Beyond Mass Protests: Rethinking What Constitutes Arab Youth Political Activism

This is part of POMEPS Studies 36: Youth Politics in the Middle East and North Africa. Download the full PDF here.

Sarah Anne Rennick, Sciences Po

Since 2011, the prevailing image of Arab youth activism is that of the mass protest movement taking place in the streets and public squares. The wave of uprisings of the Arab Spring, along with the current mobilizations in Algeria and Sudan, have cemented this heuristic link between the Arab youth activist and the mass protest. Such activism is typically marked by direct claim-making on the state in the form of demands for freedom, social justice, and the ouster of long-sitting autocrats. 

Yet this is only a partial image of the region’s youth activism. As everywhere else in the world, youth across the Arab world are undertaking activism in a variety of sectors and activities, including service provision, community-development initiatives, social entrepreneurship, and the arts and culture. The population of youth activists involved in political protest movements and those involved in social and cultural activism are not different; many of the new activist initiatives that have arisen in the social and cultural sectors since 2011 were founded and are populated by the same youth from the mass protest movements. 

The relationship to the political sphere of these youth activists, and their own self-view as political actors, is far from straightforward. They simultaneously proclaim themselves to have been part of the revolutionary vanguard, yet also declare that now their social and cultural activism is “apolitical” in nature. How do the youth themselves understand these moves from direct political contestation and overt political activism to self-described apoliticality in other forms of engagement? Does this imply that Arab youth political activism only takes the form of street protests, and that some sort of de-politicization occurs along with demobilization between protest cycles? 

Drawing on over 100 semi-structured interviews, focus group discussions, and policy dialogues with youth activists from Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria, [1] I argue that these different forms of social and cultural activism of the “2011 generation” are in fact alternative forms of political activism. 

Departure and demobilization

Looking at the activist trajectories of Arab youth who participated in mass political protest movements in the earlier parts of this decade – whether the iconic uprisings of the Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt, and Syria or the YouStink mobilization in Lebanon in 2015 or the lesser-known protests that took place in Algeria in 2011 – shows a variety of different pathways. While the outcomes of these mass protest movements vary across the region, there has nonetheless been a largely shared post-revolutionary backlash to the 2011 uprisings, whether in the form of state repression and violence or more general popular apathy. This has been accompanied by a waning of social movements and mass protests. This is not to say that displays of opposition have stopped entirely;[2] but there has been a visible wave of demobilization of youth political activists. 

For some, this demobilization has been accompanied by departure from their country. Many Egyptian and Syrian youth activists, for example, face physical and psychological security threats and thus find themselves in exile in Gaziantep or Berlin where they live in a state of liminality. Likewise, many Tunisian youth have left, despite the gains to political reform achieved by the 2011 uprising, because of the lack of economic opportunity. Among those who stayed, many attribute demobilization to the simple fact of growing older, settling down into jobs and family life, and growing tired or disillusioned with the rhythm of political activism. In Algeria, for example, many women youth activists have demobilized as they have exited their university years, due to new constraints on their time and less opportunities for activity outside the home, while in Tunisia many have demobilized as a result of protest fatigue and general frustration with the lack of sufficient gains. 

“Apolitical” activism. Departure and total demobilization do not reflect all possible trajectories of Arab youth political activists. On the contrary, in taking a comparative perspective, one trend that emerges is a shift in the sectors of activism. Some youth political activists of the 2011 generation re-focused their efforts on different forms of social and cultural activism, and in particular focusing on development-oriented and community-based actions in highly local contexts. This includes a variety of different organizational formats and specific areas of intervention: participation in Syrian local administrative councils for the purpose of coordinating humanitarian relief and basic services at the municipal level; volunteer-based neighborhood beautification projects in underprivileged zones in Lebanese cities; the establishment of Slow Food initiatives in rural and semi-urban Egypt; social entrepreneurship platforms promoting sustainable tourism in localities in Algeria. Common themes include a focus on poorer populations or those falling outside the regime’s planning radar, an effort to stimulate collaborative work with members of the community, and an attempt to produce meaningful and tangible change in daily life without recourse to authorities or changes in the political system. 

These new forms of engagement are constantly declared by the activists to be “apolitical” in nature, as they insist that their activities have nothing to do with “politics” and that they prefer to remain detached from the political sector. Yet at the same time, these activists see a degree of continuity between their so-called “apolitical” engagement and their previous political activism, and they also are ready to re-mobilize if and when a new wave of popular political contestation arises, as the current example of mass political protest in Algeria so vividly demonstrates. To understand how these shifts in sector are nonetheless perceived as a form of continuity, and why they declare their new forms of engagement to be “apolitical,” requires unpackaging apoliticality and their collective understanding of what constitutes politics and the political. 

The claim to “apoliticality” reveals a shared collective understanding among Arab youth of “politics” and the “political” that dichotomizes the work of traditional institutional politics and their own practices and forms of engagement. It can be read as a discursive device that is utilized both to distinguish themselves and to protect their work in the particularly repressive contexts of the post-2011 period. Despite their use of the term apolitical, though, these youth activist harbor an acute critique of the political order and a clear political vision that informs their social and cultural activism. Indeed, this critique of the political order – which includes criticism of the practices of power and regimes of inequality – informs the sectors where the activists work and their methods of work. In this sense, their social and cultural activism is prefiguring[3] the demands made in their political activism. As such, there is in fact an important degree of continuity in their various forms of engagement.

Their narrow definition of “politics” refers to formal, institutional, and procedural dimensions of governance. Among Egyptian youth activists, for example, politics is collectively understood as the institutionalized realm of political participation, including parties, elections, the parliament and the bureaucracy. Likewise, among Syrian youth activists, politics is associated with the high negotiations processes in Geneva and Astana, and with large-scale representative institutions. These collective understandings are also colored by their own negative associations and experiences. Among the Algerian activists, for example, the concept of politics remains associated with the civil war and the décennie noire. This delimitation of politics to the formal and institutionalized realm contributes to the perception of their activism as “apolitical,” given that these new forms of engagement are most often taking place in organizational formats that are unregistered, informal, and self-generated. 

Perhaps more importantly, the youth activists dichotomize their own work – be it political contestation in the form of street protest or “apolitical” activism in social and cultural sectors – with these shared definitions of “politics.” Whereas they see politics as the maintenance of the status quo – the current structures of power, imbalances, injustices – they see their own work as striving precisely to break this, to change systems that are in place and to effect meaningful change on the ground. Thus, for example, Syrian youth active in the local councils perceive their work as “apolitical” precisely because it aims at humanitarian relief and service provision that breaks with the patterns of distribution imposed by the state. Likewise, Lebanese youth activists see their forms of activism as “apolitical” because they seek to provide assistance or benefit to citizens outside of the logic of the sectarian system that “politics” upholds. 

At the same time, the qualification of activist work as “apolitical” also reveals itself to be a strategic device. By qualifying their new forms of engagement as acts for the benefit of local communities outside the domain of politics, they are afforded more room for maneuver, and especially in highly repressive contexts such as Egypt. Likewise, Algerian activists attest that by avoiding the use of the term “political,” they are able to gain more popular support among the community members with whom they seek to collaborate. Given this, the continuity the activists perceive between their previous participation in protest movements and their current forms of social and cultural engagement is based on the underlying opposition to “politics” that both imply. For these youth activists, both political protest and “apolitical” activism differ from “politics” because they are both striving to break with the systems of power and injustice that politics maintains, albeit by different means. Indeed, it is this same underlying critique of the political order that informs both their political activism as well as their new forms of engagement.  

Political prefiguration in social and cultural activism

The critique of the political order that Arab youth activists put forth during moments of mass protest are straightforward to pinpoint and have been abundantly studied. These include the demands for freedom, social justice, dignity, an end to corruption and impunity, and a new social contract based on full and equal rights and a state in the service of the people. Importantly, though, these same critiques are also present in the social and cultural forms of engagement to which many of the youth activists have gravitated. Yet, whereas youth’s political activism converted these critiques into direct claim-making on the state, their social and cultural work manifests these claims in the forms that the activism takes. More precisely, the activists’ critique of the political order informs their social and cultural activism: where they intervene, with whom they work, and the organizational models and internal practices they adopt. In other words, this critique informs both what they are doing and the way they are doing it. 

One of the recurring themes among the activist initiatives assessed here is the attempt to promote social justice, equality, and recognition through new acts of service provision and distribution. For example, a number of activists across the countries under investigation are working with local communities that reside in informal, poor, or very periphery areas and that are left off the state’s planning schemes and distribution channels. This includes, for example, activist efforts for trash collection and land reclamation in poor neighborhoods in Beirut, or mapping and urbanization programs in slums in Algiers, as well as targeted cultural activities such as entertainment for hospitalized children, among numerous others. This selection of activities and local communities is not chosen at random; rather, for the youth activists, such activism is deliberately chosen in order to prefigure at least some of the goals that comprised their political demands. Thus though this new “apolitical” activism is not outwardly demanding regime ouster or radical change to the system, it is still striving for the values of social justice and equality that makes up an essential part of their political demands. Indeed, there is a very present discourse of promoting social justice, equal rights, and fairness that underpins this activism. 

Moreover, these activist efforts are undertaken not on behalf of the target populations but rather with them: local communities are directly incorporated into the activist efforts, and their knowledge, skills, and ambitions are placed centrally. To this point, the manner in which these new forms of engagement operate organizationally is also informed by political demands and in particular the youth activists’ critique of top-down and authoritarian practices of power. Indeed, these new forms of social and cultural activism are very deliberately attempting to manifest democratic ideals and new forms of participation. For example, the activists partaking in these new initiatives repeatedly cite the practice of “horizontality” in their collaborative work. This includes consensus-based decision-making, shared leadership, and the encouragement of participation from all members of a group – including not only the activists themselves but also the beneficiaries of their efforts. There is a deliberate attempt to manifest practices of decision-making and promote a new manner of being together that is based on recognition and social mixing that break with the normal political order.  

It is indeed this prefiguration of political claims through the operational and organizational dimensions of social and cultural activism that render these new forms of engagement of Arab youth a form of political activism, albeit alternative. While political protests make claims and challenge the state directly, this alternative form of political activism opposes the political order by prefiguring the desired outcomes. In other words, while the more traditional political activism of Arab youth directly challenges the state, this alternative form of political activism works around it, filling gaps where the state is absent. Yet, though these activist efforts are attempting to fill gaps with alternative practices of power, distribution, and recognition, the extent to which they actually challenge the state – or on the contrary buttress it – remains in question. 

Does this challenge the state?

Many of these diverse activist efforts fill governance gaps in areas of limited statehood, where the state’s ability to govern and enforce rules is either faltering or absent.[4] In providing services such as schooling and health in zones where the state has collapsed, or by undertaking urban planning and zoning enforcement in areas that are ignored by the central authority, these new efforts are in fact contributing to a process of “governance from below.”[5] The youth activists are exercising a degree of political authority, including the promulgation of new policies and rules. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the case of the Syrian local councils, which act as de facto local authorities with their own governance practices. And because the youth activists are working precisely in the gaps where the state is absent, they are changing expectations and awareness of rights among their target populations and are putting forth new participatory practices. All of this creates an important potential for some form of political change, building off these new constituencies and practices. 

However, fillings gaps where the state is absent and challenging the state are not the same thing, and many of the activists are aware of this. Indeed, many of the youth interviewed here express that their social and cultural activism are not seeking regime change or radical political change. In Algeria, for example, the activists acknowledge a certain willingness to work within the “red lines” of acceptability as drawn by the regime, which they view as pragmatic for the realization of their objectives. Likewise, in Lebanon, while all those interviewed agreed that social engagement is itself an act of political resistance to the sectarian system, many among them nonetheless perceive their activism as replacing or indeed supporting the role of the state – thereby reducing the urgency of profound political change. In this sense, filling gaps where the state is absent and promoting practices that prefigure desired political changes can be both a critique of the political order but also a means of reinforcing the state by relieving it of certain duties and responsibilities. 

Perhaps, though, the most important role these alternative forms of political activism are filling is that of abeyance structure,[6] allowing the youth political activists to maintain their engagement and networks, and continue pursuing their political goals and values, despite the challenges of renewed authoritarianism, war, and/or protest fatigue that have led to demobilization. In this case, these new forms of social and cultural activism can actually contribute to new waves of political protest by allowing for a reactivation of currently dormant movements. While this remains to be proven in most countries, the current case of Algeria – where the youth activists interviewed here have not only joined the current mass protest movement but indeed see it as a continuation of their social and cultural activism – seems to indicate that these alternative forms of activism may indeed be maintaining the foundations for future political mobilization.  


[1] The research for this paper was conducted between 2016-2018 under the project “Arab Youth as Political Actors,” which involved research into new forms of youth engagement in Algeria, Tunisia, Lebanon, and Syria. This included over 100 semi-structured interviews, focus groups, and policy dialogues in the four target countries as well as France, Germany, and Turkey. The project was funded by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) of Canada. Research on Egypt was conducted by the author through over 60 semi-structured interviews with activists in the period of 2012-2013 in Cairo, with follow-up interviews by phone in 2016.

[2] See for example the use of cause lawyering in Egypt as an alternative venue for political contestation. EZZAT, Ahmed. “Challenging the Legal Ideology of the State: Cause Lawyering and Social Movements in Egypt”. Arab Reform Initiative, 2019. (available at https://www.arab-reform.net/publication/challenging-the-legal-ideology-of-the-state-cause-lawyering-and-social-movements-in-egypt/)

[3] Van de Sande defines prefiguration as, “political action, practice, movement, moment, or development in which certain political ideals are experimentally actualized in the ‘here and now’, rather than hoped to be realized in a distant future. Thus, in prefigurative practices, the means applied are deemed to embody or ‘mirror’ the ends one strives to realize.” VAN DE SANDE, Mathijs. “The Prefigurative Politics of Tahrir Square – An Alternative Perspective on the 2011 Revolutions”. Res Publica 19(3), 2013, pp.223-239.

[4] BÖRZEL, Tanja A., Thomas RISSE, and Anke DRAUDE. “Governance in Areas of Limited Statehood: Conceptual Clarifications and Major Contributions of the Handbook.” In: Tanja A. Börzel, Thomas Risse, and Anke Draude, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Governance and Limited Statehood. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.

[5] EL-MEEHY, Asya. “Governance from Below: Comparing Local Experiments in Egypt and Syria after the Uprisings”. The Century Foundation, 2017.

[6] Abeyance structures refer to latent processes of movement maintenance, despite periods of demobilization and disengagement from direct challenge to the state. See SAWYERS, Traci M. and David S. MEYER. “Missed Opportunities: Social Movement Abeyance and Public Policy.” Social Problems 46(2), 1999, pp.187-206.