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Youth Activism in 21st-Century North Africa  

Christoph Schwarz

In the 21st century, North African societies have been counting with the largest cohorts of young people worldwide. These demographics, in combination with the highest youth unemployment rates worldwide, have been a cause for concern since the turn of the millenium. But in the respective debates in social research and among policy makers, the political subjectivities of young people themselves were rather overlooked. Instead, the situation of young people was often discussed either as a question of deficit—they were regarded as lethargic and apolitical and in need of help—or security—they were discussed as potential adherents of radical interpretations of Islam, as prone to political violence and as a threat to “stability.” However, in 2010 and 2011, mass protests initiated mostly by young people, starting in Tunisia and soon spreading to Egypt, Morocco, Libya, and, to a lesser extent, Algeria and Sudan, very quickly and effectively mobilized large swaths of the population and thus illustrated young people’s social agency, political relevance, and capacity for inclusive solidarity. To many observers, the events that were soon dubbed the “Arab Spring” came out of the blue and appeared as a sudden “generational awakening.” But the region-wide protests, and in particular the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011, not only mobilized people from all walks of life, they were also the result of at least a decade of persistent experimentation by young and not-so-young activists with different forms of collective action under extremely unfavorable conditions. Youth activism in 21st-century North Africa has been operating and strategizing under the constraints of authoritarianism, surveillance, and violent repression. Young people, particularly young women, have long been excluded from most institutional forms of politics. Against this backdrop, many political activists eschew the terms politics or the political, which they associate with corruption, manipulation, and illegitimate rule. Many other young people who appear at first sight “apolitical” have nevertheless engaged in different meaningful endeavors to improve everyday lives in their communities. Following a critical youth studies and youth cultures perspective, as well as a feminist perspective, young people’s activism can thus be analyzed along a spectrum that ranges from rather innocuous forms of everyday quiet encroachment, to public, but “apolitical” forms of mobilization, to highly committed and exposed social movement activism, as well as digitally networked forms of engagement and explicitly political demands for new forms of citizenship. A decade after the Arab Spring, and despite a “Second Wave of the Arab Spring” in Sudan and Algeria from 2018 to 2020, authoritarian rule has gained the upper hand in the region, even in Tunisia, the country that, for a long time, was considered “transitioning” to a representative democracy. Despite these setbacks, the experience that young people, as part of an organized citizenry, were able to oust long-ruling authoritarian presidents within a matter of a few weeks has arguably had an impact on political culture in the region. In the mid-2020s, their example continues to inspire youth activists in North Africa and elsewhere and will likely continue to pose a challenge to authoritarianism.