Dignity in an Ever-changing Arab World

Thomas Podles, WYA Member and Volunteer*

On December 17th 2010 Mohammad Bouazizi, a 26 year old Tunisian vegetable vendor, set himself on fire to protest his treatment at the hands of the police. His unlicensed vegetable cart, his sole means of supporting his family of eight, had been confiscated, and he had been verbally and physically abused at the hands of a police officer. When he tried to complain to the local authorities, they refused to see him, and in desperation he drenched himself in gasoline and lit himself on fire. He died several weeks later as a result of his injuries, but his action sparked a series of protests that have become known as the Arab Uprising or Arab Spring. The protests that followed in Middle East and North Africa were a reflection of the common frustrations felt by the youth in those regions, namely a denial their of basic human dignity.

The World Youth Alliance is committed to building free and just societies, through the promotion of policies that recognize and promote the intrinsic dignity of the human person, and the changes taking place in the Arab world offer a unique opportunity to do so, because the root cause was the denial of basic human dignity. Several factors contributed to this, but primarily economic insecurity, and a lack of freedom and political enfranchisement.

As of 2012, the regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen have been overthrown, and political reforms have been instituted in Jordan and Morocco. However, there is a danger going forward that the governments that have replaced the old regimes will repeat the mistakes of the past, by ignoring the needs and concerns of the youth, and leaving them out of the political process.

The Arab Uprising has largely been driven by the youth of the region, whose grievances range from high unemployment, to a privation of freedom, and marginalization in the decision-making process. More than half the region’s population is under the age of 25, and according to the International Monetary Fund, the unemployment rate in the Middle East is 25%, with the youth between the ages of 15 and 25 accounting for a full 40% of that figure. Furthermore, in 2010, the year that the Arab Uprising began, most major indices of freedom ranked the Middle East and North Africa among the most politically oppressive.

Regardless of what political systems emerge in the wake of the Arab Uprising, if they do not have proper regard for human dignity, and do not have the person at the center of their policies, then they are bound to fail. The World Youth Alliance can play an important role in the region, both educating the youth about human dignity, and advocating for a person centered approach to policy.

* Thomas graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in 2009, and began working in the non-profit sector. As an American, Thomas wanted to work in the Middle East to improve his Arabic, and to experience living in the region. WYA offered the perfect opportunity to do both of those things, as well as the opportunity to promote human dignity, a subject about which Thomas feels strongly.