This new book by the ever-controversial Cole of the University of Michigan is yet another example of his scholarship and prognostications about a Middle East that just will not stay pegged to standard leftist tropes. In this case, Cole attempts to capture the significance of the so-called Arab spring, which he believes to be an earth-shattering phenomenon. But his theories have been decisively overtaken by events.
Cole presents a personal travelogue through the upheavals that began in late 2010 by way of leading "millennial" figures with a focus on "Internet activism" and social media. His thesis is that the youth, along with an amorphous "New Left," led the way during these uprisings and that together they forever changed the Arab and Muslim worlds, a dubious assessment.
Cole's first failing is through his highly selective approach to social media, quoting Facebook posts, blogs, and tweets he finds informative. But rather than take a quantitative approach that would actually measure large-scale social and intellectual trends, his method is traditional and impressionistic. Relying on informants and observations during his travels in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, he focuses on select individuals whom he believes important, whether or not they represent anything or anyone beyond themselves.
Second, Cole latches onto the term "millennial," using it to describe a progressive, social media savvy generation dissatisfied with the stagnant status quo of republics and military states. But the media savvy youth of the uprisings were not exclusively liberal. Nowhere does Cole take the religious right seriously—in its hard form (Muslim Brotherhood) or harsher strains (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria [ISIS], etc.)—nor does he emphasize that the Brotherhood, for example, made extensive use of the Internet for their own, exceedingly illiberal purposes throughout this chaotic period. Social media goes on, but now it is ISIS tweeting its latest crucifixions and mass executions.
Third, he seems unaware that the military and the religious right, which have cracked down on Internet freedom and punished critics severely, are ascendant today. As for the liberal-minded youth who flocked to Tahrir Square and other confrontations, their disappointment is palpable and justified, but it is unclear when, how, or if they will reemerge as a meaningful social force.
The historical moment Cole attempts to describe has passed; the millennial generation he hoped would change the Middle East, if it ever truly existed, is numbed and in retreat. Alas, he seems oblivious to both these facts.