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14 September 2014

The New Arabs by Juan Cole

SENIOR University of Michigan academician, Juan Cole, appears to have a twofold agenda in writing this book. On the one hand, he wishes to provide a comprehensive overview of the role and function of young revolutionaries central to the Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. On the other, by doing the former, he attempts to give the reader an idea of the collective identity of (what he terms) the young millennial Arabs of the 21st century.

Cole’s tome is a breathtakingly detailed and comprehensive tour de force; lucidly written and extensively documented, over a tenth of the book is devoted to extensive explanatory notes and sources. He thus succeeds in achieving the first aim of his agenda, and while determining whether he creditably defines the millennials is ultimately up to the individual reader to ascertain, there is no doubt about the fact that his aspirations are valid and noble ones.

It should come as no secret to anyone even remotely familiar with the machinations of the Arab Spring that heads of state such as Mubarak of Egypt, Ben Ali of Tunisia, and Gaddafi of Libya, were displaced partly by means involving extensive internet networking by the revolutionaries within their respective countries. Indeed cyberspace (as opposed to ‘meatspace’) provided outlets for the restless energy and legitimate frustration of the millennials. Naturally, Cole consistently creates fundamental links between his perception of revolutionary activities and the widespread use and availability of social media in the Middle East.

The first half of the book delineates precisely what Cole means by the terms “Arab millennials” and “Republican monarchs”. He also painstakingly underscores the manner in which the post-revolution, New-Left parties within these countries struggled to cope with the confusion and fallout that inevitably arise when any regime (no matter how oppressive) is left without a central leader.

The latter half of the text details the revolutions of the three countries within the precincts of separate chapters. The number of courageous individuals listed by Cole is too numerous to dwell on here at length, but special mention may be made of a few that stand out as having been particularly significant. One of these is the Egyptian blogger Wael Abbas, another is the tragic figure of Tunisian Tariq Bouazizi, and last but not least, the Tunisian activist Zouhair Yahyaoui.

Given the immense amount of internet information about the revolutions to which one can have access, and which invariably tends to overwhelm as opposed to instruct, Cole’s book (though dense and difficult) provides a welcome sense of anchorage. This is primarily because it focuses on that which is both genuine and important. Had it not been for the heroic and systematic blogging of Wael Abbas, many Egyptian youth who wished for reform would have found themselves to be politically rudderless in the second decade of this century. Fortunately for Abbas, he was a survivor. Creator of the dissident internet magazine TUNeZINE, his counterpart Zouhair Yahyaoui attempted to co-ordinate and stimulate Tunisians in a similar manner, but his is a sadder case than that of Abbas. Though Yahyaoui achieved some of his aims, the stresses of rigorous imprisonment resulted in his health collapsing fatally when he was still in his thirties.

Bouazizi’s case appears to be the most depressing. Consistently denied the ability to put his education and personal resources to good use, in a last act of desperation he immolated himself, thereby (almost literally) beginning the conflagration that set Ben Ali’s corrupt government ablaze. One of the most vital aspects of Cole’s text is that he never places a hero before the audience, unless that individual has truly earned the dignity of being regarded as one. He is just as measured in documenting their polar opposites — for example, individuals such as the post-Mubarak president, Mohammed Morsi, whose firm personality but conservative and myopic views resulted in the Egyptian economy being affected detrimentally. Even a substantial infusion of funds by Morsi’s main benefactor, Qatar, was unable to salvage either the economy or even, ultimately, his position.

Perhaps the only major criticism of Cole’s work that jumps out at any reader is that it lacks information about some key points, such as international sentiment regarding the new millennials, and portrayals of heroic female figures of the revolutions.

This may have been because Cole’s intensely honed focus necessarily excludes such elements, or at least a detailed discussion of them, resulting in an unevenness that is understandable but can hardly go unnoticed. He feels compelled to offer thumbnail sketches of several family members of the Gaddafi ‘cartel,’ but is oddly silent about points such as Christiane Amanpour’s historic and exclusive interview with Mubarak during the early days of the Egyptian revolution. This is surprising since the author’s respect for Western journalism subtly fuels much of his own documentation.

Equally puzzling is why Cole seems so quick to view these revolutions as similar to the French one of the 18th century; that the writer is an expert on Napoleonic Egypt does not automatically mean that one should dispel a healthy personal sense of scepticism and subscribe to this viewpoint. To do so would result in an undercutting of the imperative need to see each Arab revolution as unique and non-Western.

To be perfectly fair, however, Cole never claims to be writing from a quasi-indigenous, or even empathetic, perspective, although he is both linguistically and geographically well-versed when it comes to his knowledge of the Middle East.

Deeply sobering though the book is, perhaps it would not be inappropriate to end with a fantastical but apt quote from the science-fiction novel, Star Wars: A New Hope, where Princess Leia notes: “They were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Naturally, they became heroes.” The saying fully applies to key millennial figures of the Arab Spring.

The reviewer is Assistant Professor of Social Sciences and Liberal Arts at the Institute of Business Administration.

The New Arabs: How the Millennial Generation is Changing the Middle East


By Juan Cole   Simon and Schuster, US  ISBN 978-1451690392   348pp.
The New Arabs by Juan Cole
by Nadya Chishty-Mujahid, dawn.com