Q & A w/ Juan Cole on “The New Arabs”: If Elders in Mideast Can’t Get it Done, will the Youth?


Column » By the Book

“Many Palestinians see the Israelis as aggressive colonizers of Palestinian land and resources or as jailers; many Israelis see the Palestinians as irrational, violent and a ticking demographic time bomb that endangers a Jewish-majority state between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. One thing is sure: Palestinian and Israeli youth are the hope for a resolution of the differences; their elders seem unable to get that job done.” — University of Michigan History professor Juan Cole

The book is “The New Arabs: How the Millennial Generation is Changing the Middle East (Simon & Schuster)


bookcoverJuan Cole is one of the most astute and knowledgeable observers of the Middle East. His keen understanding of the Middle East was shaped by graduate study at the American University in Cairo and decades of research and travel in the region. Cole is the Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan. He is the author of many books, including Engaging the Muslim World (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), Napoleon’s Egypt: Invading the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), and Sacred Space and Holy War: The Politics, Culture and History of Shi’ite Islam (I.B. Tauris, 2002).

In The New Arabs: How the Millennial Generation is Changing the Middle East (Simon and Schuster, 2014), Cole takes a detailed look inside the recent revolutions by Arab youth in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. Cole salutes their courage and states that “this generation of New Arabs has shaken a complacent, stagnant, and corrupt status quo and forever changed the world.”

In this interview Juan Cole discusses his new book, the challenges Middle Eastern youth face in this time of “violent experimentation,” “wrenching transformations,” and “new forms of politics,” and his hopefulness for their future.

What motivated the “new Arabs” to participate in the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya?

Juan Cole

Juan Cole

The millennial generation of young Arabs born roughly 1977-2000 were angry at their governments for many reasons. Those regimes weren’t generating enough jobs, leaving the youth with high unemployment rates. They were police states and were always patting down the youth and harassing them in the streets, as well as deploying cyber-police against them online. The dictatorships were becoming family cartels devoted to crony capitalism that created small, connected elites that froze everyone else out of opportunities. And then they started planning to turn the office of President for Life into a hereditary one, guaranteeing that the corruption, oppression and inefficiency would continue for decades to come. The youth said “no” to that prospect.

What impact did these revolutions have on how the world thinks about the Middle East?

The opinion polling shows that in 2011 at the height of the revolutionary furor, Western publics had a generally favorable opinion of the Arab youth and their activism. In the previous decade, most Westerners had tended to think of radical Muslim cells when they thought of young Arabs. But the youth in, say, Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo, were clearly left of center, dressed in European clothing, and demanding more democracy and transparency. It was a whole new side of the Arab world for the Western viewing public.

Did the Arab millennials have common strategies and similar objectives in all three revolutions?

The youth used some similar techniques of organization and activism in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. All resorted to the internet to get around print censorship and to found interactive networks. Blogging and then social media were important (though not all-important). In Tunisia and Egypt they did organizing on the ground, staging demonstrations and engaging in pamphleteering. That wasn’t possible in Libya, an even more repressive police state than the others. There were some differences. The local chapters of the national Tunisian high school and college student unions used union networks and facilities for revolutionary purposes in 2010-2011, even if the national leadership had been somewhat tamed or coopted by the regime. Student organizations per se were less important in Egypt, where the youth networks seemed more inchoate.

Especially for young Egyptians and young Libyans, looking back, what good did their revolutions do? Do you think they are disappointed with where their societies are now?

The youth in Libya are extremely distressed at how their country is falling apart at the hands of militias. No one regrets overthrowing the erratic dictator Muammar Gaddafi or getting rid of his police state and the “revolutionary committees.” But they blame the new political class for fecklessness and the militias for overweening ambition. The youth in Egypt are deeply divided over the outcome of their revolution. Many felt as though the Muslim Brotherhood took unfair advantage of their overthrow of Mubarak and that its leaders attempted to impose a new one-party state on the country. Those youth joined the Rebellion or Tamarrud movement in a bid to unseat Muslim Brotherhood president Muhammad Morsi in June, 2013, after which the military made a coup and gradually reimposed authoritarian techniques of government. Many youth appear to feel that military reassertion was the price that had to be paid to avoid an even more culturally and politically repressive Islamic Republic. Still, they aren’t enthusiastic about the counter-revolution, and youth did not participate for the most part in the January, 2014 constitutional referendum or in the presidential election this spring (which was more of an authoritarian plebiscite), in which Gen. al-Sisi became president. The old-time left-of-center activists such as April 6 Youth defied the military government’s ban on spontaneous demonstrations and some of its leaders have been jailed. That organization has been dissolved by the government. So engaged activists are talking about a 20-year struggle.

What are the challenges and obstacles to the “new Arabs” achieving a better future for themselves and their societies?

The youth were very good at overthrowing the presidents for life. They deposed four of them and deeply challenged others. But they were twenty-somethings and more concerned with networks and values than with the nitty gritty of political organizing. Most were not old enough to stand for office! They had not had a favorable view of political parties in the old regimes, which were either the ruling parties or those subordinated to them. So their challenge is to find new, practical ways to work for their goals in a post-revolutionary environment. They often face pushback from elements of the old Establishments, which are weakened but not gone. The technique of big street demonstrations and long-term sit-ins has declined in popularity because many people feel it disrupts the economy. Many youth have become active in various sorts of non-governmental organizations, working for the poor and workers’ rights, for educational and charitable goals.

What effect do you think Israeli and Palestinian millennials will have on the future of Israel and Palestine? Can they be a transformational force for peace?

Children and youth in Gaza are likely a majority of the population of 1.7 million and are of course key to the future. Some youth formed a left-wing Rebellion or Tamarrud movement against Hamas, a party of the religious right, in emulation of the organization in Egypt. But the Israeli military campaign of summer 2014 has displaced hundreds of thousands and damaged housing and infrastructure, and obviously civil youth movements cannot flourish in such circumstances. In the West Bank, youth have been active in protesting the Gaza War, mounting the biggest demonstrations since the second Uprising (Intifada) of 2000-2005. As with other youth in the Arab world, the Palestinians are urban and literate and wired. Israeli youth emulated those in the Arab world in summer-fall of 2011, mounting demonstrations against the high cost of housing for students and twenty-somethings. Some Israeli youth are reviving the peace movement, and have demonstrated in Tel Aviv against the war. But like Israelis and Palestinians in general, there is a huge gap of self-perception between the two. Many Palestinians see the Israelis as aggressive colonizers of Palestinian land and resources or as jailers; many Israelis see the Palestinians as irrational, violent and a ticking demographic time bomb that endangers a Jewish-majority state between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. One thing is sure: Palestinian and Israeli youth are the hope for a resolution of the differences; their elders seem unable to get that job done.

What “markers” have Arab youth laid down for the future of the Middle East?

The millennial generation of young Arabs chanted “bread, freedom and social justice.” They on the whole do not like the idea of the president for life. And I think they may have killed that way of doing Arab politics. They like even less the idea of republican “dynasties” like the one in Syria, where dictator Hafez al-Assad was succeeded by his son Bashar. Syria was going to be emulated in this regard in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen. It seems likely that Syria is no longer a bellwether but is now an outlier, and that that trend has been consigned to the trash heap of history. They oppose corruption and cronyism, and they want jobs. Their conviction that a more open political system will attract foreign investment and make for more employment is probably true in the medium to long run, but they may have to wait a while. The youth want regular free and fair elections and more personal freedoms. They are on their way to achieving these goals in Tunisia and Yemen. In Tunisia, there is no more internet censorship, a key demand of the youth. They haven’t completely failed in Egypt and, despite retrenchment, the new Egyptian constitution limits the president to two four-year terms, guarantees women’s rights, upholds new rights for children, provides for free and fair parliamentary elections, and rules out theocracy, though it remains to be seen if the high-minded language is translated into reality. In Egypt, the struggle for freedom of expression and assembly will have to continue to be fought.

As a historian, and as an observer of contemporary international politics, where do you get your hopefulness from?

As a social historian, I am allergic to essentialist, culturalist and ethnic explanations for events. I want to look at the movements of large groups of people in social and economic context. Europe 1870 to 1945 was in almost constant turmoil and probably killed off on the order of 100 million people. This slaughter and instability had nothing to do with European-ness. These were decades when peasants were turned into urban dwellers on a mass scale, capitalism developed and either encompassed people or was staunchly opposed, and the technological infrastructure of life changed dramatically. You literally couldn’t have killed all those people before war was industrialized. Since 1945, Europe has been much calmer and with the exception of the Ukraine and the former Yugoslavia, even the collapse of the East Bloc was relatively peaceful. I just think that the Middle East since 1950 or so is like Europe in its modern age of wars and revolutions. Libya, for instance, was largely rural and illiterate as late as 1967. It abolished private property in the 1970s but now private property is being reinstituted. Today, this generation is largely urban and literate. Imagine the wrenching transformations it is undergoing, the new forms of politics this generation is experimenting with. But judging from the European example, that era of violent experimentation does not last forever. The Arab millennials won’t come to power for thirty or forty years. We have yet to see what they will accomplish.


Joseph Richard Preville is an American writer living in Nizwa, Oman. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, San Francisco Chronicle, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Tikkun, The Jerusalem Post, Muscat Daily, Turkey Agenda and Saudi Gazette. He is also a regular contributor to ISLAMiCommentary.

Julie Poucher Harbin is Editor of ISLAMiCommentary.

This article was made possible by the Transcultural Islam Project, an initiative launched in 2011 by the Duke Islamic Studies Center — in partnership with the Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations and the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies — aimed at deepening understanding of Islam and Muslim communities. See www.islamicommentary.org/about and www.tirnscholars.org/about for more information. The Transcultural Islam Project is funded by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Mirrored from Islamicommentary

3 Responses

  1. Just saw and enjoyed your talk at Nicola’s on CSpan. Looking forward to reading “The New Arabs” soon. Thanks for your work, you’ve been one of my key information sources for years now.

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