Young Arabs on Russia and Ukraine, and democracy in the Middle East - in their own words

Findings of the 2022 Arab Youth Survey prompt debate among youth in the region

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The breadth, depth and range of views in the Arab world could scarcely be more complex.

Few regions in the world share such a common identity, religion and language, while differing so fundamentally in their beliefs, views and outlook on the world.

And so the Arab Youth Survey's authors attempt to test the mood of 50 cities in 17 countries, in an independent survey of 3,400 young people. The results are not perfect, but they spark debate in a region with a dearth of hard data.

Today, The National's correspondents from around the region speak to young Arabs to hear their views on the main findings.

'Democracy will never work'

The survey found that 64 per cent of young Arabs thought democracy would be incompatible with the region. Those in the Levant were most likely to share this view, with 72 per cent agreeing while 62 per cent in North Africa agreed.

Gamal Ahmed, 22, a high school graduate who works as a restaurant server in Giza, said democracy was the last thing on the minds of most young Egyptians struggling to make a living.

“I think the reality is most of us, especially poor people, have much more pressing issues, such as ensuring we have enough money to feed our families, especially this year with how expensive things are getting,” he said.

Mr Ahmed earns 2,000 Egyptian pounds ($103) per month, sometimes more if his tips are good. He is from the village of Abusir, a poor neighbourhood by the Giza pyramids, where many tourism workers live.

He said rising inequality across Egypt meant most of the population was not unified in its needs, which he believes would be instrumental to a successful democracy.

“When a portion of the population drives fancy cars and can afford expensive dinners with celebrities by the pyramids and the rest are competing for a job to be their server for the evening, I’m not sure that’s democracy,” he said.

The bustling Cairo district of Al Atba. AFP

Farida Magdy, a 24-year-old journalism student at the American University of Cairo, said she had not yet seen an example of successful democracy anywhere in the world.

“I don’t know that democracy fully works anywhere really. Cancel culture is the biggest attest to that,” she said.

“Online today, there is a way to think about things and a set of ethics you have to believe in and if you don’t, then you are punished through ostracism or cancellation. Which isn’t strictly democratic.”

Ms Magdy said there were likely many reasons why democracy might not work in the Arab world but that it was wrong to generalise.

She noted the failure of Arab nations, including Syria, Libya, Lebanon, Iraq and Tunisia, in their democratic efforts. However, despite this, she did not agree with the fatalistic opinion that democracy is not for the Middle East.

Ms Magdy said democracy was akin to a chemical reaction: when the correct components are added under the right conditions, the desired result is produced.

“When you have such rampant sectarian politics all over the Middle East, egregious human rights abuses in many places, government corruption and neglect of people’s needs, how can anything akin to democracy grow?” she said.

Young Iraqis sit in a cafe during Ramadan in Mosul in April 2022. Reuters

For Iraqi Yassir Ahmed, 23, “the word democracy is only used in media while there is nothing in reality.”

The entrepreneur, who cofounded the taxi-booking service Wasla in the northern city of Mosul, was only 4 when the US-led international coalition topped Iraq's decades of dictatorship under Saddam Hussein’s regime. In its place, the US said it would introduce a democratic system to the country.

But nearly 20 years later, Iraqis say they are disillusioned.

“Since then, other issues have dominated such as the Muhasasa,” Mr Ahmed said, referring to the political system introduced after 2003, in which posts are shared among parties based on the sects, ethnicity and religions of the country’s population regardless of election outcomes.

Since 2003, Iraq has held five national elections for full-term governments. After each election, political parties spend months trying to form a consensus government with representation from each political party.

It has been almost a year since Iraq held early national elections and a new government has not yet been formed. This process has been stymied by rivalries among different political factions, mainly the Shiites.

Mr Ahmed believes democracy could work in Iraq “but needs time and we will see a new generation of Iraqis, who find their way into politics”.

Iraqi protesters gather during an anti-government protest in Baghdad in September 2022. Reuters

Mohammed Naji, 20, a student at Baghdad Law School, said democracies in the Middle East needed continuous support from the international community to survive.

“Since democracy is new to the region, it needs ongoing supervision from the international community in order not to pave the way to another authoritarian,” he said.

“In Iraq, the US created a space for freedom in the country that allowed a fledgling democracy to take root, but it turned its back and left political rivals [to create a] ‘democracy’ that benefits their own interests.”

Nacef, a 28-year-old computer engineer from Gafsa in Tunisia, said: “Democracy cannot be achieved in the Arab world because of all the divisions made by powerful nations in our region. We see sectarian, religious, ideological divisions, which I blame hegemonic powers for,” said the computer engineer.

“Maybe if no one interferes in Arab countries’ internal affairs and does not back certain parties at the expense of others, people could sit together and work through their conflicts, in that way democracy might become possible.”

Support for Putin's Russia

Almost a third of young Arabs, 31 per cent, view the US and Nato as primarily responsible for Russia's invasion of Ukraine while 18 per cent blame Russia. At least 37 per cent said they did not know enough on the topic to say either way.

Egypt's Gamal Ahmed said he saw Russian President Vladimir Putin as a “real man”.

He accused the US of antagonising Russia in “the sneaky way that America has perfected over the years”, pointing to the destruction of Iraq following the US-led invasion.

“They come in, kill people and ruin a generation of children’s lives, and then spin everything so they look like they were trying to save the Middle East all along.”

People hold anti-war banners during a protest in Belgrade in September 2022, after Russian President Vladimir Putin escalated his seven-month war in Ukraine by calling up 300,000 military reservists. AFP

Ms Magdy disagreed with the survey findings, although she acknowledged previous grievances caused by the West.

“I don’t think that anything the US or Europe has done in the past can excuse what Putin is doing in Ukraine,” she said.

“It seems that Putin’s war is all about ego and bringing back Russia’s royal legacy, when it was more powerful than it is today.”

She likened the Russian president to “corrupt leaders” in the Middle East, who “hold on to power … then claim that foreign entities are conspiring to hurt their people. Never mind the fact that under the same system, millions of their own people are oppressed and abused.”

Mohammed Naji from Iraq believes the US and Nato are primarily to blame for Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

“They kept provoking Russia by using Ukraine,” he said. He added that Europe and the US were only fanning the flames of war by supplying Ukraine with money and weapons.

For 25-year-old Omar from Tunisia, the equation was simple. “Anything that involves Nato, the US, UK or the EU, means that the other party is right,” he said.

“I believe Putin is only trying to defend his country, it’s his legitimate right.”

Regardless of who is to blame, Yassir Ahmed said: “The losers in these wars are only the innocents not the governments.”

Updated: September 23, 2022, 11:20 AM
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