It's winter 2011, and I am living in Istanbul. I wander old streets in Turkey's cultural capital, past thousand-year-old mosques that were once churches, trying to understand the place that has become my home. Streets day and night are thronged by young Turks, flush from a thriving economy, in a country emerging as a new power 100 years after the Ottoman Empire fell apart. Across a swath of 20 or so countries, from Morocco to Iran, the area we think of as the Middle East seems tense but quiet.
Then a Tunisian street vendor named Tarek Bouazizi sets himself on fire, triggering a pro-democracy movement that spreads across the entire region — a period that eventually comes to be known as the Arab Spring.
FOR THE RECORD:
"The New Arabs": In the July 20 Arts & Books section, the book review of "The New Arabs" misidentified author Juan Cole as June Cole. —
But the seeds of revolution were planted in 2008, argues Juan Cole, writing in his engaging, powerful and comprehensive new book, "The New Arabs." A professor of history at the University of Michigan and prolific blogger on contemporary Middle East affairs, Cole uses a historian's long gaze to trace the origins of the uprisings, exploring how economies in the Middle East were profoundly connected to far-away events on stock exchanges in London and New York.
Looking back even further, he sets current events in the context of the French Revolution and the American colonies' uprising against England. "The moral economy of the Arab republic," Cole writes of the days before the uprisings, "had been contravened to the point where little was left of it save empty phrases in interminably long speeches given by presidents for life from their opulent palaces to unemployed or underemployed masses living in squalor."
Yet nothing, he argues, might have come to pass if it weren't for the kids of the big Arab and African republics of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, who were "more urban, literate, wired and secular than their parents."
Tunisia, a former French colony, consisted of a well-traveled, secular and educated citizenry. Ruled for nearly 30 years by Prime Minister Ben Ali, who claimed falsely that the economy had been growing 5% each year of the last 10, the capital in 2011 instead looked like a second-class slum. When frustrated and underemployed Bouazizi died from his injuries, the country became enraged — with the capital's educated youth turning anger into coordinated action, protests spreading up and down the country, a phalanx of youth marching alongside each city's ardent soccer fans, who had experience in clashing with police.
When the security apparatus became reluctant or unable to control protests, the prime minister had to step down, shocking the world.
Egypt was a vastly larger country of more than 80 million, with an elaborate history of assassinated leaders, persecution of the Muslim Brotherhood, and a network of bickering labor unions and student movements. After Tunisia rose up, these groups all gathered as one in Cairo's now fabled Tahrir Square, where tiny grievances and disagreements were shelved to rally around one thing: the ouster of longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak, who had ruled since 1981. After prayers on Fridays, close to a million would gather, emboldened by Tunisia and what became a rapt level of worldwide attention.
"We have made this revolution," one youth told Cole about the Egyptian uprising. "Our families were used to keeping quiet. We didn't keep quiet. We went to get our dream."
By 2011, Libya had for more than four decades been the plaything of tyrannical, ruthless, iconoclastic Moammar Kadafi — who, despite all his power consolidation, family corruption and a frightening secret police, fell harder even than Ben Ali or Mubarak. Libya too might have remained stymied except for the energy and planning of its youth — who in this case kept pressure on the regime, distributing videos to the world and, with the help of a NATO no-fly zone, employing guns and improvised war machines built using the skills of dockworkers, welders and longshoreman.
Men like Kadafi "functioned best in the shadows," Cole writes. "The millennials [adopted] technology that would shine the light of day on them." In the heat of that sun, the shadowy leader was killed, shot by a rebel under a bridge.
"The New Arabs" can occasionally groan under the weight of Cole's meticulous research, but the author structures chapters with a handsome amount of narrative, peppering them with stories from his own travels and conversations undertaken in fluent Arabic. It's a surprisingly fast read — you want these kids to win! — and in the end the book feels as indispensable to scholars as it is insightful for a more casual reader.
Cole dazzles when exceeding his narrow mandate, moving beyond the three countries in question to compare Mubarak to Richard Nixon, proving how important Gandhi was to Cairo's revolution, or exploring the power of the WikiLeaks revelations. It's a small world — Cole argues that even President Obama's route to election owes a great deal to millennials. But for all its granular insights, the book is perhaps weakest in advising us how or why we can view these revolutions as key to our own future.
Egypt, Libya and Tunisia will never be the same. But Syria still suffers, Iraq is plunging back into civil war, Turkey's leaders have moved to crush their own protests, and monarchies in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and elsewhere have only tightened their grips on power. The force of the millennials has been unleashed, Cole writes, and it's only a matter of time before the whole region transforms.
Deuel is the author of "Friday Was the Bomb: Five Years in the Middle East."
The New Arabs
How the Millennial Generation Is Changing the Middle East