Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Twitter Feeds and Tie-Dies

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, February 8, 2011 --  

Demographic trends, not Twitter, are responsible for revolutions in the Islamic world. America would be wise not to stand in the way.

When a popular uprising toppled the Tunisian dictator and spread to Egypt last month, technology enthusiasts were quick to label these as "Twitter Revolutions." This branding is based on the publicizing of the uprisings in Tunisia (and initially at least) in Egypt using social media on the internet.

But throngs of youth continued to occupy Tahrir Square in Cairo long after Egypt's dictator cut off their access to the internet. The reason for their persistence has nothing to do with technology -- it's simply that the people have nowhere else to go. Unemployment amongst younger Egyptians has been staggeringly high for years. By some estimates, over 25 percent of youths are unemployed1, and the 2006 Egyptian census found that 90 percent of the unemployed were under 30 years old.2

This generation is not just largely idle -- it is bigger than any Egypt has seen before. High birth rates plummeted in the 1980s, but not quickly enough to cut the size of the huge generation that has come of age in the past few years. There are almost twice as many Egyptians in their 20s as there are in their 50s. Similar or larger demographic bubbles exist across the Middle East from Algeria to Iran, which makes the cultural significance of America's Baby Boom generation look insignificant by comparison.

Like those in America four decades ago, the Islamic world's Baby Boomers are now trying to change the world -- but today it is Twitter feeds rather than tie-dies that are trendy.

The outcome of these youth uprisings depends on the country. The Iranian revolution was brutally crushed last year, Tunisia's succeeded in toppling the president, and Egypt's uprising is still going on. But America's position has varied widely.

America gave moral support to Iran's would-be revolutionaries and certainly gave no aid to the Iranian regime. By contrast, the U.S. government has largely rallied to the defense of Hosni Mubarak, who has been Egypt's dictator of nearly 30 years. It has steadfastly refused to call for him to step down before the end of his term, and has said it will continue funneling billions of dollars of annual military aid to the regime so long as American weapons are not used to gun down the protesters.

This timid approach is shortsighted, reeks of moral cowardice, and has no purpose other than to placate Israel. By all accounts, the Israeli government is terrified of the brewing revolution in Egypt. The New York Times quoted an administration official who said they are urging Israeli officials to "please chill out," in daily phone calls.3

It's easy to understand why Israel is so excited. For years, the government has relied on a friendly Mubarak to not just to keep its southern border secure, but to actively aid in repressing the Hamas-led Palestinian enclave of Gaza. Egypt helps enforce the Israeli blockade on Gaza over its short border manned by Israeli and Egyptian guards. It does so despite international condemnation of the civilian toll of the blockade, which limits the import of food, medicine and construction materials, and severely limits Gazans right to travel. Gaza has been relegated to an enormous prison.

Mubarak is happy to help repress Gazans, because he hates the Islamist Hamas movement that rules it almost as much as he hates Egypt's own Islamists in the (much more moderate) Muslim Brotherhood. They are both a threat to his rule.

The Egyptian people are strongly sympathetic with the Palestinian cause, and are unlikely to continue Mubarak's collaboration with Israel's repressive policies should a popularly elected government come to power.

Yet by putting Israel's interests in stability ahead of the legitimate demands of Egypt's protesters, America is not just harming its moral credibility, it is squandering its opportunity to shape the next generation of governments in the Middle East. With 80 million people, Egypt is the largest country in the Middle East, and the cultural capital of the Arab world.

While there is certainly cause for concern about a government dominated by Egypt's moderately Islamist Muslim Brotherhood (it would probably curtail women's rights and change Egypt's Western orientation) there is no evidence that the youth who are driving Egypt's revolution will support it. The Muslim Brotherhood is an 80-year-old movement that, like the government, is led by an old man. And even if the Muslim Brotherhood did come to power, it is hardly radical by Arab standards.

The American government must make a choice. Does it want to support the freedom of the Arab people, build democracy, and make friends in of a region of 350 million people? Or does it want to turn its back on the region to satisfy the unreasonable and undemocratic demands of Israel's government, which rules over a comparatively insignificant 6 million?


1. Wall Street Journal, IMF Warned Of Egyptian Youth Jobless Rate Ahead Of Protests, February 1, 2011

2. Laila Nawar, Socio-Economic Characteristics of the Population, Egypt, 2010

3. New York Times, U.S. Trying to Balance Israel's Needs in the Face of Egyptian Reform, February 4, 2011