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The leaders of now

Egypt, February 1, 2011

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I wish that I were in Tahrir Square right now. After working in the Middle East for the past five years, I’d like to see and feel this historic moment myself. Our friend Nick Kristof of the New York Times is there. He reports that the usual hustle and bustle of traffic in the heart of Cairo has been replaced by throngs of exuberant protesters. The square, he says, “has lost its menace and suddenly become the most exhilarating place in the world.” While the street demonstrations across Egypt have drawn citizens from across generations, religions, political persuasions and socio-economic backgrounds, there is no doubt that much of the energy fueling recent events has been generated by the country’s burgeoning youth population.

Two-thirds of Egypt’s 80 million people are below the age of 30. According to Money Week Magazine, 90 percent of the country’s unemployed are youth. Egyptian youth are fed up—frustrated by the lack of job opportunities, disgusted by rampant corruption and poor governance, and tired of having no voice. It appears that they are now on their way to changing their leadership—President Hosni Mubarak is on TV as I write, pledging to step down from office. Young people with similar complaints brought down the government in Tunisia and kicked off protests in Yemen. Here in Jordan, where I am now, King Abdullah responded to young protesters today by dismissing the current government and offering up other reforms.

I am humbled by the determination and courage of young people in the Middle East who are finding their voice and peacefully but defiantly advocating for change. And I am continuously inspired by the youth I meet across the region who are working on a daily basis through our Global Citizen Corps program and other initiatives to address critical challenges in their communities. Young people in this region are not the leaders of the future—they are the leaders of now.

But while this may be an exhilarating moment for people in Tahrir Square and elsewhere, the social and economic challenges facing the Middle East and its youth will not be solved quickly. Years of hard work lie ahead. Youth in the Middle East want the same thing that young people everywhere want: a sense of hope, opportunity, and a chance to be active, productive members of their communities and societies. Our job is to support them in achieving that vision. When the dust in the streets eventually settles, it is critical that governments, the private sector, and civil society organizations like Mercy Corps band together in support of youth in the Middle East, ensuring they have access to the tools and opportunities they need to build a dignified, peaceful, and productive life for themselves and their communities.