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By Felice Friedson
The often-heard lament that the Middle East is lacking in leadership has in recent months given way to a presumption at once euphoric and almost axiomatic that the region's youth, having surged to the fore, are collectively claiming that very leadership role. A timely effort if true, with an under-24 population of 100 million projected for the year 2030.
Beyond the not-insignificant question of whether the belief is actually true, the very concept begs a look at what the emerging generation brings to the mix that the older generation lacked, and what wisdom and experience the older generation will impart to its successors. Stated alternatively, whether generation-last will meet the challenge of sharing its experiential wisdom with its heirs; and whether generation-next will open its collective mind in recognition of the wealth it stands to inherit.
Iran's history of student-led unrest offers an instructional starting point. According to Dr. Trita Parsi, in 1999 Iranian youth didn't have support from the general population when they held student protests. Parsi, who heads the National Iranian American Council, told The Media Line that, "Today's scenario is very different. The older generation opened up their homes, hid protestors and shop owners, too, helped." According to Parsi, it's not just the attitude of the elders to the younger generation that has changed, but the acumen and vision of those young people on the streets is qualitatively different. "Today, unlike in Egypt where the focus was in bringing down Mubarak, Iranian youth are more sophisticated. They are not just focused on bringing down the government, but on who will lead the next government."
Just as the generation of Iranians that lived through past youth movements have become more active in supporting the new generation's aspirations, many believe that in order for youth movements to carry the day in effecting change in the Middle East, it is incumbent upon the past generation to nurture, teach and empower its inheritors, providing the tools with which to accomplish their mission.
Ironically, those tools are sometimes denied, albeit for good intentions. Echoing a criticism Rezi Pahlavi, son of the late Shah of Iran, told The Media Line in a previous interview, sanctions aimed at punishing an oppressive regime can work against the newly-cast "good guys." According to Dr. Parsi, today's activist Iranians desperately wish they had Internet tools like Skype -- denied by the American sanctions -- that could bypass the regime's manipulation of the communications infrastructure.
Similarly, although the creation of new satellite Internet channels are touted as an insuppressible means of end-running the regime's strict controls, Iranians may not be able to obtain the hardware necessary to access these new channels also because of the American sanctions, and might not have Internet at all.
Conferences popping up throughout the Middle East, sponsored by the United Nations and independent organizations, have emerged as vehicles for the last generation to mentor the next.
Empower2011 in Qatar was part of a youth development program to equip young leadership with a platform to express a concerted voice on local and global issues including poverty, environmental awareness, international education and peace building.
Yemen, the poorest of the regional populations fighting to overthrow a long-time ruler --where 75 percent of its population is under the age of 25 and encouraging programs directed at the youth are plentiful and in demand -- is an example of the need for the indigenous last generation to take the lead in preparing its own next line of leadership.
In December, I visited Sana'a and witnessed first-hand civil society education in motion and watched as young Yemenis were organizing projects - specifically projects that they were able to build in their own communities for the benefit of their own communities. It's a concept foreign to their day-to-day lives and the Yemeni experience. Nadia Al-Sakkaf, editor-in-chief of The Yemen Times, told The Media Line that the problem with many initiatives imported with the intention of empowering Yemen's youth is that they don't feature home-grown solutions. "The issues of authenticity and sustainability are hardly there," she said. "This is why many projects fail once the donor is out and what has been created is merely a superficial culture of civil society activism."
Israel, which is considered the most Western among Middle Eastern nations, has apparently realized the benefits of a confluence of the old and new in the drive for social entrepreneurialism and the importance of civil society. Last week's ROI Summit, sponsored by The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, brought 150 young innovators together for the sixth time, extolling the need for the last generation to provide the tools for the next generation to "create and connect" in order to "make the world a better place."
This week, the annual "Tomorrow" conference organized in the name of Israel's president featured a unique session that featured father and son teams that are arguably symbols of generational baton-passing. President Shimon Peres and his venture capitalist son, Chemi; Prof. Stanley Fischer, governor of the Bank of Israel with his son, David, Facebook's vice president for Advertising and Global Operations; and noted biologist Prof. Howard Cedar and his son, Joseph, an award-winning director; served as cases-in-point.
Innovative ideas need to converge from all generations. The youth need to be included, listened-to, and given the sustaining tools and strategic goals in order to become global citizens. But youth also need the guidance of the past -- the successes and failures - to groom them for tomorrow's leadership.
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World - Mentoring Tomorrow's Middle East Youth Movement | Global Viewpoint