Middle East Crisis: Juan’s “Ask Me Anything” at Reddit Discussion

By Juan Cole

Mirrored from LevantineWar at Reddit.com

I am Juan Cole, author of the new book The New Arabs: How the Millennial Generation is Changing the Middle East

I teach Middle East at U of Michigan, and blog at juancole.com. AMA. (self.LevantineWar)

submitted 12 hours ago by jricole Juan Cole – stickied post

It is 3 1/2 years since the big demos in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria, even northern Iraq– that shook the region. My new book is a history of youth movements during the past decade and how they are reshaping the region. Nearly 40% of the 370 mn Arabs are Millennials, and they have distinctive generational values. Lets talk about them! AMA.


Please keep the discussion civil.

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[–]Jarmey 8 points 11 hours ago

Professor Cole,

Thank you for all the good work you do. I am an American, I am not Arab and I am a regular nobody, but I feel a sense of solidarity with the Palestinian people. What can I do to help the people of Palestine?

[-] jricole Juan Cole 6 points 11 hours ago

Most people underestimate how big an impact they can have on their congressional representative by forming a PAC and lobbying concertedly for a particular issue.

[–]kerat 7 points 11 hours ago

Hello Professor Cole!

Another young Arab here –

What do you think of pan-Arabism in general as a movement or as a possible solution to the current crises?

Would you say that there is a cultural resurgence of pan-Arabism in the Middle East currently? I often feel there is, especially since 2011, but it is mysteriously non-present in political movements. (Although movements such as 6th of April are not above publicly rooting for and congratulating the Algerian football team, for example).

What is the 1 book you think that all Arab millennials should read?

EDIT: I should clarify that to me and a lot of people like me, the Baath parties of Iraq and Syria stopped being about pan-Arabism and secular federalism a long time ago

[-] jricole Juan Cole 5 points 11 hours ago

Pan-Arabism as a political project has so far failed. Its big success has been educational and linguistic (most young people know Modern Standard Arabic and can communicate across national boundaries and dialects). There are distinct blocs, like the Gulf Cooperation Council, which has used its money to help stage a counter-revolution in Egypt and mavericks like Qatar that have supported the Muslim Brotherhood. Private Gulf billionaires seem to be backing horrid al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria. Then the Maghreb (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia) is deeply divided, partly over the issue of political Islam. You could imagine a future in which pan-Arabism worked something like the European Union, but I think if that were to happen, it is a long way off.

[–]Maqda7 3 points 10 hours ago

I’ve been thinking about this for a long time (an EU sort of pan-Arabism) but I don’t think it would be too far off to be honest. Jordan and Morocco invited to the GCC a few years ago could be seen as a sign of such an economic union. I agree with /u/kerat that I too feel that there has been some sort of pan-Arab resurgence particularly among youth in the last few years but unlike pan-Arabism of the past, this one seems to be a bottom-up instead of a top-down approach which is the subject of my question:

If a resurgence of pan-Arabism was to occur bottom-up instead of top-down, do you think that has a better chance of succeeding?

[-] jricole Juan Cole 5 points 10 hours ago

As I said, I think the big successes of pan-Arabism haven’t been political or economic but cultural. Modern Standard Arabic is a big success (as though you’d been able to convince all Spaniards, French, Italians, Romanians to learn Esperanto as a second language). That paves the way for pan-Arab media like satellite and social media. But I think one obstacle to an EU type union at the moment is the disparate economies of the Arab world. They don’t trade much with one another, mainly with the North. And the oil states have disproportionate political influence. My own guess is that by 2040 or so the hydrocarbons will be worth much less because of switch to green energy, and then regional integration may be easier.

[–]cosmical[M] 5 points 11 hours ago*


[–]PaulAJK 5 points 11 hours ago

To what extent do you think western funded NGOs have influenced the Arab Spring, “colour revolution” wise ? How do you feel about this new form of soft power intervention?

[-] jricole Juan Cole 4 points 10 hours ago

I don’t think that the US or France or Britain wanted the Mubaraks or Ben Alis to fall.

[–]joshana12 4 points 11 hours ago

Hello professor Cole,

I want to say your blog has been a great resource for us trying to understand the Middle East for many years now, keep up the fantastic work! As an Arab millennial, I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy of the book!

I have two questions

Do you feel that the Arab millennials had initially overplayed their hand and did not anticipate the resiliency of the Arab “deep state” apparatus and the opportunism of the Ikhwan types?

What do you think the future for Christians in Iraq and Syria will be?


[-] jricole Juan Cole 6 points 11 hours ago

Hi, and thanks! I don’t think we can blame the Millennials for what happened after they overthrew the dictators. People forget that many of them were like 22; the older were 32. Most were not old enough to stand for office! They opened up politics and the Arab Baby boomers stepped in. In Tunisia, the 60 somethings did all right. In Egypt they made a mess of things. But the Millennials are still doing lateral networking, NGO work, and writing, and they’ll start coming to power in 20-30 years. They’ll be influential along the way!

[–]joshana12 2 points 10 hours ago

That is great to hear, thanks for the reply!

[-] jricole Juan Cole 6 points 11 hours ago

Oh, and about the Christians in Iraq and Syria. Those who fall under the rule of the al-Qaeda affiliates are having to flee for their lives. Many Iraqi Christians have gone to Kurdistan or Baath-ruled areas of Syria, or Lebanon. It seems likely that the two countries will end up with fewer Christians, and that a lot of the latter will eventually make their way to the West. But I don’t expect them all to leave, and a lot of Syrians and Iraqis value them.

[–]TheTeamCubed 4 points 11 hours ago

Hello, Dr. Cole. “America and Middle Eastern Wars” was one of my favorite classes that I took as an undergraduate at U of M, and I very much enjoyed reading Engaging the Muslim World and Napoleon’s Egypt (and am looking forward to picking up The New Arabs), and I read your blog several times per week. Thank you for doing this AMA.

The media reports coming out of much of the Middle East are a nearly unbroken chain of terrible news: bombings, civil war, kidnappings, revenge killings, terrorism, imprisonment of journalists, etc. As someone who studies the region intently and has traveled and lived there, what are some positive things you would like to see get more worldwide attention, and what gives you some optimism that conditions in the region will improve going forward?

[-] jricole Juan Cole 6 points 11 hours ago

The social statistics on change in the Middle East are breathtaking. In 1968, Libya was 80% rural and 80% illiterate. There was high infant mortality. Life opportunities were limited. Today, Libya is 87% urban and the 15-29 year olds are almost all literate. Since the Revolution they have become very active on the internet, are learning foreign languages, and have founded thousands of NGOs, many charitable and educational. There has been an outbreak of pluralism. The security situation is fragile and there is a militia problem, but we forget that most people get up and go to work every day in Tripoli, there are traffic jams, etc. They have to work through this period of bad security, but there are deeper things going on that are very positive.

[–]Hamartolus 4 points 11 hours ago

Roughly summarized the Obama administration policy on Syria was facilitating the removal of Assad even expressing an aspiration to replicate the Libya intervention while in Iraq it was to support elected leadership and stabilize the country.

For now the exact opposite is playing out.

Do you see this as a failure of US geopolitical influence?

And was the initially expressed policy really of US making or mainly served as support to the plans of allies in the region?

[-] jricole Juan Cole 5 points 11 hours ago

I think the Obama administration has been deeply divided among Realists (Gates, Hagel, Brennan) and liberal interventionists (Rice, Powers). The interventionists won on Libya. They won rhetorically on Syria, but I think the Realists have dragged their feet in actually doing anything. Realists had won on Iraq, but ISIS takeover of Sunni areas has put the ball more in the interventionists’ court. I don’t think Obama wants much to do with the Middle East, but he cannot afford politically just to ignore it and concentrate on new trade deals with East and Southeast Asia, which is his own instinct as a sort of defensive Realist. That he goes back and forth between the two factions in his administration helps explain the seeming contradictions in policy.

[–]ElBurroLoc0 4 points 11 hours ago

Hi, First and Foremost thank you for doing this. Do you think the lack of success of Arab Spring youth movements bring about stable and democratic new governments will serve to reduce or increase the likelihood of similar regional wide protests taking place again soon?

[-] jricole Juan Cole 5 points 11 hours ago

I guess I think it is way too soon to conclude that the protests of 2011-2012 haven’t produced big changes in politics. They overthrew 4 presidents for life. They stopped the move toward new dynasties, with the presidents being succeeded by their sons. Tunisia’s democratic transition has so far gone about as well as could be expected. Yemen, which has a longer history of political pluralism, has also opened up politically (I’m not talking about its security problems and regional issues). Morocco’s new 2011 constitution helps incorporate the Amazigh/ Berbers much more. Even in neo-authoritarian Egypt, the new constitution limits presidents to 2 4-year terms; Mubarak ruled 1981-2011.

[–]killafilla 4 points 11 hours ago

Hello Mr.Cole, thank you for speaking with us, I hope to soon read your book. My question is what obstacles do the youth movements of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain face?

[-] jricole Juan Cole 5 points 10 hours ago

You’re welcome! The regimes in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have raised the cost of protest very high. This seems to have been effective in Saudi Arabia in particular. Saudia has also enormously increased its spending on social benefits for people. Saudis have free education through the Ph.D., free health care, greatly subsidized mortgages, etc. etc. (though also high rates of youth unemployment). So far, activist youth in Saudi Arabia have not been able to get a “cascade” going, of really big numbers of demonstrators. In Bahrain, the situation is complicated. Although there have been joint Sunni-Shiite protests, much of the discontent is economic and pertains to the second-class citizen status of the Baharna or Bahrain native Shiites. Hardliners in the Sunni monarchy have played on ethnic divisions and fears of Iran. But the region is volatile and you never know whether regime stability is genuine or a mirage; that is one lesson of 2011-2012.

[–]killafilla 2 points 10 hours ago

Does Saudi money influence western news reporting?

[-] jricole Juan Cole 3 points 10 hours ago

No, I don’t think so. But the Saudi system is opaque to outsiders so you almost never get in-depth reporting on the Kingdom itself. Ironically, a Saudi billionaire owns 6% of Newscorp, i.e. Fox Cable News, one of the most trenchant critics of… Saudi Arabia

[–]pjenvey 4 points 10 hours ago

Professor Cole: I’m a huge fan. Can you explain Saudi Arabia’s relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood recently?

It seemed like there was “A Redirection” (quoting Seymour Hersh’s 2007 article of the same name) where the West/Israel and its Sunni allies aimed to prop up the Brotherhood (and Sunni extremists) as a move against Iran and its Shia allies. Now the Saudis seem to have gone back to being strongly opposed to them — encouraging their removal in Egypt and moves against Qatar partly for their support of them.

[-] jricole Juan Cole 5 points 10 hours ago

Thanks! Yes, the Saudi royal family has turned on the Muslim Brotherhood. Former Intelligence Minister Prince Nayef blamed the Brotherhood influence on al-Qaeda for 9/11. Over the past decade, the royal family has come to see the Muslim Brotherhood as an uncontrollable, populist and revolutionary force, kind of a Sunni, republican counterpart to Khomeinism in Iranian and Iraqi Shiism. Absolute monarchs generally fear populist republicans. I think the Brotherhood taking over Egypt was a big shock to Riyadh. A friend of mine with Saudi contacts said that the Saudi royal family still remembers Egyptian viceroy Muhammad Ali’s invasion of the first Saudi kingdom in the 1810s and is determined that nothing like that ever should happen again. Hence they conspired with and bribed the Egyptian officer corps to destroy the Brotherhood altogether (not that the officers needed much encouragement). As for the United Arab Emirates, a friend of mine there said that politics is hierarchical in the Emirates, with the Emir at the top of a set of tribal allegiances. Groups like the Brotherhood that organize horizontally disrupt those top-down ties and so are seen as subversive. It turns out that the Gulf is afraid of political Islam!

[–]cosmical 3 points 11 hours ago

What effect might the entrenched Egyptian military have on the future ambitions of the country’s Millennials? Can this generation bring about the changes they want while dealing with an institution that’s readily backed by international/regional/lobbying powers?

Thank you Juan for doing this AMA!

[-] jricole Juan Cole 6 points 11 hours ago

The organized youth movements have been repressed by Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, now the president after an authoritarian plebiscite. April 6 is outlawed and Ahmad Maher, one of its leaders, is in jail for 3 years at hard labor. But they were repressed under Mubarak, too. The youth were disturbed by the Muslim Brotherhood coming to power, the opposite of what they had been aiming for, and many have lost hope in politics. But Millennials are probably over 30 million of Egypt’s 84 million people, and they have already shown they can shake the country if they organize to do so. We haven’t heard the last of them.

[–]derolitus_nowcivil 2 points 11 hours ago

but should they? the last time they did a lot of people died and now there’s a military dictator again and journalists (and many of the original revolutionaries) are being imprisoned and worse.

Sisi has several advantages over mubaraka

he had a front row seat to mubaraks fall and wont make the same mistakes again
he’s excellent control of the army
he’s more popular
he’s backed by western states, who even recognize his shady elections

i dont see a good way for a potential new uprising to succeed beyond pressing for reforms.

[-] jricole Juan Cole 6 points 11 hours ago

I am not predicting that al-Sisi will be overthrown. But he is politically tone deaf and the likelihood he can avoid demonstrations against him down the road is low. He just doubled gasoline prices at the beginning of Ramadan! I predict a brief political honeymoon.

[–]gonzolegend 3 points 11 hours ago

Hey Prof Cole, recent events in Palestine have gotten people talking about the chances of a Third Intifada breaking out.

Do you think this is likely in the near term? Also what do you think the reaction will be from Arab youth in other countries like Egypt, themselves now experienced revolutionaries?

[-] jricole Juan Cole 6 points 11 hours ago

It is difficult for the West Bank Palestinians to mount a revolt any more. Israeli intelligence and military has deeply penetrated them and they have been cut off by highways, checkpoints, from one another and isolated in Bantustans. There may be civil disturbances and violence in response to the big Likud push for more squatter settlements on their land, but it is hard for them to achieve much. The Arab Millennials are sympathetic and Egyptian activists tried to help break the Gaza blockade, but now the Egyptian military is in power and they hate Hamas more than the Israeli gov’t does, so Egyptians are hamstrung. I fear I think there will be a long slow descent into more and more repression and Apartheid for the next few decades.

[–]derolitus_nowcivil 2 points 11 hours ago

why do you think the international community cannot prevent further illegal settlements? It looks to me like Kerry got frustrated and gave up on his peace ambitions.

[-] jricole Juan Cole 3 points 11 hours ago

All that would be necessary to stop Israeli illegal squatting on Palestinian territory (West Bank) would be for the US to stop using its veto to prevent UNSC condemnations. The latter would institute crippling economic sanctions on Israeli West Bank enterprises and maybe on Israel itself. It is the US, almost alone in the world, which is the squatters’ enabler.

[–]derolitus_nowcivil 3 points 11 hours ago

but EU sanctions dont seem to last very long either.

and why do you think the US vetoes, without putting backchannel pressure on Israel to stop the settling? Does Israel have that much influence on US politics?

[–]Joshgoozen 4 points 11 hours ago

Where do you see Arab world heading in the coming years with the crisis it faces, specifically the fallout of the Syrian war. Lebanon and Jordan have had a huge increase of population who will most likely be there for a long time. Can this cause destabilization in these nations?

[-] jricole Juan Cole 5 points 10 hours ago

We have seen many instances of fairly long-term instability in the Middle East that people seem to be able to get over. Algeria had a civil war in the 1990s that left perhaps 150,000- 200,000 dead. The military won. Lebanon had a civil war 1975-1989. Until the 2006 Israeli attack and then the outbreak of the Syrian civil war it had settled down. The Bush administration invasion of Iraq in 2003 kicked off what is likely to be a 20-Years War. My guess is that Syria will go on a few years and there either will be a victory of one side or another or a pacted transition to a new government. There could be a negative security fallout in the meantime on Jordan, Turkey, Saudia and there already has been on Lebanon and Iraq. That is, these kinds of civil war produce high levels of casualties and millions of displaced, but it isn’t clear that they produce region-wide complete destabilization.

[–]derolitus_nowcivil 2 points 11 hours ago

hi! thanks for doing this!

who do you support in syria?
how would you like the conflict to end?
how do you think it will end?
how much of a role do terrorists (nusra, ahrar ashsham) play on the rebel side?
how long do you think this state of full scale war will last?
are you happy with the way western msm report on syria?
what do you think about jarba?
do you support supplying more weapons to vetted rebel groups?
do you think more wapons would pressure the regime into negotiations?
do you think it makes sense to compare maliki and pre-war assad?
do you think there can be a solution at all in iraq with maliki as president?

[-] jricole Juan Cole 5 points 11 hours ago

Hi! Obviously, I support the peaceful youth revolutionaries in Syria. They are still organizing and demonstrating. But of course they have been repressed by the Baath Party and by al-Qaeda affiliates. Civil Wars destroy civil organizations.

[–]derolitus_nowcivil 3 points 12 hours ago

I support the peaceful youth revolutionaries in Syria.

that would be me and my friends. ;) thanks for your support.

However, most of the protestors in my immediate vicinity have either fled syria or joined the government army or one of its militas.

I think we are well beyond the point of peaceful demonstrations and protests, and i am not aware we are having any anymore.

I think i dumped too many questions over your head at once, sorry. :) Maybe we can limit it to these three imo interesting ones:

do you support supplying more weapons to vetted rebel groups?

this is imo one of the bigger arguments the US is having over the syria war right now, as with the 500 millino dollars, etc.

do you think more wapons would pressure the regime into negotiations?

that would be the reasons many people cite for the above. However, i argue that the unwillingness of negotiations is at least mutual. For example, we have seen what Nusra thinks about negotiations when they detonated the car bombs in Homs. So the FSA may not be able to negotiate even if they wanted to.

do you think it makes sense to compare maliki and pre-war assad?

with the recent statement by maliki, where he talks about “foreign backed terrorists” he kinda reminded me of assad a little bit. what do you think?

[-] jricole Juan Cole 5 points 11 hours ago

Syria has now become a regional war, with a Syrian theater and an Iraqi theater, in which Russia and Iran have intervened in both theaters and Hizbullah in the Syrian one. Russia, Iran and Hizbullah have among them very large resources and are willing to intervene quite directly. The Syrian National Council and the Free Syrian Army are supported timidly and with many fewer resources by Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the West. In part, the rise of the al-Qaeda affiliates as the best fighters who hold most territory (and now oil fields in Syria) has spooked the FSA supporters and limited what they are willing to do. They don’t want inadvertently to hand Damascus to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In the past year, the Syrian Baath regime has recovered the momentum as a result. I think we have to consider whether an analogy to the Algeria outcome is not now possible, with the Baath ultimately ‘winning’ (the country will be in a shambles and in debt to Russia and Iran). It is a very bad outcome, but as an analyst I have to say it is not impossible. The ISIS takeover of northern Iraq probably makes it slightly more likely.

[–]derolitus_nowcivil 1 point 11 hours ago

i agree pretty much with all of it, but it was al-Qaeda that was recently kicked out the oil fields in deir azzor. they are under isis control now.

but you forgot to answer my 3 questions. ;)

[–]kafta 2 points 12 hours ago

Professor Cole, past movements have come and gone, won’t these Millennials grow up and become part of the “system” and settle into the status quo?

[-] jricole Juan Cole 4 points 12 hours ago

I just reiterate that the “system” in the Arab world was becoming one of corrupt family ruling dynasties, and that the Millennials have already derailed that system. The surveys suggest that they are less religiously observant than their elders and we know they are much more urban, literate and wired. The politics they will conduct when they are in their 50s cannot be predicted, but that it would look like the politics of the 1990s is highly unlikely.

[-] jricole Juan Cole 4 points 9 hours ago

Thanks so much for such a lively and wide ranging discussion, everyone. I hope you all enjoy The New Arabs!

[–]gonzolegend 2 points 9 hours ago

Thanks Prof Cole for the great AMA was very interesting and covered a lot.

[–]cosmical 1 point 9 hours ago

Thank you for joining us today, really looking forward to reading the book!

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

8 Responses

  1. Prof Cole,

    Hearing reports that AAH, the Iranian Special Group is the principal front against the IS, in Iraq. How long, before the Hezbollah joins up against ISIS in Syria? Also with AQ sponsored AL Nursa front fizzling out in Syria, will they join the fight against IS in Iraq or will they sit ou?

  2. Couple of random nitpicks:

    Surely Modern Standard Arabic is more like Latin than Esparento? It has a long cultural history as a literary language, even if not as a spoken vernacular.

    Second and rather more meaningful, your plaint that the Arab spring didn’t fail because it stopped transitions from father to son seems more than a bit desperate to me. Ok, it might technically be true, but the goal wasn’t to replace a military autocrat with another military autocrat not related to the first one! Measured by its own goals rather than the vastly lower ones being retrospectively set, the Arab Spring has mostly failed.

    • If we look at democratic transitions elsewhere, they often took rather longer than 3 years. Egypt still has parliamentary elections scheduled, and al-Sisi’s/ the military’s honeymoon period is already beginning to be over. But you are arguing only from Egypt. It was a region-wide movement and you can’t just pretend that Tunisia doesn’t exist.

      • Tunisia I’ll grant you, but it is one out of 20-odd Arab countries. Call it the exception that proves the rule In the rest it is never started or is failing. Yemen is about the same as ever, in Bahrain the uprising was crushed, Syria will take a generation to get back to where it was in 2010, in Morocco, Jordan and Algeria the government is rolling back the concessions they made. Libya doesn’t look particularly promising. Frankly, with the partial exception of Tunisia there isn’t a single country I’d rather live in now than in 2010.

        Anything can happen in principle, but I have a number of contacts in Egypt and read a lot of analysis and you are the first person to even hint the parliamentary elections will produce anything more meaningful than the parliaments under Mubarak or Assad. Sure, it can take a while for a democratic transition to happen, but this doesn’t look like a “transition” to me. This is just dictatorship, full stop.

        • Now you’re just being cynical. Yemen is not, e.g., just the same as ever.

          I was in Egypt in March and actually a lot of Egyptians are putting effort and hopes into the parliamentary elections.

          “Just dictatorship” is not accurate. Let’s see if it still looks like that in a couple of years.

        • For some reason I can’t use the reply button on you last comment?

          Also, cynical is my middle name, I think anyone who knows me will tell you. Yemen has of course seen some changes, mostly increased tribal conflict between the supporters of Hadi and Saleh and more control by Houthis. Still effectively a presidential dictatorship ruling ineffectively over tribes.

          Because I’m cynical, I’ll point out plenty of Egyptians also support military dictatorship and are more than willing to participate in a charade. Are you seriously contending that parliamentary elections in Egypt will be competitive and offer credible opposition to Sisi? Time will tell, but that sounds quite unlikely. This parliament is far more likely to be a repeat of the 2005 one. The difference is this time a lot of Egyptians support that.

  3. Dear Dr. Cole,
    Is there any reasonable hope that the United States can revert to the “realist” off-shore policy of the pre-WWII era so far as the Middle East is concerned?

  4. Dear Dr. Cole,
    After the attack on the US facilities in Benghazi you assured us that the place was full of moderates, not extremists, and they had largely driven the extremists out. It does not seem that subsequent history justified your claims about the moderation of the Libyan people. Further, you are ever sanguine that Iran has absolutely no interest in obtaining nuclear weapons and that we need not worry about their huge investment in nuclear technology. I wonder if your confidence is justified.

Comments are closed.