x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Historian Juan Cole’s latest book dissects the Arab Spring

The Middle East expert Juan Cole has written a lively work on how Arab youth in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya have glimpsed a brighter future and time is on their side to make it permanent.

Youths take to the street in Tunis in 2012. Arab youth are more literate, wired and secular then their parents, Juan Cole writes. Photo Samuel Aranda / Corbis
Youths take to the street in Tunis in 2012. Arab youth are more literate, wired and secular then their parents, Juan Cole writes. Photo Samuel Aranda / Corbis

The New Arabs: How the Millennial Generation is Changing the Middle East, the most recent book by the respected historian and political observer Juan Cole, is an insightful and nuanced guide to the Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, albeit slightly marred by ­periodic longueurs.

According to Cole, a professor of Middle Eastern and North African history at the University of Michigan and respected blogger, the reasons for the Arab Spring are complex. Among them, he lists the economic grievances of the working class as well as the yearning for political freedom of middle-class and internet-savvy youth (with online female activists playing a role generally denied them in Arab ­politics).

He writes: “The poor and workers wanted ‘bread’, that is, an improved standard of living. The urban middle classes wanted freedom and dignity, that is, a democratic, liberal politics and freedom of expression on the western European model. And the unions and student left wanted a more equitable society with a social safety net, minimum wage and less impunity for the rapacious billionaire oligarchs.”

This confluence of interests proved critical to the participation in the upheaval of disparate sectors of society. And in the background stood a worldwide phenomenon that had inevitably impinged on the domestic situation of most Arab countries. The global economic crisis that erupted in 2008 largely shut off the chances of many young people to land jobs abroad and, in Cole’s view, set in motion the process that led to the revolutions a few years later.

His analysis focuses on Egypt, Tunisia and Libya – nations with organised youth movements that brought about substantive political change. Cole, who is widely travelled in the region and speaks fluent Arabic, does an excellent job of pinpointing the differences between Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, as well as the distinct groups of participants within a single revolution: middle-class youth with several years of online-based activism behind them; ad hoc youth groups formed during the revolution; professional and labour unions; as well as older and established opposition parties.

It’s unfortunate that too often he buries his insights beneath a mountain of minutiae, such as his blow-by-blow accounts of protests and clashes during the revolutionary turmoil in the countries under examination, instead of limiting himself to specific examples that illustrate his case.

A less significant quibble would be that Cole uses the term “secular” in too broad a sense for it to denote, as it should, something devoid of any religious or spiritual base or connection. Although secular personalities can be found in all three countries, Tunisia is the only one with secular political parties of any significance.

Cole describes Hamdeen Sabahi, who stood against Abdel-Fattah El Sisi in Egypt’s most recent presidential election, variously as secular, leftist and Nasserist (the last designation is the most accurate). Sabahi has berated the media for calling him secular, and stated that he opposes any separation of religion and state in Egypt. (Many politicians who are described as secular say that they want a “civil” state, a vague term meant to indicate a middle ground between a secular and religious state.)

Elsewhere, though, Cole gets it right, as when he observes: “Although an explicit secularism is less common than a falling away from strict observance, it is an important strain of youth activism.”

At any rate, it’s instructive to take note of some of the author’s many perceptive observations. For example, although “[t]here were fewer truly independent youth organisations in Tunisia than in Egypt because the Ben Ali regime was even more controlling than that of Mubarak”, individual branches of ostensibly pro-government Tunisian youth organisations and professional unions broke with their benefactor when it mattered most.

Libya was at an even greater disadvantage. “Independent youth, student and political organisations such as Kefaya and April 6 in Egypt or the General Union of Tunisian Students had no counterparts in Libya,” Cole explains. “Public demonstrations, pamphleteering and other organisational techniques common in Egypt were impossible in Libya before February 17.”

At times, Cole seems to be of two minds regarding the influence on the revolution of social media and SMS. Nevertheless, one concludes that they enabled middle-class millennials to coordinate ­demonstrations with their peers, even as more traditional methods of galvanising the public, such as pamphleteering and word-of-mouth communication, served to mobilise larger numbers of people, especially those of the ­working class.

In describing certain protests in Egypt before the Arab Spring, Cole illustrates how the wired and internet-savvy activists of the April 6 youth organisation and other groups helped to publicise and drum up support for workers’ strikes, all the while cementing a relationship with the strikers that would later prove indispensable to the success of the revolution.

Says Cole: “Rural discontent with lack of water and urban dissatisfaction with poor wages and high inflation were much more pervasive and important social problems than those that ­preoccupied the 50,000 political bloggers, most of them middle- or upper-middle-class urban youth. It was nevertheless important that the workers, farmers and fishermen could now get the word out via the internet and social media and could attract the support of urban youth across the political spectrum.”

Despite the differences between the three countries’ youth, there are many similarities. “Sociologists and pollsters have found that the Arab Generation Y has some special and cohesive characteristics: they are significantly more urban, literate, wired and secular than their parents.” The author points out that, although the youth in all three countries catalysed movements that would eventually topple their regimes, the manner in which the revolutions played out will likely influence the political restructuring currently underway.

For example, following Gaddafi’s military repression of their protests, Libyan youth took up arms; this development led to the rise of militias, which have now become part of that country’s political life. Meanwhile, “[t]hat the youth of Tunisia provoked a civilian transition, and those in Egypt a praetorian one, would be fateful for the subsequent unfolding of the revolution in the two countries”.

Indeed, the author notes how the current situation in Egypt has confounded liberal-leaning youth groups that predate the revolution. Along with many others, they opposed the elected president, Mohamed Morsi, for arrogating dictatorial powers and ­attempting to Islamise the country in the image of the Muslim Brotherhood, thereby bringing about a “revocouption” in which “the revolution and the coup worked in tandem”. But unlike several of the ad hoc youth groups formed during the revolution against Mubarak, these older youth organisations, with their deeply held democratic views, have protested the new president El Sisi’s increasingly conservative rule.

Cole traces the divergent trajectories of the three countries since their respective revolutions. Much of the news isn’t encouraging as violent and feuding militias plague Libya even as it grapples with Islamist terrorism – a problem also besetting Egypt. Tunisia alone appears to have embarked on a successful transition to western-style democracy.

In addition to the obvious complications and obstacles in the three countries’ democratic transformation, one might add the observation a few political analysts have made that many ordinary Arabs approach democracy from a utilitarian standpoint. In other words, if democratic rule improves the economy and guarantees their livelihoods, they will continue to support it. But if democracy fails to deliver on these issues, they may well give consideration to other forms of governance.

Yet it’s still early to predict doom and gloom. One of The New Arabs’ strongest suits comes in Cole’s argument, in the conclusion, for cautious optimism regarding the future not just of relatively stable Tunisia, but Egypt and Libya as well. Even if the immediate ­future of Egypt and Libya will likely remain fraught with myriad uncertainties and challenges, in the long run, prospects are still good for representative government and personal freedoms.

The democracy genie is out of the bottle – and the millennials won’t allow anyone to squeeze it back in. Moreover, time is on their side. “As the millennials enter their 30s and 40s,” Cole reminds us, “they will have a better opportunity to shape politics directly, so that we could well see an echo effect of the 2011 upheavals in ­future decades.”

Rayyan Al Shawaf is a writer and book critic based in Beirut.