The making of the modern Middle East was a post-World War I European project, a colonial erasure of ethnic and tribal lines in favor of strict national boundaries, with little regard for the past, and no regard for the will of the people.
Over the last century, staunch dictators maintained those boundaries and quashed dissent across the region. Through the Cold War, and particularly after the Iranian Revolution, the United States continued to support dictatorships across the Middle East, until the winter of 2011 gave way to the Arab Spring.
In the three years since the Arab Spring began, Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya have all seen varying degrees of success when it comes to democracy and human rights. But Juan Cole, author of "The New Arabs: How the Millennial Generation is Changing the Middle East," says the world needs to give the revolutionaries more time, and that the young protesters who led the Arab Spring will eventually remake their home countries.
Cole, the director of the Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies at the University of Michigan, reflects on the young Arabs who led the Arab Spring, and the future possibilities for change across the Middle East.
"The generation born roughly from the late 70s and through the year 2000 are called by demographers the millennials, or generation Y, but in the Arab world they are particularly populous—about 40 percent of the population," says Cole. "What's interesting about them is not just that they're there and that they're young, because that's true of youth in India, Indonesia, and a lot of places in the world. But they're organizing on the basis of being young."
Cole says that many millennials in the Middle East are forming political, social and cultural organizations that are specifically designed to represent the goals and interests of their generation.
"The divisions of their parent's generation were really about a kind of military nationalism versus a political Islam—that was the great divide," says Cole. "Baby boomers and people who are now in their 60s are still duking it out over those issues. But the social science on the younger generations—the millennials in the Arab world—suggests that they are much more interested in networking, and have a more democratic view of how society should work."
According to Cole, millennials in the Arab world are universally less religious and observant than generations that have preceded them. Additionally, Cole says that this demographic is also less interested in traditional forms of democracy, like political parties.
"In many ways, the dictators of the region—Hosni Mubark in Egypt, who ruled from 1981 to 2011, and others in Tunisia and elsewhere—destroyed a lot of the old political parties," he says. "The youth tend to be fairly alienated from parties, and not very interested in them on the whole."
Cole adds that many millennials in the Arab world also tend to be more liberal than older generations.
"These people really want to see their own societies shaped in a different direction, and that's where they've put their energies," he says.
Reshaping societal and governmental structures is difficult in any location, but Cole says the workings of democracy in the Middle East can be especially challenging. Because these difficulties persist, Cole says that many millennials have considered moving to the West in search for a better life. And younger people also diverge from previous generations on other issues, too.
"These young people obviously have sympathies with the Palestinians and how they view them to be treated by the Israelis, but by and large, at least in the past three years, they haven't made Israel the issue," says Cole. "There's a feeling amongst them that the old dictatorial regimes would use Israel and American foreign policy as ways of deflecting critiques of how their country was actually run when it came to domestic policy."
While millennials in the Middle East may have certain view points when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Cole says young activists are determined to bring something new to their own nations and do not want to be distracted by outside politics.
"People don't realize how young these guys were, these young women and young men," says Cole. "It is way too soon to tell how the changes that they kicked off in 2011 are going to work out."