Juan Cole claims the Arab Spring is still promising. Doubters say he’s naive.

Historians in the News
tags: Juan Cole, Arab Spring

Andrew E. Harrod is a freelance researcher and writer who holds a PhD from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a JD from George Washington University Law School. He is a fellow with the Lawfare Project, an organization combating the misuse of human rights law against Western societies. You may follow Harrod on twitter at @AEHarrod.

The “advent of a new generation” of Arabs was the overly optimistic theme for University of Michigan history professor Juan Cole’s recent lecture at the George Washington University Elliot School of International Relations.  Cole’s discussion of his new bookThe New Arabs:  How the Millennial Generation is Changing the Middle East, to an audience of about fifty, mostly Elliot School students, failed to substantiate his ongoing hopes for the so-called Arab Spring.

Elliot School professor Edward W. (Skip) Gnehm introduced Cole as a Middle East expert who is popular on television, a supposedly confidence inspiring credential. Cole focused on Tunisia, noting that this comparatively small North African country with no oil resources had received “insufficient press.”  His main concern was “youth revolutionaries,” as the Arab press termed Arab Spring regime opponents in Libya, Tunisia, and elsewhere.

Cole began by claiming that a “relatively successful . . . transition away from authoritarianism” under the “Ben Ali clique,” who were “basically bank robbers,” had marked Tunisia’s Arab Spring.  Nonetheless, Tunisia is still “on a tightrope,” he added, as some Tunisian regions are prone to violence and Tunisia’s neighbor Libya also presents dangers.  The “Mad Max-like scenes of post-apocalyptic horror” previously described in Cole’s writings “have . . . dashed” the Arab Spring’s “bright hopes” in Libya and elsewhere.  Elliot School professor William Lawrence noted in a post-lecture conversation that Libya’s parliament has now fled the capital Tripoli for a Greek car ferry moored in Tobruk.  However, in December 2011, Cole stated erroneously that the “Libyan Revolution has largely succeeded, and this is a moment of celebration.”

Cole contrasted Libya with Tunisia, calling the new 2014 Tunisian constitution “very good on paper” and “very nicely worded.”  The “secularists won” in defeating attempts to codify sharia, which Cole dubiously compared to Catholic canon law, as well as a gender “complementarity” clause.  “The feminists in the room know what that means,” Cole said of the latter, before equating the “party of the Muslim religious right,” Tunisia’s Islamist, pro-jihadist Ennahda Party, initial supporter of both measures, with American conservatives.

But Cole conveniently omitted key passages of Tunisia’s constitution, including the opening traditional Islamic invocation, “In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate.”  Other passages stipulate Tunisia’s “Islamic-Arab identity” and “civilizational affiliation to the Arab-Islamic nation.”  The preamble also supports “just liberation movements . . . against all forms of occupation and racism,” whose “forefront . . . is the Palestinian liberation movement.”  Article 1, which “cannot be amended,” further proclaims that Tunisia’s “religion is Islam” while Article 6 denotes state duty “to protect the sacred.” ...

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