old leader of the moderate Islamist party, Ennahda, which won the most votes and 41 per cent of the seats on October 23. His party was equipped with resources that, by all appearances, dwarfed any of his nearest competitors. And it used them. The party produced media material that would impress even the slickest western campaigns. Fluent translators offered broadcasts of Arabic news conferences in French and English better than the election commission's.

"(Ennahda is) present in every small town with even a few houses," says Khaled Houssein, a project coordinator at the Centre of Arab Woman Training and Research, who toured the countryside in the weeks before the election.

That institutionalism appealed to many voters - even young ones - who by October had been living for months without any such stability to cling to. No independent parties had ever run Tunisia but at least Ennahda had several decades of running itself.

"Ennahda is not a young party," says Aymen Brayek, a university student and party youth organiser. "It was the party who said no to Ben Ali and refused all forms of corruption (under his regime)."

Yet while Ennahda retains legitimacy for its history of resistance to Ben Ali, there have been more extreme cases of the revolution being co-opted as well. A party run by Hechmi Haamdi, a media mogul who spent the past two decades living in London and who failed to return home even to campaign, won a surprising 39 of 217 seats in the assembly.

His victory can almost certainly be attributed to the Tunisian expatriate TV channel, Al Mustakillah, which allowed him to reach voters in places and at times other candidates weren't allowed or couldn't afford to. However, Haamdi was found in violation of regulations and several of his party's seats have been cancelled.

In the face of such organised politicking, the revolutionary machinery that first brought protesters onto the streets fractured.

"The January 14 movement is today divided," laments Nargh Aname, a 27-year-old who participated in the revolution but who says his peers have scattered into various political camps.

For those who couldn't bear to be swallowed by an existing party or ideology, apathy often followed, says Ali of the Union of Independent Tunisians for Liberty. "Most of the youth don't know who they voted for. They don't know the parties and they don't trust the parties, which are saying the same thing we have heard for decades. We need to see action before we start believing in them."

In recent weeks, and particularly ahead of Tunisia's vote, the emerging political class has begun to worry about cutting off the youth — and their vote.

"The young are the last ones to think about politics right now," says Abdelfattah Mourou, a founding member of Ennahda who ran as an independent.

Indeed, if for no other reason than their numbers, Tunisia's new leaders will have to find a way to bring the young on board.

Forty per cent of the population is under 24, according to United Nations data. What's more, their economic conditions are more desperate than their elders. The African Development Bank says unemployment for university graduates skyrocketed from just under five per cent in 1994 to 20 per cent by 2010 - even as overall unemployment hovered around 15 per cent.

They are also the group most likely to come onto the streets again if the revolution heads off track.

After all, this was their revolution.

"Only two words were respected after the 14th of January: democracy and revolution," recalls Raissi. "The words felt full of substance. Now we have a demcracy of thieves."

 

foreign.desk@thenational.ae