This story appears in the July 2011 issue of National Geographic magazine.
It was a generation in waiting. They waited for a good education, and that rarely came. Then they waited for jobs, which paid very little when they did come. Without proper jobs, they waited to get married, often staying with their parents into their 30s—or living with their parents even after they got married. Most important, they waited for liberty: the right to vote freely, to participate in politics, to change the world.
Until they could wait no longer.
Some 60 percent of the people in the Middle East are under 30 years old, and many of them are angry. Like young people everywhere, they have ambitions. They want, they need, they crave. They feel constrained—especially, perhaps, when they watch satellite television or surf the Internet. There they can see how the rest of the world lives. Social media (including personal blogs, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and more) allow young men and women to share their frustrations in ways they couldn't in the past. They're not alone anymore. Now they have allies. They have power.
Of course, the people of the Middle East are not a singular "them." The Muslim majority of the region includes Arabs, Persians, and Kurds, all of whom speak different languages. Some countries are rich in oil, some are not. Leadership and control vary in brutality and intensity. Syria is a kind of dictatorship; Morocco is a constitutional monarchy. Yemen and Libya are plagued by tribal rivalries; Jordan and Lebanon host large populations of Palestinian refugees; several countries suffer sectarian splits. When anger spills out along these fault lines, it's often destructive.
Navtej Dhillon, a former Brookings Institution fellow who led a project to study youth in the Middle East, spoke presciently in 2008 about the challenges facing the region. The area was simultaneously experiencing an economic and a demographic boom, he said, but young people there felt excluded, suffering unemployment rates nearly twice the world average. Economic and social institutions discouraged the entrepreneurial spirit necessary to build a healthy middle class. "The region faces a scenario of double dividend or double jeopardy," Dhillon explained to staffers of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Leaders in the Middle East could capitalize on the region's youth bulge to create a virtuous cycle of higher growth, higher incomes, and higher savings. Or they could continue to stifle young people's ambitions and experience double jeopardy: lower growth and social strife.
For better and worse, the strife has begun.