Introduction: Youth Politics in the Middle East and North Africa

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

Sean Yom, Marc Lynch, and Wael al-Khatib

Youth political activism has been challenging Middle East and North African political systems frequently and forcefully over the last decade. This is not a new phenomenon, of course. Young people have historically stood at the forefront of popular uprisings and cultural movements. Demographic realities in the Middle East have increased the latent potential for disruptive youth activism. Nearly 60 percent of people in the region fall under the age of 30, half of whom are aged between 15 and 29, and in almost every country, unemployment for working-age youth exceeds the overall jobless rate. The failures of the 2011 Arab uprisings to achieve lasting democratic change revealed the limits of street protests, but the underlying problems remain profoundly unresolved. How are young people questioning, subverting, and transforming the boundaries of politics in the post-uprising Middle East and North Africa?

In June 2019, the Project on Middle East Political Science convened a workshop on youth politics in Amman, Jordan, in cooperation with the Phenix Center for Economic and Informatics Studies. The workshop’s papers and deliberations sought to unpack the meaning of youth politics. What characterizes the latest wave of youth mobilization? How is youth activism, and youth politics, changing public attitudes and government policies? Can any generalizations be made about youthfulness, and the experience of being young and political, in the Middle East today? The essays contained in this volume attempt to answer these questions. They come from scholars who, through intensive fieldwork in varying countries, study the origins and processes of activism among young people through diverse methodologies and orientations.

Studying Youth Activism

In the wake of the Arab Spring, many observers unfamiliar with the Middle East treated the sudden surge of youth mobilization with revolutionary alarmism. Many popular uprisings were led by young protesters, organizers, and advocates who belonged to no extant opposition party or political faction – and thus seemed to come out of nowhere. The result, as one scholar observed, was the tendency to view the region through a “generational narrative” that portrayed young people as rebellious automatons: marginalized by economic downturns and brutalized by repressive dictatorships, youth were framed as impulsive revolutionaries inevitably bound to shake their societies.[1] 

Yet by reducing youth to emotional and demographic stereotypes, observers miss what made this latest wave of activism so momentous. As Asef Bayat has noted, terms like “youth politics” or “youth activism” do not simply mean that young people are politicized; rather, they imply that youthfulness as a lived experience intersects with other identities like class, gender, occupation, and tribe to produce new ideas, actions, and strategies to change the status quo.[2] In this way, being young is a distinctive analytical category, and focusing on actors who identify as youth allows researchers to trace how new voices are innovating, leading, and mobilizing within the realm of politics. All the scholars in this volume therefore treat the experience of being young as culturally, historically, and theoretically significant.

There is general agreement that beyond its obvious age connotations – too old to be children, recent graduates of high school or college, but often not old enough to have settled families and children of their own – the label of “youth” is fuzzy. It depends upon the context, because it intersects so heavily with other categories. Take, for instance, the campus feminists and university students whom Sarah Fischer follows in Turkey, the tribal activists in Jordan whom Yazan Doughan and Sara Ababneh interview, and the jobless graduates of rural Tunisia whom Giulia Cimini observes.  Apart from being in their late teens through late 20s, and attacking perceived structures of injustice and oppression, these disparate groupings of young people have different affiliations or ideologies. They question the authority of older powerholders in different ways, and deploy particular strategies and incisive language that make sense only in their context. They are all young, but hardly identical.

Thus, every essay presented here shows a unique site of political action.  For that reason, it is critical to underscore that methodologically, studying youth activism today requires serious fieldwork that puts scholars in close contact with their subject. Such field-based research can take different forms. For instance, Justin Gengler’s work on youth attitudes in the Gulf kingdoms required highly structured surveys, where stratified quantitative data could be analyzed and surprising results uncovered. By contrast, Makiko Nambu’s exploration of heroism norms among Palestinian prisoners necessitated ethnography: there is simply no other way to understand the cultural norms and political effects of legal detention among young Palestinians in East Jerusalem except to immerse oneself in the community, and sensitively parse out how these issues are debated privately and publicly. In between lay studies like Yousra Kadi’s investigation of youth attitudes in the contemporary Morocco, where group observations combined with selective interviews revealed that young Moroccans are far from apathetic – but remain disillusioned by the high politics of parties.

With different techniques, scholars benefit from close-range access to, and analysis of, data that comes from deep familiarity with the historical context and social milieu of their cases. Through such work, three themes resonate across the projects presented here. First, youth activism often takes informal structure, well outside traditional channels of mobilization and political interaction. Second, youth activists inject new issues into the political agenda, bringing to bear hitherto neglected or ignored debates for the public. Third, youth attitudes and mobilizational forms evolve over time, particularly as young activists absorb new lessons and react to state responses.

Informality and Organization

First, much youth activism today eschews the formalized organization characterizing opposition parties and civil society, and multiplies instead through social networks that must be carefully tracked and observed. To be sure, many youth actors work with, or through, formal institutions such as NGOs.  Begum Uzun’s work on political participation in Turkey examines how the dominant AK Party has successfully incorporated youth by pressuring and capturing student groups and municipal organs, thereby turning young Turkish voters into rank-and-file cadres in strategy evocative of corporatism.  However, it is more common to see youth political engagement occur through informal spaces. For instance, Matt Gordner’s study of leftist and land/labor protest groups in Tunisia highlights how new activists in post-authoritarian Tunisia have spearheaded movements for social and economic justice independent of party politics and labor unions.  Broadcast through online venues like Facebook, and utilizing a horizontal structure of mobilization that makes identifying leadership an elusive task, this new generation has launched bold, subversive protests that pressure professional politicians and civil society leaders. This fluidity, as Giulia Cimini’s study of Tunisia here shows, also facilitates the movement of rural youth into urban areas, which in turn brings more political attention to economic deprivation. 

Why the prevalence of informality? As many researchers understand, the tendency of youth political entrepreneurs to adopt social technology, reject incorporation into civil society, and change politics through means outside the ballot box stems from multiple factors. Generationally, activists today enjoy an incredible array of informational and communication tools, and can instantly connect to one another as well as their political targets more easily than past leaders could. Politically, many have matured in an era where opposition parties, professional syndicates, and other registered entities long framed by outsiders as the vanguard of change have failed to perturb autocratic political orders. As the Arab Spring showed, spontaneous grassroots movements can topple the bulwarks of dictatorship in ways that complex NGOs and bureaucratized opposition cannot, given the latter’s dependence upon state recognition and international funding. 

Socially, many tend to prize mobilizational networks that center not upon a single set of leaders or elite authority, but rather atomistic connections between protesters sewn together by common defiance of authority or shared pursuit of an issue. This makes youth-based groups and movements outside the influence of more established actors within the realm of contentious politics, but it may also potentially make it difficult to consolidate success. Dina El-Sharnouby’s study of Egyptian revolutionary youth makes this point well.  Understandably, many young activists rejected the hierarchical structure of older opposition parties and Islamist actors like the Muslim Brotherhood; instead, they presented their pluralism and diversity as strengths, and framed themselves as a powerful and evolving force capable of creating new ideas. Yet such youth were also frozen out of political transitional processes, and remain excluded and disorganized in an era of renewed authoritarianism. Informality, then, may be a double-edged sword: it enables rapid gains and subversive politics, but it also does not easily translate into the traditional realm of high politics.

Expanding the Political Agenda

In many cases, youth activists succeed in introducing new issues on the political agenda.  Their audience consists not only of the general public, but also elites and policymakers who are ignoring social and economic problems that affect large segments of the populace. Sarah Fischer’s work on campus-based feminism at Turkish universities is an obvious example, bringing gendered violence and women’s rights to the forefront. An equally telling example comes from Aziza Moneer’s study of environmentalism and “green dissent” in Egypt, which reveals how young advocates there have helped lead the anti-coal movement in an unexpected but memorable outburst of mobilization. Particularly in what she calls “dangerous” resistance, such activism highlights the paucity of state capacity to regulate environmental matters. Likewise, in Jordan, Curtis Ryan highlights how young protesters and organizers spearheaded the national campaign against the official agreement to buy natural gas from Israel. The issue touched on obvious sensitivities, not only because of the kingdom’s large Palestinian population, social enmity towards Israel, but also dire need for more energy at a time of costly refugee accommodation. 

In these and other cases, youth activists helped lead new campaigns against either unpopular state policies or existing injustices or harms neglected by ruling elites. The effect is to innovate within the public sphere, creating new practices of resistance while swaying popular opinion.  They are not always successful. For instance, in Jordan, the government has no intention of reneging on its natural gas contract with Israeli suppliers, not least because of the kingdom’s perennial energy shortages. Indeed, Jordan provides an excellent case study of how youth activism sees success versus failure. Sara Ababneh’s exploration of new popular hirak movements as well as Yazan Doughan’s interrogation of a specific tribal network of solidarity both show how young tribal Jordanians have repeatedly critiqued their state for adopting neoliberal economic policies that threaten the well-being and livelihood of many tribal communities. Given the unlikelihood of the Jordanian government rolling back two decades of privatization and fiscal austerity, an observer might deem such tribal mobilization as failures. However, another perspective holds that these new forms of opposition have succeeded in embarrassing a state apparatus that long burnished its legitimacy upon tribal loyalties, thus making critical talk of its legitimacy and governance commonplace.

Thus, perhaps more so than established social movements led by formal opposition and civil society actors, youth campaigns for change may be evaluated less by their absolute success in changing laws (or, excepting the Arab Spring, regimes themselves) and more by whether they transform the tenor of public discussion. Many young activists understand that rejecting official narratives of progress and disrupting public routines themselves constitute invaluable goals, even in the face of pressures or coercion by the state.

Evolving and Adaptive

Finally, youth activism is adaptive. Certainly, all forms of contentious politics change over time, because modalities of resistance and strategies of participation are never static. However, the research here shows that young people exhibit high awareness of not only national moods, but also their own capacity to sway the political arena – and not necessarily in collective ways that can be legibly described by scholars accustomed to studying revolutions or other large-scale events. This implicates an understudied assumption employed by many scholars, namely that the lived experience of being young is not only analytically distinctive, but socially, and even biologically, meaningful.  It connotes that as carriers of the past and thus potentially transformative agents, young activists are cognizant of their generational status, and therefore also the urgency of tailoring their actions to the particularities of each context. It also means that the personal becomes political in unexpected ways.

That agency manifests in many of the projects presented here. For example, Aydin Ozipek’s study of pedagogical centers in Turkey illustrates how students mediate between their own youthfulness and the demands of piety within a segmented educational system. For these Turkish students, the primacy of politics manifests within the classroom, presenting moments of private reflection – and sometimes resistance.  Similarly, Sarah Tobin’s ethnography of Syrian refugee youth in Sudan, where overlapping identities of Arabness, race, and nationality collide, illustrate the distinctiveness of their struggle: for these displaced youth, whether or not to engage in politics is a personalized choice that reflects the precarity of being migrants trapped between two authoritarian systems. In these disparate circumstances, the choice confronting youth in political situations is not whether to mobilize and protest, but rather how to react against exogenous constraints and learn how to not just survive but flourish. 

This contextual sensitivity is useful when considering cross-national variations, which critically reveal that both “youth” and “politics” are not monolithic categories. Sarah Rennick, for example, focuses on a post-2011 visible wave of demobilization and the resulting “apolitical” activism. Looking at the context of Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria, she asserts that different forms of social and cultural activism are in fact alternative forms of political activism. Justin Gengler’s survey research in the Gulf kingdoms, where rentierist political economies coexist with (excepting Saudi Arabia) small national populations, discovers that perceptions of efficacy – that is, the belief that one has tangible influence in government, anchored by loyalty or trust – are no higher among youth than other adults.  Whether such youth “unempowerment,” as Gengler deems it, validates the political distortions of rentier dependence or else may simply reflect underlying social complexities remains unclear, but the takeaway is that assumptions regarding youth engagement or interests borne from other countries may not travel so easily in the Gulf.


Youth protests over corruption, services, and the economy have erupted repeatedly across the region, most dramatically in recent months in Egypt, Lebanon and Iraq. Each of these eruptions has surprised observers who saw few openings in hardened, non-responsive political systems. The protests in Egypt and Iraq were more intense and harder edge than earlier protests, with more radical slogans and far less readily manifest political leadership or underlying organization. The repressive crackdowns by the governments which followed were, in turn, exceptionally brutal and indiscriminate, in part because of their difficulty in understanding the identities, motivations and capabilities of their challengers.  The ambivalences towards the political observed in the contributions to this collection point towards a new stage in this cycle of youth mobilization and regime response, one which may follow a different script than the one made familiar by the 2011 Arab uprisings.

[1] Emma Murphy, “Problematizing Arab Youth: Generational Narratives of Systemic Failure,” Mediterranean Politics 17, 1 (2012): 5-22.

[2] Asef Bayat, “Is There a Youth Politics?” Middle East – Topics and Arguments, 9 (2017): 16-24.