Being a young activist in the late Mubarak era : An ethnography of political engagement in Egypt

by Henri Onodera

Institution: University of Helsinki
Department: Department of Economic and Political Studies
Year: 2015
Keywords: kehitysmaatutkimus
Record ID: 1139269
Full text PDF: http://hdl.handle.net/10138/154815


This is an ethnographic study of the lived experiences of young activists during the last years of Mubarak s presidency in Egypt. Its general aim is to provide an understanding of what it was like to be involved in opposition politics during a period when the eventual end of Mubarak s rule in 2011 was little more than a collective aspiration. Drawing on different strands of qualitative social science, including anthropology, sociology and youth research, the study is based on 12 months of fieldwork in Cairo, conducted between 2007 and 2011. It makes use of political engagement as an open analytic that enables the examination of different activities that were oriented towards, but not exclusive to, public political processes and formal avenues to political participation. In this vein, the study explores the activities that the young activists regarded as meaningful in terms of challenging the status quo, and how being young in itself shaped their ways of participating in public political life. While it focuses on the experiences of young Cairenes who were predominantly male and aged in their 20s, it is acknowledged that important differences existed among them that conditioned their efforts to acquire new visibilities and political roles, including social differences such as class, gender and global connectedness. In order to explore the diversity of their political experiences, the study discusses four principal areas of analysis and related topics: namely, generational consciousness, tactical practice, friendship relations and ethical reflections. It is demonstrated that, firstly, the new forms of youth activism in the 2000s promoted a critical generational consciousness as a disenfranchised social location in the intergenerational order, while also providing reinvigorated meanings to youth as a subversive political category, and in some ways a privileged experiential realm, ready to conduct public political dissent on its own terms. The new youth movements, such as Youth for Change and April 6 Youth that emerged on the fringes of larger processes of contentious politics, assumed new roles in public political life and merged, at least temporarily, young Egyptians from different backgrounds and affiliations into collective actions: forging alliances, largely beyond the formal political institutions. Secondly, the young activists resorted to a number of tactical practices in order to reach out to wider publics via both offline and online avenues. Their operating preferences lay in organizing unlicensed street protests in the popular, lower-class residential areas and tapping into the subversive potential of the new information and communication technologies, including blogs and social media. Although these forms of public dissent expanded their otherwise narrow political opportunities, their adoption was not, however, equally available to everyone. Some either had the necessary social networks in place, including family support, or the available time and the economic means to do so, while those, who were less…