[Note for TomDispatch Readers: Today, this website spotlights a highly recommended new book by Juan Cole, The New Arabs: How the Millennial Generation Is Changing the Middle East. It offers a different and more hopeful view of the long-term fate of the Arab Spring. "An exhilarating journalistic narrative," Publisher's Weekly calls it in a pre-publication review, "enlivened by interviews with participants and his own colorful firsthand accounts of upheavals." And here's a reminder: if you are an Amazon customer and go to that site via a TD book link like the one above to buy Cole's book or anything else at all, we get a small cut of your purchase at no extra cost to you. It's a modest but useful way to contribute to the site if you use Amazon anyway. Tom]
When it comes to pure ineptness, it's been quite a performance -- and I'm sure you've already guessed that I'm referring to our secretary of state's recent jaunt to the Middle East. You remember the old quip about jokes and timing. (It's all in the...) In this case, John Kerry turned the first stop on his Middle Eastern tour into a farce, thanks to impeccably poor timing. He landed in President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi's Egypt to put the Obama stamp of approval on the former general's new government and what he called "a historic election." This was a reference to the way Sisi became president, with a mind-boggling 97% of the votes (or so the official story went). Kerry also promised to release $575 million in military aid frozen by Congress and threw in 10 Apache attack helicopters in what can only be seen as a pathetic attempt to bribe the Egyptian military. Having delivered the goods, he evidently went into negotiations with Sisi without the leverage they might have offered him.
And then there was the timing. The day after Kerry's visit, verdicts were to come down in an already infamous case of media persecution. Three Al Jazeera reporters were to hear their fate. Charged with "aiding" the Muslim Brotherhood, they were clearly going to get severe sentences (as indeed they did) in a court system that had already given "hanging judge" a new meaning. (While Kerry was in Cairo, death sentences were confirmed against 183 members of the Muslim Brotherhood.) He reportedly discussed the case with Sisi -- there wasn't a shred of evidence against the reporters -- and was assumedly convinced that he had wielded American power in an effective way. Hence, when the verdicts were announced the next day and, as the Guardian put it, "delivered a humiliating, public slap in the face to Kerry," he reportedly "appeared stunned." He must have been even more stunned a day later when Sisi assured the world that he would never think of "interfering" with Egyptian justice.
The strangeness of all this is hard to take in, though Kerry has a record of not delivering big time. At the moment, allies and client states around the region -- from Afghanistan (where President Hamid Karzai still refuses to sign a security pact with the U.S.) to Israel (where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government regularly announces new building plans in the occupied territories) -- seem to ignore Washington's will. This is by now both fascinating and predictable. If, having provided an embarrassingly full-throated defense of the Bush administration project in Iraq at a Cairo news conference, the secretary of state promptly flew into Baghdad to put an American stamp on the Iraqi government, he failed. His mission: to get the country's politicians to form a "unity government," essentially deposing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Even with his military in a state of near collapse and his own position desperately weakened, however, Maliki swept Kerry's proposals aside. If the secretary of state then flew on to Irbil to "implore" the president of the Kurdish autonomous region, Masoud Barzani, not to move toward an independent Kurdistan... well, do I even have to finish that sentence for you?
Here, then, is a mystery highlighted by the crisis in disintegrating Iraq and Syria: What kind of world are we in when the most powerful nation on the planet is incapable of convincing anyone, even allies significantly dependent on it, of anything?
Into this increasingly grim situation steps a TomDispatch favorite, Juan Cole, the man who runs the invaluable Informed Comment website. Unlike the secretary of state, who, while in Cairo, definitively turned his back on the Arab Spring and the young protesters who made it happen, Cole embraces it and them. In doing so, he offers us a ray of sunshine, hope amid the gloom. Today, he considers the fate of the Arab Spring, suggesting that those, Kerry included, who have already consigned it to the trash heap of history don't understand history at all. His piece catches the spirit of a remarkable new book he's written that is just about to come out: The New Arabs: How the Millennial Generation Is Changing the Middle East. It's a must-read from an expert who has a perspective Washington sadly lacks. Tom
Three Ways the Youth Rebellions Are Still Shaping the Middle East By Juan Cole
Three and a half years ago, the world was riveted by the massive crowds of youths mobilizing in Cairo's Tahrir Square to demand an end to Egypt's dreary police state. We stared in horror as, at one point, the Interior Ministry mobilized camel drivers to attack the demonstrators. We watched transfixed as the protests spread from one part of Egypt to another and then from country to country across the region. Before it was over, four presidents-for-life would be toppled and others besieged in their palaces.
Some 42 months later, in most of the Middle East and North Africa, the bright hopes for more personal liberties and an end to political and economic stagnation championed by those young people have been dashed. Instead, a number of Arab countries have seen counter-revolutions, while others are engulfed in internecine conflicts and civil wars, creating Mad Max-like scenes of post-apocalyptic horror. But keep one thing in mind: the rebellions of the past three years were led by Arab millennials, twentysomethings who have decades left to come into their own. Don't count them out yet. They have only begun the work of transforming the region.
Given the short span of time since Tahrir Square first filled with protesters and hope, care should be taken in evaluating these massive movements. During the Prague Spring of 1968, for instance, a young dissident playwright, Vaclav Havel, took to the airwaves on Radio Free Czechoslovakia and made a name for himself as Soviet tanks approached. After the Russian invasion, he would be forbidden to stage his plays and 42 months after the Prague Spring was crushed, he was working in a brewery. Only after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 would he emerge as the first president of the Czech Republic.
Three and a half years into the French Revolution, the country was only months away from the outbreak of a pro-royalist Catholic peasant revolt in the Vendee, south of the Loire Valley. The resulting civil war with the republicans would leave more than 100,000 (and possibly as many as 450,000) people dead.
Preparing the Way for a New Arab Future
There are of course plenty of reasons for pessimism in the short and perhaps even medium term in the Middle East. In Egypt, Ahmad Maher, a leader of the April 6 Youth, famed for his blue polo shirts and jaunty manner, went from advising the prime minister on cabinet appointments in the summer of 2011 to a three-year prison term at hard labor in late 2013 for the crime of protesting without a license. Other key revolutionaries of 2011, like dissident blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah and leftist activist and organizer Mahienoor El Masry, are also in jail, along with many journalists, including three from Al Jazeera, two sentenced to seven years in jail and one to 10, simply for doing the most basic reporting imaginable.
When it comes to youth revolutions, however, it's a pretty good bet that most of their truest accomplishments will come at least a couple of decades later. The generation of young Arabs who made the revolutions that led to the unrest and civil wars of the present is in fact distinctive -- substantially more urban, literate, media-savvy, and wired than its parents and grandparents. It's also somewhat less religiously observant, though still deeply polarized between nationalists and devotees of political Islam.
And keep in mind that the median age of the 370 million Arabs on this planet is only 24, about half that of graying Japan or Germany. While India and Indonesia also have big youth bulges, Arab youth suffer disproportionately from the low rates of investment in their countries and staggeringly high unemployment rates. They are, that is, primed for action.
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