Young, worldly, passionate, internet-savvy, and fearless. This is the new Arab face that the political developments of the last few weeks have unveiled to the world. First in Tunisia and now in Egypt, millions of young Arabs have taken to the streets. Their demands for governmental overhauls are fueled by liberal democratic values, their marches are organized through Facebook and Twitter, and their chants for change ring out in both Arabic and English. A far cry from the image of downtrodden people and reactionary terrorists, this is the globalized Arab generation that is stepping out onto the world stage.
The recently released Wael Ghonim is now perhaps the most famous representation of this new Arab face. Senior Google executive by day, he is pro-democracy activist by night. The 30-year-old’s Facebook page, “We are all Khaled Said,” detailed the brutal murder of a young man by Egyptian police and became one of the engines that drove Egypt to its “March of Millions.”
Ghonim gained international fame when he was kidnapped by Egyptian security on January 27th as he made his way to Tahrir Square. After his release from detention twelve days later, he gave an emotional interview in which he cried openly for the Egyptians who died in the protests but stressed that Egypt had to keep moving forward.
Having no affiliations with any political groups or ideologies, Ghonim represents the independent, average young Egyptian. This, combined with his bravery in confronting the government, has made him a favorite to lead the so-called “Youth of the Revolution.” A Facebook page asking him to lead the young demonstrators has, at this writing, already gathered over 124,000 supporters.
Down in the streets of Egypt’s major cities, the protesters inspired by the work of Ghonim and other activists are also reflecting the spirit of the new Arab. Aware of the need to cooperate with the international community, they decided to officially make their protests bilingual “for the sake of the international news agencies” that were covering the event, as one man on a megaphone announced to the thousands chanting after him. Immediately, the crowd switched from the Arabic chant “hurriya!” (“freedom!”) to English, saying “Mubarak has to go! Game over, game over!”
But the protesters didn’t stop there. Aside from international sensitivity, their incarnation as the new Arab displayed impressive courage and organization. While some lay down just inches away from the wheels of tanks so that the army could not enter Tahrir Square, others set up a “trash-collecting party” to keep the area clean. Elsewhere in the square, protesters set up everything from a hospital to a comic strip exhibition in the tents they had set up. According to various Tweets, they were even working together to come up with new ways to go to the bathroom without leaving the Square. Interviews with protester after protester showed that they were determined to stay highly organized to ensure that they could live up to their promise: “we’re staying here until the President leaves.”
While Ghonim and his compatriots have captured the world’s attention, young Arabs across the Middle East are beginning their own transformations into the new Arab. Away from the international lens, activists in Algeria, Syria and Saudi Arabia are stirring the local waters – quite literally, in the Saudi case. After a recent storm drowned the city of Jeddah for the third time in as many years, furious citizens raged against the government’s unwillingness to rebuild the city in countless YouTube videos and online articles. The average Saudi’s frustration spilled onto the street, with around fifty protesters leading a peaceful march through Jeddah. Terrified of what such marches could lead to, the Saudi government quickly dispersed the protesters – but only those operating outside cyberspace.
The face of the new Arab is quickly emerging in the Middle East. Autocratic Arab governments are terrified of it, while the international community is slow to recognize it. But this new Arab face, with its dedication to freedom, focus on democracy, and fluency in the technology that binds us all, will soon overcome its challengers and win the affections of its global peers. Then, it can step up to the international stage as a positive, progressive partner. With the Middle East so central to world politics, that can’t happen soon enough.