It isn't easy to track down a positive word about the Middle East these days. Then again, Juan Cole is not your typical observer. A professor of history at the University of Michigan, he is also a prolific and popular blogger on current affairs. An American, he spent part of his childhood in France and Ethiopia. A left-leaning idealist, he comes across as far more optimistic than the dour Occupy crowd. A cosmopolitan in constant touch with 20-somethings, he seems to be addressing boomers in his latest book, "The New Arabs," which is replete with explanations that digital natives would never need. (Don't know what the "meatspace" is? Read on.)
"The New Arabs" chronicles the heart-stirring youth revolts in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. Early on, Cole does some defying of his own. "The rise of the Internet," he notes, "may not have been as central to these social movements as some Western press coverage assumed."
To be sure, Cole affirms that online networks dramatically amplified the reach and resonance of protesters' demands for state accountability. Take the iconic story of Mohamed Bouazizi. Ripped off and slapped by a government employee, the young Tunisian self-immolated in front of his local city hall, igniting the first of the uprisings. Internet buzz propagated the myth that Bouazizi had graduated from college, making an educated underclass think of him as one of their own and thus take up his cause. In fact, because of poverty, Bouazizi had not even finished high school. Nor was his name Mohamed; it was Tarek. Ah, the baptismal power of social media.
Still, the Internet is only one strand of a much broader web that Cole weaves. His is a huge challenge: to map the outbreaks of tumult that have crisscrossed Tunisia, Egypt and Libya over the past decade. Strikes, bread shortages, lack of water, inflation, unemployment — all on top of a generational thirst for personal autonomy and political liberty. It makes for chaotic reading. Policy wonks get their fill. The rest of us need patience.
Yet Cole does eventually deliver. In a particularly vivid section, he describes the breathtaking pluralism of those who put themselves on the front lines to protect Egyptian demonstrators. Coptic Christian youths served as bodyguards for their Muslim peers. They knew that as Muslims prostrated during Friday prayer — the prelude to pouring into the streets — their bowed heads would invite attack. Soccer thugs found new purpose as bouncers around Tahrir Square. Muslim Brothers, too, shielded secular friends, especially on the day some jobless tour guides rode camels straight into crowds of activists.
The book hits its stride in Libya. Catching revolution fever after Tunisia and Egypt, young Libyans took advantage of the world's eyeballs. Their online savvy combined with old-fashioned lobbying to secure a no-fly zone above Libya. When one of Qaddafi's sons shut down Internet access, he was outwitted: Using their cellphones, dissenters called a special number that automatically turned their voice mail messages into tweets.
Ultimately, though, it was rebels in the fields, factories and alleys who kept Qaddafi and his gang on the run. Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, stopped nothing. Sunset marked an opportunity to refuel with food and arms. Dusk prayers served "as a signal to begin the uprising," even among those who were secretly fighting to separate mosque and state.
For all of the "liking" and "sharing," Cole shows that the revolution's most important triumphs took place in the sphere of physical effort — the "meatspace."
But to what end? Is the Middle East truly transforming? Tunisia offers a clue. In the wake of the uprisings, "over a hundred new political parties had been founded." By contrast, the previous regime "allowed only eight." And those parties will be busy. A "celebrated" Tunisian rapper supports Shariah law. A "prominent intellectual" scorns Shariah as the product of Judaism and therefore a travesty. Above all, a teacher observes, "Now we have to learn democracy."
Unorthodox wisdom for an era in thrall to instant gratification.