Magazine article The Christian Century

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

Magazine article The Christian Century

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

Article excerpt

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

By Juan Cole

Simon & Schuster, 368 pp., $26.00

January 2011. "Mubarak next," said one of our church security guards when news reached us that autocrat Ben Ali had fled Tunisia for safety in Saudi Arabia. The guard was only half joking. I had been working in Egypt for eight years by that time, serving as the rector of St. John's Episcopal Church in the southern part of Cairo.

The week the revolution began in Egypt I started monitoring the Facebook site "We are all Khaled Said," dedicated to a young Egyptian man arrested for no apparent reason and brutally murdered by police the previous summer. Under emergency law in Egypt this could happen to anyone. A few days after the first Tahrir Square protest, I came out of our Friday morning worship service to find my cell phone texting and Internet connection disabled. The government had severed communications countrywide, hoping to prevent the spread of revolutionary crowds. Instead more people flooded into the streets; momentum was building.

Downtown, violence escalated as riot police subdued peaceful protesters with tear gas, water cannons, and rubber bullets. Later an Egyptian friend told me he had helped carry off nine people killed that day, one shot in the head by a sniper just yards away from him while he stood his ground, expecting to die as bullets sprayed round his feet.

The next morning I drove to church to check on things there. A burned-out police truck and several army tanks had taken the place of the riot police. Our usual 24/7 crew of armed and plainclothes police had shrunk to just one man. He greeted me apprehensively, handed over his set of keys to the church property, and said goodbye. I never saw him again.

Several days later I spoke briefly with a Muslim man who lived in the old Christian section of Cairo. Learning that I worked with a church, he proudly told me that he and his neighbors were protecting the churches there from looters, knowing that many Coptic churches contained gold and silver from ancient times. Throughout the revolution many Christians and Muslims stood side by side despite counterrevolution thugs' attempts to fuel religious discord. A symbolic painting of a cross and crescent embracing soon decorated a brick wall near our home.

In The New Arabs, renowned blogger and Middle East expert Juan Cole tells the backstory of these fluid events in Egypt, accessibly exploring them in the context of their cultural setting. His conclusions are optimistic yet grounded in realism. When he studied in Cairo as a young adult, Cole learned Arabic, and in the years since he has developed relationships with networked movements of young people over countless cups of sugared tea. He discusses a variety of underlying reasons for Middle Eastern revolutions--one being the youth bulge in population, which has created Depression-era rates of unemployment among educated and uneducated people alike and led to idleness and despair at a bleak future for young people between the ages of 15 and 35. Cole voices their frustrations, political aspirations, divergent opinions, and dreams and relates how they rejected censorship and risked arrest, police brutality, and torture. He narrates these stories in historical context, filling in the details with information gleaned from embassy reports, Wikileaks, books, journals, and myriad news sources. …

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