Revolutionary Youth Politics: From Seizing to Sharing Power

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

Dina El-Sharnouby, American University of Cairo

The uprisings in the Middle East and Africa since late 2010/early 2011 featured remarkably horizontal mobilization strategies, contesting centralized forms of organization by separating the idea of mass mobilization from being led by one leading figure or one ideology. Their leaderless (or, perhaps more accurately, leaderful) and cross-ideological character opened questions about youth politics, social movements, and transformation processes. Researchers have typically approached these social movements through the literature on contentious politics,[1] or in some case have examined the meaning of those revolts for a new conception of politics.[2] Very few have attempted to analyze the horizontal movements in light of generation and youth studies, situating the young in their time and space for an understating of what constitutes youth politics today. Understanding youth politics through their horizontal mobilization strategies helps us to go beyond theories of contentious politics and repertoires of action. Instead, it allows scholars to address questions of time and temporality[3] particularly among this generation of youth in an aim to understand what constitutes youth politics today.

This paper draws on my current book project, which is based on intensive research done with Egyptian youth in a range of contexts: participant observation in the Egyptian uprisings in 2011; ethnographic fieldwork with the leftist, youth-led Bread and Freedom party, in 2015;[4] and interviews with political activists in diaspora in Berlin in 2018. This research shows that youth politics today is constituted on a conception of sharing power instead of seizing it. Such a conception requires a new type of thinking and practicing of revolutionary politics. Situating youth in their historical context, paying attention to their particular ‘experiences of time’ and ‘horizons of expectations’,[5] it becomes clear that the horizontal character of revolt suggests the rise of a new youth politics that is more inclusionary and revolves around the question of how to share political power.[6]

The conceptual question of sharing power plays out in complex ways. This generation of youth, shaped by neoliberalism and the political form of electoral democracy, which in the context of the MENA region foremost served autocratic governments to assume legitimacy from ‘the West’ to stay in power, can be best understood as a disruptive generation in transition that is struggling between old ideas and practices of politics and new horizontal mobilization strategies. Striving for new political ideals and possibilities of engaging with a diverse mass, this generation of political youth are caught between traditional political ideas and practices (such as forming a political party) and new ideals of inclusion that transcends a particular ideology and one leading figure. While skeptical of heroism and grand narratives, the subjects of these uprisings are in search of a new politics of inclusion and new ways of organizing the masses in an age of technology and globalization.

The Leadership Question

While the Egyptian uprising is often described as leaderless, it would be more accurate to call it “leaderful” – a movement of many leaders, working together towards common goals. Hossam el Hamalawy, member of the leftist Revolutionary Socialists, notes that “the 2011 revolution had leaders. Indeed, there was no revolutionary leadership council, but there were parties, organizations, and movements who have leaders that sat together and decided collectively on what to do next.”[7] Such a mobilization form, as a radically different way of practicing politics today, has been critiqued by many scholars and activists, who have pointed out the inability of the leaderful movement to bring about changes in state structures and were excluded from playing a role in governing the society after toppling dictators.[8]

Demonstrators in Cairo, taken on 26 December 2013 by Hossam el-Hamalawy.[9]

Egyptian revolutionary activists have been ambivalent about coining the revolution a leaderless revolution, terming it a counter revolutionary narrative. Alaa Abdel Fatah, Egyptian activist and blogger, exemplifies this ambivalence over the leadership question.[10]  

Features Alaa Abdel Fatah (in the middle) when he was arrested in 2011. Taken on 18 November 2011 by Hossam el-Hamalawy.[11]

The idea that the 2011 revolutionary movement was leaderless was part of the counter revolution, he argues. At the same time, he makes the point that this narrative could flourish because it also reflected something about the revolutionary movement.

The idea that the revolution did not have a leader did not come from us. It was a tool of containing (the Revolution). There were internal and external challenges which would allow for the appearance of leaders that can later negotiate and so on. So, this term was part of the discourse of the counter-revolution.

He goes on to suggest, “however, as it captured some of the truth, that we were networks and did not have a centralized leadership, this confused us. Yes, we don’t want something like Khomeini, or the vanguard party, so we did not know how to deal with this.”

This discontent with how the leadership question has been theorized points to the contradiction between revolutionary thought and a reformist leadership embedded in liberal-democratic thought. The importance of reformists might have been invisible to some extent during the revolution, but they played an important role in organizing the square and shaping strategic decisions such as when to leave the occupation of the square. According to Hamalawy, “the 2011 revolution had leaders, most of them were reformists, which is exactly why the revolution took that turn.” [12]  After Mubarak was toppled and workers took to the streets and to the squares, “this troubled many liberals. It gave uncertainty to liberals, uncertainty to the bourgeoisie that participated in the 18 days, uncertainty to Sawiris.[13] But for me this was the continuation of the revolution. That is what we should be doing (to support the workers’ strikes) . ”[14] The liberals among the leadership gave preference to stability and elections instead of engaging and organizing the marginalized, such as the workers.[15]

Though there were many leaders in the Egyptian uprising of 2011, the symbolic significance of a heroic figure that is leading the revolutionary movement and its political project was absent, changing the meaning and significance of the leader as a figure for driving change. This shift is not unique to Egypt and can be observed elsewhere. Makiko Nambu, in this volume for example, shows how heroism in the context of the Palestinian struggle has unfolded over generations, in which imprisonment and public beating of Palestinians by Israeli police forces used to function as a ‘rite of passage’ for young men to enter the phase of manhood. Today, imprisonment does not signal heroism in the traditional meaning while in doubt about the Palestinian project in light of the Oslo 1993 agreement, making heroism an ambiguous category. Similar to the Egyptian case, the lived experiences among Palestinian youth differ fundamentally from the previous generations and their conception of political struggle, heroism, and ideology exemplified through the shifting symbolism of the heroic figure to its political struggle.

One decisive difference changing the experiences and hence imaginary for change across this generation of youth and their parents is that of war and meaning deployed to those wars. In the last century, according to French Philosopher Alain Badiou, the idea of waging war was imagined as the last war, and to bring about peace through war was a common ideal and imaginary for change. He writes, “The fundamental concepts through which the century has come to think itself or its own creative energy have all been subordinated to the semantics of war. (…) the twentieth century’s idea of war is that of the decisive war, the last war.”[16]Accordingly, strong ideologies were meaningfully connected with ideas of heroism, sacrifice, and drastic change in a conception of seizing state power. Today however in absence of the classical war situation in which war meant to wage the last war, revolutionary politics is instead fixated on a political conception of sharing power diminishing the importance of the heroic figure, ideology, and sacrifice for a new world to come.

From Seizing Power to Sharing Power

The essays in this volume raise important questions about the rise of a new political subjectivity among the youth cohorts. This subjectivity is marked by a tension between old political groups that are already formed and their practice and imaginary of transformation and change. In Jordan, for instance, Ryan, Ababneh, and Doughan show the diverse ways in which the Hirak movement in Jordan exemplify a new politics on the rise which can be observed in the diversity of the members involved in protests.

One decisive difference in the political imaginary between the elder generations of the independence movements of the 1950s and youth of today is their conception and practice of revolution. While the elder generations imagined to bring about change through a leading figure and an ideology, particularly that of nationalism, Islamism, and Arabism, revolutionary youth of today do not imagine to bring about change through one leading figure and instead show preference for a cross-ideological mobilization that includes activists and leaders of different ideological orientations. Understanding generations as a ‘social generation’, which is constructed based on their distinct social processes and historical locations,[17] the 1950s constituted a time of wars and independence movements in which revolution meant to change the state from one form to another, that is to change the colonized state to an independent nation state.

Another decisive difference among this generation of youth is the experience of democracy, in which parliamentary democracy is imagined as the best if not only way of peaceful governance, giving preference to electoral democracy as a meaningful way of representing a nation’s citizenry. Sara Ababneh makes the point that in the Hirak movement in Jordan, political reform was foremost understood as “electoral and party law reforms”. Matt Gordner, analyzing youth who joined NGOs in light of the Tunisian revolution, argues, “This ‘passive’ or ‘political’ revolution stands as a testament to the endurance of the past.” In Egypt, the political imaginary for change in light of the uprising was foremost fixated on a conception of sharing power through electoral democracy in which iconic figures such as Wael Ghonim and Mohamed El Baradei did not strive to become leaders in the classical sense of the hero but instead proposed a leadership model based on democratic ideals of a rotation of power.[18] Yet, this democratic ideal of competing in elections immediately after the fall of the dictator did not transform the state and make it more democratic. Instead, old political groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the military to compete over seizing state power sidelining revolutionary youth. The challenge for the political subjects of the Arab revolts is accordingly to find ways of organizing a leaderful movement while contesting electoral democracy to open the way for a new form of democracy putting forward new conditions for sharing power meaningfully.

Lessons from Egypt for Sudan

As opposed to the Egyptian and other uprisings in the region, in the process of struggling against the regime, in Sudan, the individuals that first took to the streets in response to rising food prices in December 2018 was quickly organized through the Sudanese Professional Association[19] (SPA), “a network of banned unions.”[20] It became an anchoring point to rally and organize the masses while crystalizing the demands of each stage. To mobilize a strong revolutionary body, at a later stage, they organized a sit in of ‘the leaders’ in general (I’tesam alqyadah ala’ama) .[21]Embracing the leaderful character of the uprising, the Sudanese example suggests to find new ways of imagining how to organize and unify a diverse mass of people.

Instead of striving for unity in which differences are suppressed because of a particular ideology or a hero figure that can bring about change, they strove for unity in diversity, acknowledging and uniting the many leaders of the revolution. As opposed to the Egyptian uprising in which the democratic leaders, such as Wael Ghonim and Mohamed el-Baradei just thought of their role as proposing changes, strategies, and compete in elections[22], the Sudanese uprising attempted at organizing the leading figures into a larger collective body that resists the military regime and strove for changes collectively and not individually. Though the Sudanese uprising has reached its critical stage after toppling Omar al-Bashir in April 2019 and entering the negotiation stage with the military over the transition phase, after the brutal crackdown of the military on protestors on 3 June 2019, in which those alternative forms of organizing the revolting masses might eventually fail to find expression, the Sudanese example suggests a more inclusive imaginary incorporating the leaderful mobilization.

Yet, with the challenge to contest the dominant military regime, the Sudanese uprising, just as other protest movements in the region, suggests a disruptive generation in transition towards a more inclusive conception of change defying heroism in its classical sense of the leader of the revolution or the movement and one ideology to follow while still in search for different forms of practicing and organizing ideals of sharing power.

The electoral model fell short in contesting the postcolonial regimes in the region and did not succeed in inscribing democratic governance. The people of the Sudanese uprising in 2018 have organized themselves differently in striving to form a meaningful democracy. Instead of elections, and forming political parties, the Sudanese Professional Association formed the focal point to organize collectively the revolting masses. After Omar al-Bashir was ousted in April 2019, they strove to form local assemblies that find democratic representations in the transition phase, particularly in formulating the constitution and being part of the transitional body. Though, since joining the negotiation table with the military, those inclusive possibilities and imaginaries will most likely not find expression in practice, it suggests a different imaginary of sharing power and of democracy that would allow inclusion not through elections in authoritarian contexts and a façade democracy, but instead through forming local assemblies and councils to collectively decide on the transition phase and what is to come next.

In an interview MadaMasr Alaa Abdelfatah proclaims, “I was surprised when the SPA announced the official delegation for negotiation. I thought what a strange idea (laughing). It is something that never crossed our minds to do that at any stage in Egypt.” The leadership question is unfolding in the MENA uprisings as a major organizational challenge while it carries tremendous potential for a new conception of revolutionary politics based on ideas and ideals of sharing power. This generation of revolutionary youth, coming out of age at new times, can thus be best understood as a disruptive generation that is struggling between classical politics and related forms of organization – forming the political party, electoral democracy and so on –  and yet in search for new inclusionary practices in a new horizontal character of revolt. 


[1] Abdalla, Nadine. “Egypt’s Revolutionary Youth. From Street Politics to Party Politics,”, SWP 11 (March 2013) 1-8; della Porta, Donatella. Where Did the Revolution Go? Contentious Politics and the Quality of Democracy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016; Sika, Nadine. Youth Activism and Contentious Politics in Egypt. Cambridge University Press, 2017.

[2] Graeber, David. The Democracy Project: A History, a Crisis, a Movement. Spiegel & Grau, 2013; Nail, Thomas

Zapatismo and the Global Origins of Occupy” Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory. 12.3. (2013):20-37; Bayat,

Asef. Revolution without Revolutionaries. Making Sense of the Arab Spring. California: Stanford University Press,

2017; Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri. Assembly. Oxford University Press, 2017.

[3] Schwedler, Jillian. “Taking Time Seriously: Temporality and the Arab Uprisings” From Mobilization to Counter

Revolution. Project on Middle East Political Science. 2016.

[4] El-Sharnouby, Dina “Conducting Participant Action Research in the Context of Drastic Change:

Understanding Youth’s Political Project in Revolutionary Egypt,” SAGE Research Methods Cases Part 2, SAGE Publications Ltd. (2018)

[5] Koselleck, Reinhart. Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time. New York: Columbia UP, 2004..

[6] El-Sharnouby, Dina, Allison West, and Ibrahim Mahfouz “Elections and the Egyptian Movement of 2011: Thinking with Alain Badiou about the Current Situation.” OpenDemocracy, Accessed 30 May 2019.

[7] Discussion with Hossam El- Hamalawy

[8] Abdalla, Nadine. “Youth Movements in the Egyptian Transformation: Strategies and Repertoires of Political Participation.” Mediterranean Politics 21.1 (2015) 44-63; Abdelrahman, Maha. Egypt’s Long Revolution: Protest Movements and Uprisings. London: Routledge, 2015; Bayat, Asef Revolution without Revolutionaries. Making Sense of the Arab Spring. California: Stanford University Press, 2017.

[9] El-Hamalawy, Hossam. “يسقط يسقط حكم العسكر”,

26 December 2013.

[10] MadaMasr. Alaa Abd El Fattah: I studied failed revolutions. Online video clip. Youtube. 26 May 2019.

[11] El-Hamalawy, Hossam. Photo of Alaa Abdel Fatah, 18 November 2018.

[12] Group discussion in Berlin, 8 January 2018.

[13] Naguib Sawiris is a business Tycoon and one of the richest people in Egypt and according to Forbes, his net worth is estimated at 2.9 billion $ ranking him 2019 the 775 Billionaire in the world.

[14] Personal Interview with Hossam El Hamalawy, Berlin, September 2018.

[15] See for example Sallam, Hesham. “Striking Back at Egyptian Workers.” Jadaliyya, 16 June 2011. and Abdelrahman, Maha M.  Egypt’s Long Revolution: Protest Movements and Uprisings. London: Routledge, 2015.

[16] Badiou, Alain. The Century. Trans. Alberto Toscano. Cambridge: polity Press, 2007, p34.

[17] Mannheim, Karl, ‘The Problem of Generations”, in P. Kecskemeti (ed.) Essays on the Sociology of Knowledge. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul (1952 [1928]): 276-320.

[18] El-Sharnouby, Dina. “In Absence of a Hero Figure and an Ideology: Understanding New Political Imaginaries and

Practices among Revolutionary Youth in Egypt.” Middle East – Topics & Arguments 9 (December 8, 2017): 84–95.

[19] Abbas, Reem. “How an Illegal Sudanese Union Became the Biggest Threat to Omar Al Bashir’s 29

Year Reign.” The National, (28 Jan. 2019)

became-the-biggest-threat-to-omar-al-bashir-s-29-year-reign-1.819159. Accessed 9 May 2019.

[20] Uprising in Sudan: Interview with Sudanese Comrades | Historical Materialism. Accessed 30 May 2019.

[21] “Sudan Protest Leaders to Unveil Interim Civilian Council.” 9 May 2019.

[22] El-Sharnouby, Dina. “In Absence of a Hero Figure and an Ideology: Understanding New Political Imaginaries and

Practices among Revolutionary Youth in Egypt.” Middle East – Topics & Arguments 9 (December 8, 2017): 84–95.