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World Arab social capital is there - it's young and connected

When we study the prehistory of the Arab revolutions of 2011, the most emblematic moment may prove to be a two-hour meeting on Jan. 19, 2007, in a large tent surrounded by camels in the Sahara, between Robert Putnam, the great American sociologist, and Moammar Gadhafi, the self-appointed leader of the Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya.

Dr. Putnam is famous for popularizing the concept of "social capital" - the notion that societies succeed, and democracy works and thrives, when groups of people are bound tightly together in networks of common purpose. In his books Making Democracy Work and Bowling Alone, he examined how society and democracy grew and prospered in northern Italy and in the United States of the mid-20th century because people formed all manner of clubs, activist groups and voluntary associations, and how it declined and failed in southern Italy and in the late-20th century United States because people watched TV and went to church rather than building social capital.

The Harvard professor hoped to encourage the strongman to open up his country to "civil society, voluntary groups and freedom of association," he explained in an article last week. But the whole conversation foundered, he said, when he tried to explain to Colonel Gadhafi the idea of a Rotary Club.

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"Libyan history includes nothing remotely analogous to Rotary or Little League or the Knights of Columbus," he wrote, "so we settled on 'veterans' associations' as the only intelligible illustration of my argument."

The dictator still didn't really understand what the professor was talking about, and didn't seem to care, and Dr. Putnam soon concluded (correctly) that the whole enterprise was a sad public-relations stunt. He also concluded that Libya's larger problem, and the Arab world's larger problem, was basically an absence of social capital. People in this region, he seems to have inferred, just are not organized enough yet to form a robust and lasting democracy.

This idea, in various forms, has long dominated discussions of Arab society - among both Arabs and outsiders. It was expressed in its most blunt and unadorned form last week by Norman Tebbit, formerly a key ideologue for British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, who dismissed the region-wide uprisings in a single sentence: "They do not 'do' democracy in the culture of that part of the world." But the idea that democracy is not the best thing for Arab culture has been expressed by a wide range of thinkers across the spectrum, such as the left-wing historian Eric Hobsbawm.

Certainly, the Libya I visited in 2004 was low on social capital. It was the only Arab country I've ever visited where men didn't gather in large crowds at street-side cafés to smoke and talk politics. This was illegal, and dangerous. Next door in Egypt, life for many was (and remains) a lonely oscillation between home, mosque and workplace, with nothing to bind people in a way that could change the country or its society.

Or so it seemed. But on that visit seven years ago, I noticed something else: Everyone I met under 20, including those in fairly poor communities, spent their spare time at the Internet café. In the freedom of those places, in detailed conversations, I found teenagers forming intimate communities online, discussing cars and rap lyrics and sex and especially the restrictions on Internet freedoms in neighbouring countries (Libya's Net was wide open then), and often coalescing in physical meet-ups. And that was Libya, one of the least free countries in the region.

Those teens are now around 24 - and half of all Egyptians and Libyans are 24 or under. In the past months, we have seen them form extraordinarily resilient and tightly linked voluntary communities using those Internet connections. (Especially Facebook, which I found to be nearly ubiquitous in Tunisia and Libya.)

A fifth of Egyptians and more than a third of Tunisians have broadband Internet at home, and the popularity of Internet cafés and cellphone web services means that almost everyone under 24 has daily access to the Internet.

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Dictators and Islamists also use the Internet. But the young opponents keep showing that their social capital is more robust than we'd ever imagined: In the past seven weeks, we have seen Facebook-organized rallies drive out the old-regime prime ministers of Tunisia and Egypt and replace them with movement-associated figures. The towns and villages of Tunisia and Egypt, as I reported this week, are being transformed by local democracy committees, which have become an unstoppable force.

That's not to say that the Arab world's connected generation are going to have an easy time building a democratic society. But they certainly aren't bowling alone.

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