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The Arab Millennials Will Be Back

Posted on Jun 29, 2014

Photo by Denis Bocquet (CC BY 2.0)

By Juan Cole, TomDispatch

(Page 3)

The 2011 youth movement in Egypt also sought Christian-Muslim unity.  In Tahrir Square on Fridays, Coptic Christian youth would stand guard while Muslims prayed.  On Sundays, Muslim activists protected Christians as they held open-air masses.  Youth activists were disgusted when Muslim Brotherhood rule meant the bringing of blasphemy charges against Coptic schoolteachers.  Even North Africa’s most serious ethnic divide, between Arabs and minority Berbers or Amazigh, shows signs of beginning to be ameliorated in Morocco under the pressure of the 2011 protests.

Like much of the rest of the Arab Spring, the urge of the millennial generation across North Africa and the Middle East for a more multicultural world seems far from realization, but they have put it on a future Arab agenda.  Its moment will return.

Waiting for the Arab Summer

Analysts have tended to focus on the high politics of the Arab youth revolutions and so have missed the more important, longer-term story of a generational shift in values, attitudes, and mobilizing tactics.  The youth movements were, in part, intended to provoke the holding of genuine, transparent elections in which the millennials were too young to stand for office.  This ensured that actual politics would be dominated by older Arab Baby Boomers, many of whom are far more interested in political Islam or praetorian authoritarianism.


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The first wave of writing about the revolutions of 2011 discounted or ignored religion because the youth movements were predominantly secular and either liberal or leftist in approach.  When those rebellions provoked elections in which Muslim fundamentalists did well, a second round of books lamented a supposed “Islamic Winter.”

The “Islamic Winter” paradigm has now faded in the countries that experienced the youth revolutions, with the reassertion of the military and the nationalists in Egypt and the severe reversals the religious militias have faced in central Syria.  In Libya, Muslim fundamentalist candidates could not get a majority in parliament in 2012.  Similar processes have long been in train in Algeria.  Even in Tunisia, where the religious right formed the first post-revolution government, they were only able to rule in coalition with secularists and leftists.

In the meantime, many of the millennial activists who briefly turned the Arab world upside down and provoked so many changes are putting their energies into non-governmental organizations, thousands of which have flowered, barely noticed, in countries that once suffered from one-party rule.  In this way, they are learning valuable organizational skills that—count on it—will one day be applied to politics.  Others continue to coordinate with labor unions to promote the welfare of the working classes.  Their dislike of nepotism, narrow cliques, and ethnic or sectarian rule has already had a lasting impact on the politics of the Arab world.  So don’t for a second think that the Arab Spring is over, no matter the news from Libya, Egypt, Iraq, or elsewhere.

Over the next two or three decades, as they come into their own politically, expect big changes in the region.  Someday, there will undoubtedly be an Arab Summer and the youth of this era will be honored for what they did against all odds.  Mubarak’s hired thugs attempted to ride them down with camels.  That regime isn’t there anymore and the millennials are biding their time.  We haven’t heard the last of their generation.

Juan Cole is Director of the Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies at the University of Michigan. He maintains a blog on US foreign policy and progressive politics, Informed Comment. His new book, The New Arabs: How the Millennial Generation Is Changing the Middle East (Simon and Schuster), will officially be published July 1st.


Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook and Tumblr. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me.

Copyright 2014 Juan Cole

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