How the Rise of Individualism is Upending the Middle East
December 20, 2019The protests that have swept the Middle East in the past two months share a number of underlying causes: Oil prices are soft. Unemployment is high. Citizens have had their fill of corruption and dictatorship. The demonstrators in Beirut, Baghdad, Tehran and Algiers can add complaints that are distinctive to their nations, too. In Iraq, citizens object to the power of Iran and its proxy militias; in Algeria, citizens complain that the ruling gerontocracy has failed to deliver promised reforms.
Yet there’s a deeper sociological phenomenon that underpins all of this unrest: Individualism is accelerating in the Middle East, upending societies that had relied on people to know their place and respect authority. Arab societies have long depended on hierarchical networks of trust that encompass families, villages, tribes and other associations — networks that ultimately reach up to the national leadership. Young people, though, increasingly complain that these networks don’t serve them, and growing urbanization and the spread of technology make it far easier for them to opt out. In some cases, voluntary friendships and connections that people embrace in lieu of tribe and family provide their own sources of strength. But in a region with such a strong tradition of hierarchy and mutual obligation, it is hard to overstate how destabilizing the rise of individualism can be.