The title The New Arabs may not mean much to many in the West who are just as unfamiliar with the old Arabs, but whether in the Middle East or in the West, the topic of the millennial generation is trending. Generation Y is coming of age, and their impact on society is an area of intense interest that Juan Cole brings to life by studying the Arab Spring of 2011. The book focuses on events in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, "where the youth in all three countries deployed the multiplier effect of the internet to organize nationwide protests on designated days and to delegitimize the regime with videos of police torture, with charges of high-level corruption, and with ridicule and caricature."
Writing a book on unfolding events is challenging, as there is always new information and constantly changing realities. It requires vast background knowledge, access to key resources and people, and the ability to understand how these events fit into the broader historical context. Juan Cole is just the person for such a task. Having lived and worked in the Middle East for many years, Cole has the intimate knowledge of the Arab people that enabled him to write this comprehensive yet accessible book on how and why Arab youth rose up against longstanding regimes.
For many outside observers, the Arab Spring was a whirlwind that struck out of the blue in a notoriously confusing and unstable part of the world. The strength of this book lies in Cole's ability to explain the grievances that drove people into the streets in 2011 rather than in 2001 or 1991. He deftly explains the issues surrounding the colossal youth bulge, a largely well-educated young population with limited economic prospects facing massive unemployment. These millennials enjoy greater literacy rates and exposure to the outside world than previous generations, and satellite television, smart phones and especially the Internet have given them access to news not run by the state. They can share information, have debates, organize, and post pictures and videos of government torture and abuse.
These important developments, which were novel to the past decade, sparked massive anti-government protests. They played out in ways that were complicated and nuanced, with shifting alliances and mitigating factors unique to each country. Cole's focus, however, is not on the revolutions themselves, or on his judgment of their success or failure, but on the role that Generation Y played in them. Cole patiently and methodically brings the reader through the events from the point of view of Arab youth. His style, his heavy use of interviews, and his own experience convey a deep understanding for their perspective.
However, he acknowledges the limitations of the youth movement. While they may have been the catalyst for the uprisings, they were far from the only players. Extremists, Salafists and religious conservatives were often active and far better organized, enabling them to take better advantage of regime change and political liberalization than the youth could. Millennials were often unprepared to evolve from revolutionary groups into political parties, thus hampering the advancement of secular leftists in the new governments. They often found themselves sidelined by their more experienced elders, who still did not take the youth seriously.
The military was another paramount player throughout the Arab Spring. The successful overthrow of the North African regimes was entirely dependent on their acquiescence or indifference. If the military had sided with the regimes, there would have been more instances of civil war, as we've seen in Syria. Lastly, Cole notes that, "without the Net, the people would not have been informed, would not have been mobilized, and would not have made the government fall." Access to satellite television and the international media were also important, as were pamphleteering, word of mouth and community organizing. The millennials were adept at blending both traditional and nontraditional methods to spread information and bring about change, but were unable to take advantage of what they had wrought to further a political agenda.
Cole employs a linear narrative in the march toward revolution and its immediate aftermath, but each chapter jumps back in time as he switches from country to country. This can make keeping a timeline in your head challenging. Other shortcomings of this book are its relatively narrow scope and the fact that the Arab Spring saga is far from concluded. His area of focus is almost exclusively the "republican monarchies." Save for a couple of paragraphs at the very end, he ignores the upheavals in the Gulf states, the Arab monarchies, Yemen and, most notably, Syria.
Finally, this book suffers from the simple fact that the Arab Spring has yet to be fully realized. Tunisia is on a shaky though hopeful path, but its future is unknown; Egypt's future under President Sisi remains unresolved, with democracy very much in doubt; and Libya is still in a state of brutal civil war with no end in sight — not to mention that the fates of both Syria and Yemen are hard to foresee. Ultimately, however, for those who wish to gain a greater understanding of current affairs in the Middle East today, Juan Cole's book furthers one's grasp of the Arab Spring. The millennials, who started it all, will continue to gain power over time, and a greater understanding of who they are, how they think, and what they've been through will be vital for those whose interests lie in Arab world.