Historians tend to gravitate toward big, booming personalities. But the Great Man (or Great Woman) theory is coming up increasingly short in today’s digital world, where the Internet can unseat a dictator.
For all the upheaval that has shaken the Middle East in recent years, there have been few accounts that profile the most interesting – and least known – actors on the scene: the young people whose organized resistance has created seismic shifts in the political culture of the region.
Enter Juan Cole, a professor of history at the University of Michigan. Cole is a Middle East expert and a prolific blogger whose efforts to understand the youthful power behind the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya are strenuous and serious. In trips to the area, Cole has met with everyone from key activists to everyday citizens.
Cole’s new book, The New Arabs: How the Millennial Generation Is Changing the Middle East, is an ambitious and largely successful attempt to deploy demographics, economics, social media analysis, and personal observation to understand the new army of cyber-literate, courageous Middle Eastern youth changing the face of their region.
Cole’s account is rich and textured, and unexpectedly optimistic. Western readers may be surprised by the idealistic liberality and secularism of the young people he profiles. At the same time, Cole doesn’t shy away from the ugliness of his story: Street protests and the tortured dissidents are depicted unflinchingly.
Throughout “The New Arabs,” Cole tells the stories of individual young Arabs who have put their lives on the line standing up to government abuse. The story of Egyptian computer enthusiast Khaled Said, beaten to death by police in 2010, starts as a simple tragedy. But his death is transformed into a symbol of hope as the Facebook page “We are all Khaled Said” becomes a rallying point focused on ending torture and police brutality. Cole traces the page’s beginning as a tribute on through its evolution into a clearinghouse for dissent, discussion, and activism.
And Cole’s account of the life, imprisonment, and death of Tunisian e-zine editor Zouhair Yahyaoui captures much of the romantic appeal and surprising pragmatism of the antigovernment movements. “I never believed in communism or in revolution in the destructive sense, against order, et cetera,” Cole quotes Yahyaoui’s cousin, Amira Yahyaoui, as saying. “We must create order, we must become responsible.”
Cole brings the gifts of a curious and skeptical observer to “The New Arabs.” In a media environment that tends toward black-and-white interpretations of events, “The New Arabs” distinguishes itself by presenting a full, rich spectrum of ideas and observations, even at the expense of a clean, clear narrative.
At its best, this is one of the key strengths of “The New Arabs”: We see Cole’s Internet-powered youth vanguard as a heterogeneous group of leftists, Islamists, idealists, pragmatists, radicals, pacifists, and more. One of Cole’s major points is that other than their age and their opposition to torture, corruption, and political stagnation, they’re actually a very diverse group. They do tend to be urban, and many are secular and/or moderate, but he doesn’t generalize at all about their taste in pop culture, food, etc.
At its most frustrating, Cole’s tendency to exhaustively document can try a casual reader’s patience. For instance, after a sharply edited and convincing opening section, the book wades deeply into week-by-week and month-by-month accounts of the revolutions in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia, sometimes losing sight of the greater thematic forest for the trees of blow-by-blow storytelling. That said, close observers of the region will appreciate the care Cole takes in tracking the Middle East’s upheaval, while casual readers will take comfort in the depth of his knowledge.
“The New Arabs” is an indispensable work for the contemporary reader of Middle East history and politics. It grants backstage access to one of the 21st century’s most important social movements and illuminates the motives and methods of the young people who are remaking the region. Our first reaction to dramatic change is usually to oversimplify in order to “understand.” Cole has the courage to tell a more complicated story, and that makes “The New Arabs” a vital read.
James Norton is a former Monitor Middle East editor.