The Middle East's Generation X

Iraq elections - Two-thirds of Arabs are under 25, and they are better educated than ever. History s

It's Friday night and thousands of young Arabs - Muslim and Christian, Lebanese and non-Lebanese - beat a path along Beirut's rue Monot. This was once the green line that divided Christian east Beirut from the Muslim west during a 15-year civil war; today, it is the city's chic nightclub parade. Though bullet holes still pepper the walls and one bar tries to recreate the atmosphere of those years, most people in Beirut, and in the rest of the Arab world, are not interested in looking backwards.

The Arab world is young. Since infant mortality rates began to fall in the 1970s the population of the Middle East's 20 countries has risen to more than 380 million (as against 100 million in 1950), of whom nearly two-thirds are under 25. Nearly half the population of Iraq will not be voting on 30 January, because the median age is 19 (as against 38 in Europe).

Numerous academic studies show a firm link between conflict and a youthful demographic. The United Nations says that 16 of the world's 25 youngest countries have experienced major civil conflicts since 1995.

Washington has long feared the Middle East's pear-shaped population. Samuel Huntington, in The Clash of Civilisations (1996), argued that the large number of unemployed young males was a "natural source of instability and violence". Six months before 9/11 - where at least half the hijackers were under 25 - the CIA reported on "the doomed future of youngsters living in the Middle East". Yet the Bush administration tends to downplay all this. When Andrew Natsios, administrator of the US Agency for International Development since 2001, made an explicit link between youth bulges and terrorism in testimony to the US Senate, his words were edited out of the transcript on Usaid's website. "The administration's policy," says Rich Cincotta of Population Action International, "has to agree with their religious backers. This would not include suggesting that what we need right now is condoms in the Middle East."

During the Clinton years, when Nato's Major General William Nash helped oversee the restoration of Bosnia's sovereignty, he initially followed the manual: policing borders, confiscating weapons and keeping ethnic factions separate. Then he realised that the real problem was idle young men, and so he put them to work. Now, in Nato and UN circles, employing the local rebels with a cause is a critical element of post-conflict recovery.

Not so in Iraq. When military contractors tried to set up a programme to find jobs for the country's 400,000 ex-soldiers, almost all under 30, they were ordered to stop. The US military preferred to hire foreign workers from Bangladesh and India because, as Colonel Damon Walsh, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority's procurement office said, "Iraqis are more vulnerable to bad-guy influence". Unemployment among young Sunnis is said to be running at nearly 80 per cent.

The last time western countries had a big youth bulge was in the late 1960s, as the products of the postwar baby boom came of age. The result was student rebellion and the summer of love. Writing in 1968, the historian Herbert Moller concluded that "the subversion of any established government, if not accomplished by coup d'etat, requires a movement that cuts across social classes. Young people provide the driving force and often, to a large extent, the intellectual and organisational leadership."

Other historians saw analogies between the 1960s and France's July revolution of 1830. As a Parisian wrote to a friend in the immediate aftermath of the July revolution, "without the schoolboys everything would be perfectly calm". This was the era of the Saint-Simonian socialists who attracted, as one onlooker said, "literally hundreds of young intellectuals" and of the Romantic Bohemians who congregated on the Left Bank.

Today, Jack Goldstone, a professor of public policy at George Mason University in Virginia, argues that what creates unrest is not just an increase in numbers of young people, but an increase in young educated people and a shortage of jobs for them. "Prior to the English revolution of 1640 and the French revolution of 1789, there was an extraordinary expansion of university enrolments, without a concomitant expansion of positions in the state and church bureaucracies, the typical destinations for the college-educated. Over the late 16th and early 17th centuries, enrolments at Oxford and Cambridge rose by 400 per cent (more than twice as fast as population growth); in France from the 1730s to the 1780s, matriculations in law at the leading universities rose by 77 per cent, while the population climbed by only 16 per cent."

The position in the Middle East today is strikingly similar. The World Bank says the Mena region - the Middle East and North Africa, including Iran - experienced the "fastest expansion in educational attainment in the world between 1980 and 2000". The new generation of Arabs, male and female, is "the most educated in the region's history". And these young people are aspirational. The Arab Human Development Report 2003 asked teenagers to pick out what they saw as the key issues. Education and job opportunities were the most common answers.

But the work demand from idle youths or hayateen ("men who lean against walls") far exceeds the state's capacity to create jobs. The World Bank estimates that over the next ten years the region will need to create 37 million new jobs for first-time job-seekers, as well as 19 million jobs to eliminate current unemployment - all at a time when international financial institutions advise structural changes that reduce the number of public sector jobs.

Whether these young people can bring about a summer of love or a 1789 is another matter. Arab regimes remain highly repressive: Lebanon's Zen TV, which broadcast to young people across the region, with men and women casually chatting together about drugs, CDs and make-up, and with presenters even going into the streets of Damascus and Beirut to ask about people's sex lives, was taken off air last year. The channel survives only as a rudimentary game show. Ziad, a business graduate of the American University in Lebanon who works as a DJ at a Beirut nightclub, says: "Living in the Middle East is like living in the Middle Ages in Europe before the revolutions. We have no middle class, only lower and upper. There will be no revolutions here. Talk about politics too much and you will be put in prison."

The young people of 1830 were also cowed after a while. Some ended up in the dungeons of Mont-Saint-Michel; the Saint-Simonians went to the Orient looking for the female Messiah; the Bohemians got their hair cut. But they left their mark all the same. The word socialisme became common currency, and the Bohemian outcasts of the Latin Quarter would inspire imitators for years to come - in New York's Greenwich Village, for example, and Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco. According to the historian Anthony Esler, "the young ideologues of the 1830s were the first to . . . put the old ideals of 1789 and 1793 back into print once more - to declare openly, 'Je suis republicain!' The fury of their dedication to this vanished political ideal thrust it so rudely back into the realm of public discourse that no amount of repression could drive it once more into oblivion. Republicanism was a living alternative in French politics from that time on."