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Why This Summer Could Be the Arab Summer

The Middle East's millennials haven't gone anywhere.

| Mon Jun. 30, 2014 6:35 PM EDT

2. The age of presidents-for-life and complete lack of political accountability is coming to a close.

Even in neo-authoritarian Egypt, the new constitution allows a president only two four-year terms. In some Arab countries, politicians have begun showing a willingness to step down when the public demands accountability or in order to uphold the rule of law or simply to avoid looking like the autocrats who had been angrily overthrown. In response to a public outcry, Tunisian Prime Minister Ali Larayedh of the ruling Renaissance (al-Nahdah) Party, the largest in parliament, did so in early January in favor of a technocratic cabinet, which could be expected to fairly oversee new parliamentary elections. It was the first voluntary civilian succession in the country's history.

This May in Libya, a complete security mess, the minority Muslim Brotherhood faction in parliament and its allies attempted to put one of their own in the prime ministerial slot. They claimed that conservative businessman Ahmad Maitig had been elected with the requisite 120 votes; the nationalist opposition insisted he had only collected 113. When the issue went to Libya's supreme court and it ruled against him, Maitig relinquished his claim, citing the need to uphold the rule of law, and joining the ranks of Larayedh and other leaders who declined to cling to power and risk further polarization of their fragile societies.

Iraq stands in contrast, and serves as an object lesson in this regard. Arab Spring protests broke out there in both Sunni and Shiite areas in early 2011. In response, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki initially pledged not to seek a third term. He soon thought better of the promise. Nonetheless, Sunni Arab youth in Fallujah and elsewhere continued to use techniques borrowed from the Tahrir movement to highlight their marginalization in Shiite-dominated Iraq.

Early in 2013, Maliki's troops shot down Sunni demonstrators coming to Fallujah, which led to further youth protests and demands for accountability for those deaths. The government responded with more force. Had Maliki accommodated the demands of those demonstrators, in both Sunni and Shiite areas, he might have been able to forge new forms of national unity. Instead, by crushing the civil youth movements, he left the door open to the radical insurgents of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

3. A more multicultural vision of how society should work is now on the Arab agenda.

Previous generations of Arab leaders and movements were often blind to the ways in which pride in the heritage of Arabic-speaking peoples could shade into discriminatory attitudes toward non-Arabs in Muslim-majority states. Sometimes such societies had difficulty treating non-Muslims as equals. Many youth activists were (and remain) dedicated to a more multicultural vision of Arab society.

The attempt of elected Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood to rule through a clique of fundamentalists (who constitute a minority of Egyptians) deeply offended activist youth. Morsi rejected the idea of a government of national unity despite his narrow margin of victory and instead filled high offices with fundamentalist allies. Last year, he was overthrown, at least in part because millions of youth and workers again took to the streets. In the aftermath, explicitly religious or sectarian parties have been banned— though the military, which backed the mobilization of the young against Morsi, is again ascendant and has now turned on them, too.

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.

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. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from here.

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