'The New Arabs' Asks: Who Is Remaking the Middle East?

By Norton, James | The Christian Science Monitor, July 8, 2014 | Go to article overview

'The New Arabs' Asks: Who Is Remaking the Middle East?


Norton, James, The Christian Science Monitor


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. …

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