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Source: United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF)
1 November 2011

on the move:

Insights into the conditions,
aspirations and activism of Arab youth


Understanding the state of mind of the activist young men and women throughout the region provides a window into the challenges Arab societies are facing today, and into the recent revolts that are driving the national social and political transformations in the Arab world. With the aim to identify and better understand key elements of young Arabs’ perspectives on themselves and their place in society, in 2009 the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut initiated a two-year partnership to produce an updated and forward looking situation analysis on youth in the Middle East and Northern Africa region with the support of the UNICEF Middle East & North Africa Regional Office.


This report aims to provide relevant insights into those important dimensions of the lives of young Arabs aged 15-24 years-civic participation, gender equality, employment, education, among others – that are not sufficiently acknowledged by the decision-makers and key actors in society who directly influence the well-being of Arab youth. The report also intends to inform and sensitize audiences about the myriad challenges and rights violations adolescents (10-19) and youth (15-24) confront on a daily basis throughout the MENA region, and the opportunities to address these in the current evolving context. The report fills a regional gap in knowledge, information and evidence-based policy-making related to youth across the region. The situation, conditions and mindsets of young people are addressed in the study through four broad categories of inter-dependent rights - survival, development, protection and participation - that are highlighted in key universal rights conventions and documents related to young men and women.


Understanding the choices young Arabs make in their lives and how such choices impact their societies within and beyond the region is a fundamental first step to creating a protective and supportive environment for this generation of young people. If youth do not contribute meaningfully to formulating public policies that impact their present and future lives, the policy makers are likely to implement ‘youth agendas’ that do not accurately address the real concerns and needs in young people’s lives.


The report studies youth in the Arab region1 through several lenses that aim to: 1) explore the opinions and attitudes of young Arabs and reflect their views on a wide variety of topics; 2) analyze the motivations, concerns and expectations of young men and women, including in sensitive areas like autonomy, political rights and sexuality that are understudied in most Arab societies; and 3) identify research priorities to support further knowledge development and policy advocacy for youth.

The report’s findings point to a number of constraints and inequities that young people have faced for years and that have been the impetus for the recent Arab uprisings where youth rebelled and demanded significant structural and political changes in their countries. The most common complaints of Arab youth touch on two related issues that define their private and public lives: not enjoying all the rights and opportunities they are entitled to, and feeling constrained by different forces in their society, including the family, society as a whole, and government policies.

The research, consultations and analysis carried out for this report identified a series of priority issues in the lives of young Arabs which are each addressed in a unique chapter of this report: Youth Identities and Values; Civic and Political Participation; Arab Youth and Media Expression; Youth Autonomy in the Arab Family; Young Women and Girls; Arab Youth Sexuality; Migration of Arab Youth; Youth in Situations of Violence and Armed Conflict; and, National Youth Policies in MENA.


In producing the report “A generation on the move: Insights into the conditions, aspirations and activism of Arab youth” over a two-year period from 2009-2011, the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs (IFI) at the American University of Beirut with UNICEF’s support, coordinated an extensive consultative process with a wide range of partners, stakeholders, young people, researchers and experts, to inform the themes explored and discussed in the report. Principle aspects of the collaborative effort included:

integrated alliance-building
youth participation in research and review
the engagement of the private sector and civil society,
inter-sectoral and trans-regional knowledge-sharing.

The publication is based on numerous consultations and analysis of new and existing research that includes a combination of available international and national statistical data, recent polls and surveys, national studies, ongoing or completed research, and analytical texts from respected experts in the field. Many of the papers written for this report are available in full on the IFI-AUB and UNICEF websites. Methodologies used include reviews of existing literature, quantitative surveys, qualitative interviews, focus group discussions, and participant observation.

Over this period of collaboration, a series of regional meetings and roundtables were held with researchers, experts and practitioners to inform the content and direction of the project, and to create future partnerships. Four thematic roundtables were held in Cairo, Dubai, Beirut and Tunis, on the themes of (1) youth political participation and civic engagement; (2) identities and values; (3) new media use; and (4) adolescent girls. The discussions and views presented by researchers, regional experts, practitioners and young people themselves during these roundtables were incorporated into the report. Other consultations included the inaugural IFI-AUB annual meeting of pollsters of Arab youth, the first two Goethe Institute-IFI seminars on Studying Youth in the Arab World, and roundtable workshops on youth social entrepreneurship in the Arab world and youth social policies.

The research team placed significant emphasis on tapping into the voices and sentiments of young Arabs through four key approaches: (1) credible recent surveys and polls at national and regional level; (2) focus groups with youth throughout the region, including youth researchers in eight Arab countries organized through a British Council project; (3) country-based analyses of youth expressions on web sites, chat rooms and other web-based outlets; and (4) field research by respected scholars who directly engaged, surveyed or interviewed young people. This new research, commissioned to fill data gaps, was undertaken by local academic researchers within the Arab world, highlighting the wealth of knowledge and expertise available locally, while also affording a nuanced in-depth analysis.

1The countries and territories covered in this report include: Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, North Sudan, Yemen, Djibouti, Iraq, oPt, Syrian Arab Republic, Jordan, Lebanon, Oman, Kuwait, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.




In December 2010 and January 2011, young people in half a dozen Arab countries ushered in one of the most dramatic episodes of mass civic expression and street-level public participation in the history of the modern world. Arab youth demarcated a historic line that separates two radically different phases of their lives: their docile and passive attitudes on the surface before December 2010, and a much more self-assertive public willingness to reconfigure the exercise of political power in a continuing process that has been given many names, including the ‘Arab Spring’, the ‘Second Arab Awakening’, the ‘Arab Citizen Revolt’, the ‘Arab Revolution’, or the ‘Arab National Uprisings’.


... Before December 2010, many young Arabs seemed to react to their lack of trust in public politics in different ways: a few created new public political movements narrowly focused on a single issue; others joined some Islamist youth groups linked to leading groups like Hamas, Hizbullah or the Muslim Brotherhood; some others involved themselves in charitable and volunteer work, or engaged in national political and social debates.

However, low levels of political or civic participation do not imply lack of interest in democratic reform or global citizenship. Recent surveys show that youth in the Arab region place a high value on democracy (93 percent in Jordan, 84 percent in Egypt, 85 percent in Morocco, 91 percent in Iraq and 75 percent in the UAE), and that most young Arabs aged 18-24 desire the right to vote. Palestinian youth are politicized in a more active manner than most other Arab societies, especially since the emergence of the generations of the first and second intifadas in the 1980s and 90s.





Palestinian youth have perhaps received the most attention of all those experiencing conflict in the MENA region (Sikimic 2010). The situation of young Palestinians in oPt, including East Jerusalem, remains grave as they find themselves caught up in Israeli military operations, incursions and raids throughout the territory, in addition to intense fighting between rival Palestinian factions. In 2008, the UN reported 202 Palestinian deaths and injuries in settler-related incidents and a further 204 in 2009 (Save the Children UK 2009).

Conflict destroys social infrastructure and communities, separating them from essential services and protective environments that empower adolescents and young people to forge their own lives. Schools across the region have been destroyed and many of those remaining open in Palestine, Iraq, and Sudan have been forced to enact double or triple shifts to accommodate the increase in students from shuttered schools. Incident reporting on attacks against education facilities suggests that Iraq and oPt have been among the worst affected over the past five years (O’Malley 2007).


UNRWA has been the main provider of basic education to Palestinian refugees for nearly five decades. In Jordan, the government offers secondary education to Palestinian refugees, and facilitates secondary schools in the refugee camps. More than 95 percent of the Palestinian refugee students that continue their education attend governmental secondary education. Young refugees in unofficial camps, however, do not fully enjoy their right to education. Syria provides secondary education for Palestinian youth on the same basis as Syrian nationals; with 80 percent attending UNRWA primary schools before continuing their secondary education in government schools. By contrast, in Lebanon just over 5 percent of Palestinian refugee students are admitted to public secondary schools.

Conflict, blockades and restrictions on movement and improvement of infrastructure have had a similarly devastating impact on the health of young Palestinians in
oPt. Denial of passage through or delays at checkpoints have significantly affected the access of Palestinian youth to medical care and services, seriously threatening their physical health. 2009 data highlighted that the health of children in some communities of the West Bank was two to five times worse than known national averages, as measured by key health indicators such as low height or weight for their age.

As a result of the destruction of basic services caused by conflict, communities across the MENA region have become reliant on humanitarian aid to meet their basic needs. The U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimates that following the 2008/09 Israeli incursion into the Gaza Strip 71 percent of the population was left reliant on humanitarian aid to survive, mostly in the form of food assistance.


Palestinian refugees are one of the world’s largest groups of stateless persons. Nearly 4.5 million refugees are registered with the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East out of which 1.3 million live in 58 refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, West Bank, Gaza and Syria. Life in these camps is stressful and dangerous. International bodies guarding and monitoring human rights have uniformly expressed concern about the daily living conditions of young Palestinians, a large proportion of whom live below the poverty line, lacking access to adequate housing, health and education services, and subject to severe restrictions on their movement in and out of the camps.

For young Palestinians growing up in these camps, there are very few opportunities for employment as their refugee status prevents them from accessing opportunities to work or benefit from social security. These and other restrictions, including limitations to the right to association and political participation, or arbitrary detention, have negatively affected the quality of life of Palestinian youth, with many engaging in high-risk behaviors to survive.


Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy & International Affairs
American University of Beirut
Beirut, Lebanon

Published in 2011 by the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs,
American University of Beirut.
This report can be obtained from the Issam Fares Institute website:
Beirut, November 2011
Copyright © 2011 by the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs,
American University of Beirut.
All rights reserved.
The text and commentaries in this document represent the personal views of the authors and do
not necessarily reflect positions of the IFI-AUB nor of the United Nations Children’s Fund.
Design: Amin Musa
Printing: Beyond for Art and Design
Cover illustration: Amin Musa

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