Book review: Youth Tsunami in Arab World: ‘The New Arabs,’ by Juan Cole

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July 8, 2014

These days, alarming news continues to spill out of the Middle East. Syria’s continuing civil war has claimed tens of thousands of civilian lives. Iraq — where the prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, a Shiite, has stoked sectarian conflict by refusing to form an inclusive government — is hurtling toward civil war, as Sunni militants, led by the Qaeda splinter group ISIS, have moved close to Baghdad. Farther east, the Taliban are resurgent in Afghanistan.

In his book “The New Arabs,” however, the Middle East scholar Juan Cole provides an optimistic assessment of a new generation coming of age in the region. Mr. Cole, a history professor at the University of Michigan, gained recognition in the prelude to the 2003 American invasion of Iraq and in its wake, with his “Informed Comment” blog, which was not only highly critical of Bush administration policies but also provided illuminating historical and social context for the war and its devastating aftermath.

“The New Arabs” focuses not on Iraq, but on the Arab Spring, and in particular on the role that youth movements in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya played in bringing down the authoritarian regimes in those countries. “Young people are the key to the rapid political and social change in the Arab countries that have been in turmoil since 2011,” Mr. Cole writes, arguing that members of this “Arab Generation Y” are more literate than their elders, more urban and cosmopolitan, more technologically savvy and less religiously observant than those over 35. Echoing what the veteran Middle East reporter Robin Wright wrote in her 2011 book, “Rock the Casbah,” Mr. Cole contends that “a new generation has been awakened” and that a positive new historical dynamic is taking hold.

Mr. Cole’s book is at its most illuminating when it takes the reader inside the youth movements in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, showing us how activists used technology and social media to amplify their message and connect with like-minded citizens across the region. Although this phenomenon has already been widely covered by Western media, Mr. Cole chronicles it in fascinating detail here, recounting the stories of prominent dissidents and their often pioneering use of Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and cellphone technology to network and organize.

The creation of YouTube in 2005 and the growing reach of satellite television (most notably Al Jazeera) also gave dissidents important tools. In 2006, the blogger Wael Abbas began posting graphic videos, taken secretly, of Egyptian police brutalizing their prisoners, which provoked public outrage. And in Tunisia, videos of the police opening fire on young protesters — who had turned out in the streets after a fruit vendor burned himself to death (in December 2010) in response to being humiliated by government officials — received thousands of views and fueled the spread of demonstrations across the country.

In Egypt (where, according to The C.I.A. World Factbook, 49.9 percent of the population is 24 or younger), disgust with the Mubarak government had been building for years. Among the events that created “links and networks among a diverse group of leftist and Muslim fundamentalist organizations” opposed to Mr. Mubarak as an agent of the West, Mr. Cole says, were demonstrations in early 2003 against the coming United States invasion of Iraq and the Gaza war of late 2008 and early 2009.

Mr. Cole’s conclusion to this book is a hopeful one. He writes: “The youth revolutionaries of the Middle East inspired their peers throughout the globe by their ideals of liberty and social justice and their collective action techniques. Fundamentalist movements seeking to take advantage of the political opening to impose new forms of theocratic authoritarianism suffered severe setbacks at the hands of the same youth activists.”

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