- The New Arabs: How the Millennial Generation Is Changing the Middle East by Juan Cole
Reporting and analysis of the events of the Arab Spring have produced a plethora of books, ranging from journalistic accounts to scholarly analyses. More than an addition to the collection, Juan Cole’s The New Arabs stands as the definitive work, combining historical contextualization, in-depth discussion of events, and identification of longer-term trends and developments, showing that the Arab Spring did not arise out of nowhere, but was the result of years of rising frustration over government failures to achieve a “moral economy.”
Cole writes with an authority few can claim, based on fluency in Arabic and more than 40 years of experience living and traveling in the Arab world. He combines personal observation and analysis, introducing a multiplicity of players and backgrounds. Whereas many works focus on the role of technology, Cole directs his attention to the creativity and agency of the networked movements of young people using that technology. He highlights the role of citizen journalism in creating counter-narratives, particularly the use of camera phones to record visceral videos of police brutality that could be forwarded to other phones or posted on websites, exposing the abuse of citizens by government security forces. This shattering of the collective silence and fear of speaking out was critical to galvanizing broad revolutions.
At the heart of Cole’s book are the postcolonial “Arab millennials,” or “Generation Y” — the one-third of the population born between 1977 and 2000 — whose calls for karama (dignity), “bread, liberty, and social justice,” and popular sovereignty united disparate groups to overthrow long-serving dictators. More literate, educated, urbanized, wired, and secular than their parents, Generation Y proved capable of working with religiously oriented organizations when it was politically pragmatic, yet sufficiently independent and strong to reject attempts at introducing theocratic governments or limiting freedom of speech and thought through religiously inspired censorship. Cole asserts that Generation Y tends to be less obedient, more vocal in criticism, more likely to network to share opinions and ideas, and more pragmatic in focusing on goals and objectives than Generation X, which was better known for its internalization of authoritarianism, obedience, and strong ideological commitment. That dynamic was reflected in the revolutions, which sought to exchange a patriarchal, hierarchical social order in which gender and age bring prestige and authority for one in which literacy, education, and technological skill carry a new kind of knowledge-based, decentralized authority accessible to both men and women alike. Although sometimes naïve in their assumptions, Cole nevertheless acknowledges that the millennials were quick to remobilize when key demands were not met, critical liberties were at stake, or the economy continued to flounder. He also notes the strong role played by young women in creating their own space for leadership and expression within the central narrative of the revolutions, rather than as a separate, government-sponsored side story.
Cole’s analysis reflects his background as an economic historian, giving strong attention to issues such as chronic high rates of youth unemployment, low investment rates, stable wages despite high rates of inflation and skyrocketing wheat prices, and governments rampant with corruption and cronyism, all of which contributed to a rising culture of strikes and protests that served as rehearsals for the ultimate revolutions. The organizational and mobilizing skills acquired by both unions and religiously based political opposition in confronting the state, as well as the defense skills of Ultras soccer fans in dealing with crowd violence and police brutality, proved critical for the revolutions’ successes. Cole also credits the youth movement with successfully disrupting the normal functioning of the economy by shutting down manufacturing, transportation, [End Page 153] tourism, and commerce at will, bringing governments to their knees. Thus, Cole points to the rising strength of what he calls the New Left and progressive interpretations of Islam married to the values of the Enlightenment, rather than religious conservatism, as the future direction of Arab politics.