'The New Arabs': Juan Cole charts youth in revolt in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya ...

A convincing look at new realities in the Mideast

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Not long after security forces massacred supporters for the ousted president Mohammad Morsi by the hundreds in 2013, an Egyptian family friend lamented to me, “These people — they are like goldfish.”

By Juan Cole
Simon & Schuster ($26).

Who could blame him? How Egypt seemed to forget the massive demonstrations in Tahrir Square two years before for democracy and civil liberties: Here was another army coup, another autocrat, another crackdown — Hosni Mubarak redux.

In a look back on the Arab Spring of 2011, the year was a modern 1848. Then and now, revolutionary fervor swept many countries, only to have the establishment strike back. Syria was ravaged by three years of civil conflict. Egypt was firmly in the hands of another oppressive military ruler, Abdel Fattah el-Sissi. Libya eked out a fragile, militia-threatened existence, “staring at the abyss of civil war,” in the words of one commentator.

In Yemen, Bahrain and Turkey, protests were successfully quashed before they could seriously challenge the ruling class. Only in Tunisia were the revolutionaries successful in shepherding democratic order, and even that remains precarious.

“The New Arabs: How the Millennial Generation Is Changing the Middle East,” the latest book by University of Michigan professor and avid political commentator Juan Cole, tries to make sense of this befuddling back and forth as the awakening of the young Arabs — and he mostly succeeds.

Persistently high birth rates in the Arab world led to a youth bulge — millennials make up a full one-third of the world’s 400 million Arabs. Overeducated and underemployed, these youth are more literate, urban, tech-savvy and secular than their parents.

In Mr. Cole’s convincing telling, the revolution and upheaval roiling the region is the tale of these reawakened youth, the messy gyrations of a “three-way contest between relatively secular dictatorships, left-liberal middle-class activists and supporters of political Islam.”

He concentrates on Tunisia, Egypt and Libya — countries he terms republican monarchies, where president-kings maintain hereditary power and extravagant wealth for decades through torture, corruption, ballot stuffing, political suppression and censorship. Mr. Cole proffers a half-baked thesis not only that “republican monarchism is almost a precondition to successful revolt” but also that “there will be no more republican monarchies” — as depressing as it may be, dictatorships, particularly Arab dictatorships, have proven to have remarkable staying power.

“The New Arabs” is at its best in its vivid recounting of the strange amalgamation of dissident bloggers, student groups, labor unions and repressed Islamists who succeeded in toppling the oppressive regimes — the kinds of  “cross-ideological alliances” missed by many Western accounts that seemed more intent on writing hagiographies to social media.

In this regard, “The New Arabs” is equaled in detail and narrative form only by Jehane Noujaim’s excellent documentary “The Square.” Mr. Cole doesn’t ignore the importance of Facebook and Twitter, but he does put it in its place.

Ordinary cell and satellite phones, which provided SMS messaging to organizers and eyewitness videos to Al-Jazeera by thousands of amateur auteurs, and old-fashioned pamphleteering were probably more important to the revolution. After all, governments topple when millions throng the streets, not when millions fan a Facebook page.

As he did in his previous book, “Engaging the Muslim World,” Mr. Cole is careful to differentiate among militant Islamists and supporters of political Islam. Some other writers have sloppily analogized the Muslim Brotherhood to the Republican Party and the oft-maligned supporters of Shariah law to the not-so-small proportion of Americans who endorse biblical law — about 46 percent, according to a Gallup poll.

Mr. Cole rightly disparages the West’s response to the Arab Spring: France offered to train Tunisian riot police to suppress the protests set off by fruit seller Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in December 2010, and the United States refused to label Egypt’s General el-Sissi’s 2013 military takeover a coup, recently announcing the resumption of $1.5 billion in mostly military aid.

But Mr. Cole’s fondness for critiquing the West strays when he tries hard to fault the International Monetary Fund and World Bank for worsening inequality in the Arab world by encouraging the privatization of state entities and enriching regime cronies at public expense.

Of course, the fault is with corrupt governance, and not the system of free markets itself — America and Britain have conducted similar privatization without the creation of an oligarchy. Mr. Cole is one of those people who use the word “neoliberal” as a pejorative, which would be less grating if his claims were presented with at least some evidence.

No one can dispute Mr. Cole’s knowledge of the Arabs and their politics, but his optimism in their youth might yet be refuted by reality. Political scientists say that countries in democratic transition don’t achieve true order until “consolidation,” when two consecutive leaders are elected democratically under an agreed upon system.

Till then, the goldfish might just gulp interminably.

Idrees Kahloon, a Post-Gazette intern, is a junior at Harvard University (ikahloon@post-gazette.com, Twitter @ikahloon).

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