As President Jimmy Carter’s national-security adviser during the 1979 fall of the shah in Iran, Zbigniew Brzezinski has dealt intimately with history-bending revolutions. After mass protests deposed a regime in Tunisia and later spread to the streets of Egypt and Yemen last week, NEWSWEEK’s John Barry talked to the Johns Hopkins professor about the way young people across the Arab world—many of them disaffected and disenchanted—are now connecting on the circuits of a new revolutionary age.
A few years back you said a “demographic revolution” awaited the Middle East like a “political time bomb.” Has that moment come?
Today we have somewhere between 80 million and 130 million young people around the world who come from the socially insecure lower middle class and constitute a community of mutual infection with angers, passions, frustrations, and hatreds. These students are revolutionaries-in-waiting. When they erupt at volatile moments, they become very contagious. And whereas Marx’s industrial proletariat more than a century ago was fragmented in local groups, today these young people are interacting via the Internet.
On sites like Facebook and Twitter, are they communicating more than broad ideas?
They’re actually transmitting techniques, as major social movements long have. Think back to the upheavals in Central Europe a generation ago. Solidarity used slogans and colors. The more recent uprisings in Central Europe followed suit: the Velvet Revolution, the Orange Revolution. Everybody is imitating everybody. And today we see that young people in Cairo have clearly been watching what is happening in Tunis and have been energized to action.
Are the events in Tunisia a youth revolution?
Yes. But all revolutions are young. What is new is the scale of the numbers of disaffected youth and the level of their political consciousness. In addition to their shared slogans, there is a lot of ideology mixed up with emotion and hatred and nationalism.
What sets the Arab world apart?
A very special feature of this new political consciousness, of course, is religious fanaticism. Look at the average age of the suicide killers. They are very young. Enthusiasm for change can quickly degenerate into fanaticism, and with it comes brutal lethality and self-destruction.
So youth revolutions may not always have democracy as their goal?
What young people want is political dignity. Democracy may enhance that. But political dignity also encompasses ethnic or national self-determination, religious self-definition, and human and social rights. All of this now takes place in a wired world where the youth are acutely aware of economic, racial, and social inequities.
And the protests in Egypt?
Egypt is seething. And if it erupts it is not only going to destabilize the country, but it will also change the relationship with Israel and it will affect Saudi Arabia, because the masses there are also seething underneath the surface.
So, from the West, what is to be done?
To the extent it is possible, it is best to channel these aspirations. That does mean coping with certain problems that we know are contributing to the intensification of radicalism and extremism. One of those factors is indeed the nature of the regimes in the region. Simply sweeping these problems under the rug is not a solution. So I think Obama started out right in outlining in his Cairo speech a notion of how to deal with, specifically, the Islamic problem. But since then, he has simply lapsed into passivity.