Youth in Middle East key to change, CRS director says

By Jeny Varughese
November 2, 2011

Mark Schnellbaecher, CRS regional director for Europe and the Middle East, stressed the importance of the Middle Eastern youth following the Arab Spring. Schnellbaecher also spoke about the importance of civic engagement in today’s Arab society across the middle east.

Revolutions in the Middle East, which began in December 2010, have raised questions about the future of government leadership and the role of the youth in countries affected by the Arab Spring.  With no end to the revolutions in sight, Catholic Relief Services is now focusing on ways to develop new programming for creating livelihoods and spreading the importance of civic engagement.

Mark Schnellbaecher, CRS regional director for Europe and the Middle East, stressed that the future for the youth in many Middle Eastern countries is bleak.   He discussed the issues plaguing the Middle East with students and faculty in the Grace Hall Atrium on Wednesday, Oct. 26.

While so many aspects of the ongoing revolutions remain unanswered, the youth in countries like Egypt and Libya want a change in their government for the sake of their futures.

“It seems very clear to me that this is about jobs and the youth bulge, where upwards of 60 percent of the population is under 25-years-old,” Schnellbaecher said. “People who are well-educated or are in the process of becoming well-educated have absolutely no prospect of decent employment after graduating.”

Even with a college diploma, young adults in the Middle East do not currently have the opportunity to further advance their lives and careers. Schnellbaecher questioned how one action by Mohammed Bouazizi, a Tunisian vegetable vender with a college education, could set off protests throughout the Middle East.

Bouazizi chose to light himself and his vegetable stand on fire because he did not believe that he could make a successful living by simply maintaining his current job. However, he felt that his government did not give him any other choice.

“Why did his decision to burn himself in protest to the government’s willingness to let him make a dignified life for himself kick off something that continues to spread across the Arab world and shows no sign of ending?” Schnellbaecher questioned. “I don’t think there is any easy answer, other than people being collectively fed up after 40 years of essentially being given no dignity by your government.”

People of all countries are seeking dignity and social justice. The Arab Spring has given them a chance to express their desire for basic citizen rights.

“I’m sure people there bring different terms to those definitions but, nonetheless, they seem to resonate strongly in a sustained matter within the populations,” Schnellbaecher said.

Another point that Schnellbaecher stressed was that countries are now more likely to have pluralist competition instead of an actual democracy. Pluralist competition “holds the seeds of some sort of democratic system or systems.”

“I don’t think we are going to see a single Islamic or Arab democratic form arise,” Schnellbaecher said. “I think it’s going to be very different depending on the different countries and heritage and how the revolution was carried out.”

The revolutions have ranged from peaceful demonstrations in Egypt and Tunisia to bloody protests in Syria and Libya. Each country is fighting for different reasons but the people behind the revolts are all looking to be recognized as official citizens.

“When people are moving from subjects to citizens, that is the other key move that is happening,” Schnellbaecher said. “Of course, they were called citizens before but they were actually subjects. Different countries are discussing what it means to be a citizen.”

Some countries in the Middle East have been repressed for over 30 years, making it imperative that their voices be heard now.

“For so long the government would not let them have public responsibilities,” Schnellbaecher said. “Different countries are discussing what it means to be a citizen, asking ‘What are our rights?’ and ‘What are our responsibilities?’”

This is where the role of CRS comes into play. CRS is primarily focusing on the youth in the countries affected by the Arab Spring and is developing ways to increase job prospects and spread civic engagement in the Middle East.

“We’re beginning to open up new programming on livelihoods creation, which is a completely new area for us,” Schnellbaecher said. “We’re not used to working with the private sector with private businesses to try and create hundreds and hundreds of jobs at a time.”

According to Schnellbaecher, CRS needs to learn how to act as a business partner as opposed to a donor. In addition to programs that focus on livelihoods creation, CRS is also setting their sights on establishing stronger civic engagement programs.

“[Civic engagement] includes everything from youth leadership development to nonviolence communication, advocacy, community mobilization and how to hold a meeting,” Schnellbaecher said. “These are things that, regardless of where people put their political energy, are the sources and scales that will be useful in the public forum.”

CRS was surprised by the start of the revolutions and is still disoriented by what is happening in the Middle East, according to Schnellbaecher.

“These are countries that for 40 or 50 years had a very heavy hand on the government,” Schnellbaecher said. “What’s happening around us is ending many of our habitual ways of seeing and handling things in the Middle East.”

See related editorial: Call for support of Arab Spring youth

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Jeny Varughese

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