Egyptian Youth-led Civil Society Organizations: Alternative Spaces for Civic Engagement?

in What Politics?

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Introduction and Context

I think any kind of civic engagement is political because you have to think of the long term … it is all fluid and could develop, especially as we are all self-censored and we were brought up to fear politics, and politics is haram [illicit]. I think everything we do is political and is somehow connected to politics. Many of the people from our ngos were there during the 18 days of Tahrir Revolution … the simple idea of being a member is very powerful because you meet like-minded people and this gives hope that you are not alone; even the simple sense of not being alone is powerful, you know at the right time it can become political.

Co-founder of an initiative that supports youth civic engagement in Egypt. Interviewed by authors, 2014.

The statement above captures the complex dimensions of politics and political action in Egypt. Given the authoritarian context of the country, the statement speaks to the fluid boundaries of politics and what could be called ‘indirect’ or ‘unspoken’ political action. This fuzzy demarcation, intentionally created at times, is an important dimension of youth civic engagement that has been overlooked in the growing research on Middle Eastern and North African young people. Yet, understanding their active roles in seemingly non-political civil society organizations (csos) can help explain how and why Egyptian youth took on leadership roles during what has come to be termed the ‘Arab Spring’, at least during the early days of January 2011 that led to the overthrow of President Mohamed Hosni Mubarak and his National Democratic Party. It could also lead to better understanding of the situation after the subsequent June 2013 uprisings that led to the overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood rule, leading to a return of military-backed rule led by President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi. As an emerging power to contend with in the on-going changes in Egypt, young people have confirmed that they are not disengaged from political and civic action as had been assumed by many; and, second, the spaces of their political engagements and activities have remained, with few exceptions (e.g. El Mahdi and Marfleet 2009; Lust-Okar and Zerhouni 2008; Onodera 2009, 2015; Shehata 2008), largely misunderstood and under-researched (Ibrahim and Hunt-Hendrix 2011).

Young people’s embodied experiences of marginalization not only fuelled their revolutionary spirit but also brought them together against the sources of their marginalization despite differences in class, gender, religion, ethnicity and sexual orientation. Since the late 1990s, youth have been involved in and have established some of today’s prominent organizations including Resala, the Youth Association for Population and Development, Alashanek Ya Balady, and Nahdet El Mahrousa. Such work was motivated by a growing sense of dissatisfaction, captured by surveys including the Gallup-Silatech Index which showed that in 2011 fewer than 25 per cent of young Egyptians were satisfied with availability of affordable housing, a sharp decrease from 42 per cent only two years earlier in 2009. The percentage of those satisfied with the government’s efforts to deal with poverty and growing inequalities decreased sharply in the same period from 52 per cent to 30 percent (Kharas and Abdou 2012, 8). Hence, one of the timely questions to explore is precisely the connection between non-political civil society and political activism that provides spaces for youth to challenge and change this unsatisfactory reality.

In this chapter we focus on youth-led civil society organizations (csos) to reveal that when many young Egyptians were shunned by institutional politics under Hosni Mubarak’s authoritarianism, some gradually channelled their energies towards alternative spaces of civic engagement. Considering formal avenues of participation alone provides an incomplete picture. Thus, scholars have drawn our attention to the importance of examining various forms of participation, especially some of the often neglected long-standing informal institutions that represent alternative means for participation, such as informal neighborhood networks (e.g., Albrecht 2008; Alhamad 2008). However, little attention has gone more specifically to looking at youth-led and youth-serving initiatives and organizations. Within that literature, the sparse existing research makes no distinction between youth organizations (those created by adults for youth, with or without youth as partners) and those created and run by youth for/with youth. Although some studies have recognized the linkages between currently active youth-led organizations such as Resala and their role in the January 2011 uprisings (e.g., Ibrahim and Hunt-Hendrix 2011; Sparre 2013), they tend to focus on one or two case studies rendering it difficult to generalize their findings. Other studies have focused on individual political activists who are not necessarily affiliated with youth-led organizations (e.g., Youniss, Barber and Billen 2013).

With this chapter, we seek to make a contribution to the existing literature in several ways. Firstly, we distinguish between youth-led organizations and those organizations that target youth as ‘beneficiaries’ of services while excluding them from all management and the decision-making processes (Delgado and Staples 2008). By youth-led csos we mean both formal organizations and informal initiatives that have been established and led by youth with the goal of enhancing the community’s cultural, social or economic development. We then examine how and why Egyptians below 35 years of age have taken on leadership roles without adult ‘tutelage’ and ‘guardianship’, the motivations driving their investments in seemingly non-political organizations, the perceptions they have about their roles in their communities, and the outcomes they anticipate for their actions.

Our discussion draws on ethnography in Egypt and a total of 16 interviews which we conducted over the course of 2014 with young leaders, founders and active members of some of the currently most visible and active youth-led organizations. The interviews were all conducted in Arabic. Based on our analysis, in this chapter we argue that, even if these young actors are not involved in institutionalized political structures such as parties or trade unions, the larger context within which they operate, the spaces they create, the skills and knowledge they generate, are all shaped and informed by the political culture and realities. Despite the fact that these organizations self-identify as cultural and socioeconomic rather than political associations, they have provided young Egyptians with opportunities, skills, social spaces and networks that seem to undermine the rigid boundaries around, and understandings of, political action. Our findings also suggest that such alternative spaces of participation have contributed to developing the needed awareness, skills and networks that allowed young men and women to contribute politically during the January 2011 uprisings and subsequent events.

Youth Activism and the Egyptian Context

Definitions of youth civic engagement abound in European and American research and policy centres. However, when applied to young people in the Middle East and North Africa, these definitions tend to create a great deal of conceptual confusion. Youth civic engagement is broadly defined as individual and collective action meant to generate common good for the community (O’Donoghe 2003). For some, this is done through efforts to change national and ‘local policies’ (Christens and Kirshner 2011, 36), while for others it is a more ‘bottom-up’ approach that empowers youth with the knowledge and skills to exercise their political, economic and social rights. In all cases, civic engagement is seen to prepare youth for adult roles and responsibilities in maintaining the vibrancy of a healthy democracy through a wide range of activities ranging from volunteerism to the more traditional political acts of voting (Flanagan and Christens 2011).

Our use of youth civic engagement also underscores the centrality of young people’s agency and initiative in producing common good. Thus, our definition encompasses more than political engagement to include providing services (education, health, charity, etc.) to the community. This recognizes the connection that needs to be emphasized between voluntary civic engagement in non-political activities, such as charitable, faith-based or socio-economic development organizations, and engagement in political parties, for instance (Negm, Tantawi, Yehia and El Sharabassy 2012; Skalli 2012, 2013). While this connection – between the political and non-political – has been established in various contexts (Putnam 2000), analyses in the Middle East and North Africa have often failed to do so (Lust-Okar and Zerhouni 2008).

A 2010 survey of Egyptian youth produced by the Population Council (2011), surveying upward of 15,000 young people aged 10 to 29, pointed to the very low membership in political parties or movements and that less than 13 per cent of respondents were registered to vote. In terms of non-political community volunteering, the survey also revealed that less than 3 per cent of the respondents had volunteered in a civil society organization during the preceding year (ibid., 139–140). Thus, the report rightly concluded that “[c]ivic engagement of young people … is very weak in terms of participation in groups or organized activities and in voluntary work”, asserting that the collective identity and activities mainly centre around religion (ibid., 145). Youniss, Barber and Billen (2013) criticize the survey, completed only a few months before the January 2011 uprisings, for overlooking existing alternative forms of young people’s civic engagement. In Egypt, as elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa, while the social and economic activities of young people and other members of civil society have been tolerated by the state, their political activities have always been subject to surveillance, discipline and punishment (Edwards 2009, 40). This applies particularly to young people who have the capacity and resources to establish csos or launch initiatives.

Youth engagement in Egypt has undergone different phases and waves that closely relate to the modern political history of the country. After the country’s independence from British occupation in the early 1950s, successive regimes were mostly suspicious of any political interest or engagement by youth. They also remained generally distrustful even of the largely non-political civil society organizations, which include charitable, faith-based, community service and professional associations and syndicates (Abdel Rahman 2004; Alhamad 2008; Gohar 2008; Kandil 1998). After a brief liberal era between 1923 and 1952 which witnessed a sharp increase in the number of voluntary associations (Kandil 1998), since Nasser’s time in the 1950s, universities have been controlled and students’ political activities restricted unless favouring the ruling party (Shehata 2008). However, despite the continued state surveillance of youth activities on and off campus, generations of students continued to seize opportunities for political mobilization, including in Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Sadat’s era, Islamist groups became bolder, both on university campuses and, for instance, by being allowed to set up religious private schools (Starret 1998). Today, faith-based community service organizations remain among the longest standing and the largest in Egypt, serving millions of Egyptians (Atia 2013; Gohar 2008). However, young political activists did manage to engage in more secular spaces and causes at every possible opportunity. For instance, in the first few years of the 2000s, Egyptian youth mobilized around regional events such as the Palestinian Intifada and the invasion of Iraq. These mobilizations already signalled new forms of political participation characterized by different values, such as inclusiveness and more fluidity among ideologies (Shehata 2008). Simultaneously, Egyptian youth also started to carve out a parallel space within civil society. For youth interested in politics, in the absence of safe spaces for political participation, they sought refuge in civil society spaces, choosing less confrontational activities, some of which were in line with their strengthened religious identities (Population Council 2011). Other analysts observed an increase in the practice of entrepreneurship, which arguably indicates that youth have also been seeking to channel their networks and resources towards establishing social and business enterprises (Kharas and Abdou 2012).

Although it is difficult to provide an estimate of the number of Egyptian youth-led initiatives, and although it might be in contradiction to the Population Council (2011) survey, anecdotal information and interviews suggest an increase in young people’s volunteering in various forms of civil society since the late 1990s. For instance, given the growing number of youth-led csos being established, in 2006 the Federation of Egyptian Youth ngos was created including 10 of the active non-political and relatively secular non-governmental organizations (ngos) focused on charity and socio-economic development (personal interview). This increase, noticed in early 2000 (Ibrahim and Hunt-Hendrix 2011, 10), seems to have spiked after January 2011, especially among informal initiatives that are not legally registered as ngos.

Some argue that non-political civic engagement has helped prepare youth for active participation in the early days of the January 2011 uprisings (Ibrahim and Hunt-Hendrix 2011). Sparre posits that youth groups such as Resala, which was established in the late 1990s and currently involves thousands of young people in a myriad of charity and development activities, helped maintain momentum during the first few weeks of the uprisings. She contends that, along with the Kifaya (Enough!) movement – a prodemocracy coalition established in the early 2000s to call for democratic changes – and the 6th of April political movement – a youth-led movement built around supporting labor strikes in 2008, organizations such as Resala clearly contributed to “paving the way for the success of the protesters in overthrowing Mubarak” through volunteering during the demonstrations (2013, 178).

The Study

Given the increasing number and visibility of youth-led organizations and initiatives in Egypt, our interviews with 16 young Egyptian men and women seek to determine the motivations of establishing and taking on leadership roles in csos. We examine the promises and challenges their efforts meet within the larger socio-economic and political realities of the country in post-2011 Egypt. The interviews were conducted via Skype since both researchers were in North America during the time of the interviews. Nearly half of our interviewees are women, who, along with male interviewees, are middle class Egyptians aged 21 to 40 hailing from relatively privileged backgrounds and largely based in Cairo or Alexandria. Except for three of the interviewees who were engaged in these csos on a fulltime basis for a salary, the rest had other fulltime jobs in either the corporate, academic or non-profit sectors. It is worth noting that over the past few years, the co-authors of this chapter have also been engaged in the youth-led civil society spaces of the Middle East and North Africa region, both as researchers and activists. Our approach to this study is largely informed by our joint interests in exploring youth civic engagement through the perspectives of educational and cultural studies.

All the youth initiatives examined are local, home-grown and membership-based csos. Nine are legally established as ngos and four are established as companies, while the rest are in the process of forming a legal entity. With the exception of four initiatives, all were established in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Many of those registered as companies do so to avoid the restrictive ngolaw under which organizations set up as ngos must operate. The wide range of activities they represent includes non-formal learning (e.g., an online platform for alternative education), community development (e.g., a solid waste management company and a micro-finance ngo targeting female-headed households), and peace education (e.g., an informal network of organizations that promotes peace and nonviolent conflict resolution). Their activities also cover civic engagement (e.g., an initiative training young people on sustainable development methods and a company promoting self-expression and social change through art), and intermediary support organizations that offer financial and technical support to youth-led csos (e.g., a match-making platform between csos’ needs and community resources). None of them explicitly declares human rights or political activities among their objectives. Given the on-going political volatility in Egypt, we have respected the respondents’ wishes for confidentiality.

To address our research questions, interview data were analyzed through an open coding scheme (Butler-Kisber 2010), and a grounded theory approach (Glaser and Strauss 1967) through which key themes were identified. We organize our analysis of the interviews into three broad thematic clusters that emerged from analysing the respondents’ narratives: the first focuses on youth csos as alternative spaces of engagement, highlighting their inevitable engagement with on-going political, social and economic processes in the country. The second focuses on the larger goals and ambitions of the csos despite the challenges they face. The last theme emphasizes the promise of the csos in engaging various sectors of society in community development and problem solving.

Analysis and Discussion: Negotiating and Redefining the Youth-led Civil Society Space

Alternative Spaces of Engagement

The interviewees seem to have grown up in cultures of fear of everything and anything political. In this sense, they are not different from the majority of Egyptian youth. General awareness of political repression and personal experiences of the state’s violence created an environment of fear where families encouraged their children to abandon all forms of civic engagement, regardless of the virtues this could have. Hence, many experienced resistance from their families and their friends. Others were misunderstood and ‘mocked’ for wasting their time. As one respondent put it: “Friends and family don’t really understand what I do … so I have to water it down and simplify it when I explain what I do. However, within the community of change agents, there is much respect for what I do.” What this respondent has difficulty explaining is his promotion of critical thinking and problem solving through the online collaborative learning platform he helped launch. Since the January 2011 uprisings, however, most have noticed an emerging ‘counterculture’ of support and appreciation of their work. According to a respondent, friends in the corporate sector “envy” him for pursuing his passion and leaving the sector in order to do so.

Neither family nor school has contributed adequately to equipping them with the skills needed to establish or be actively engaged in activities and organizations that aim to bring about positive social change. Although there were only a few extra-curricular student activities available to them, some were active on their university campuses (student union, international summer camps, etc.), while others sought opportunities beyond campus. Only one respondent was involved in a purely religious activity off campus while the rest were involved in secular activities. A few benefited from their exposure to models of civic engagement through travels or study abroad programs. One respondent became active after the events of September 11th 2001 when he was studying in Canada, where he felt the need to organize the community to counter the negative image of Arabs and Muslims. For him, the need to act, as a threatened and misunderstood minority, was the beginning of his civic engagement, which has expanded since his return to Egypt in 2004; there he started by getting involved in civic engagement preparation programs, then established his own community development foundation to serve one of Cairo’s poorest neighbourhoods.

Nearly all respondents critiqued Egypt’s formal education, whether basic or higher levels, for failing to impart knowledge about or the skills to undertake civic engagement, or means and opportunities whereby they could assume effective roles in the wider processes of social change. Most of them ended up selecting careers that were unrelated to their degrees. Stemming from that disillusionment with formal education, at least two of the respondents launched organizations to provide alternative educational and learning visions based on creative thinking and experiential learning. As one put it, “We want to encourage critical thinking and political thinking. Critical thinking is my first weapon to use as a citizen.”

Interestingly, this overall climate of fear and discouragement of anything political has shaped the nature of young people’s engagement. While discouraging any form of political engagement and activism, Ibrahim and Hunt-Hendrix find that it was easier for youth “to gain approval for social service from their families” (2011, 21). Indeed, the political realities in Egypt have dictated young people’s politics of survival and accommodation, which often translated into their search for alternative channels to direct their ambitions for change. Some respondents described their engagement with and response to the community’s needs and priorities, specifically in the areas of education and health services. Other respondents talked about their initial involvement in charity or relief work, before deciding to focus on longer-term sustainable development efforts. Conversely, others have had to add charity and relief activities when their sustainable development activities could not cater to more immediate needs in the community, such as food and shelter.

Some of the respondents used the term ‘parallel society’ to refer to a counterculture they believed they were contributing to establishing collectively. To elaborate, in reflecting on what they had set out to do, the respondents talked about their ambition to create an alternative space where they can embody their ideal values and vision for the country, based on models of transparency and the full participation of youth and other traditionally marginalized groups. Although the vision was not always clearly articulated, and the creation of a ‘parallel society’ was not always self-conscious in the early stages of their initiatives, their desire to trigger change was always a driving force. Some respondents spoke about an emerging youth-led global consciousness that believes in a fairer and more equitable society manifesting itself in new initiatives, new art and other forms challenging the status quo. Acting on these ideals under a repressive regime has urged respondents to adopt a politics of survival and accommodation which has dictated their strategies regarding the legal status of their initiatives, their choice of service sector and self-censorship, as we further discuss below.

Legal Status

The legal framework governing civil society activities (especially Law 84/2002) gives the government full control to intervene in activities, to even close down and liquidate assets of any association it might deem inappropriate, without being required to provide detailed explanations (Gohar 2008). It also allows the government to approve or reject requests to access foreign funding (Law 84/2002 Article 58), which is a process often characterized by long delays affecting these ngos’ ability to plan or sustain their activities. To avoid some of these difficulties, some of the respondents opted to either establish their initiatives as companies or maintain loosely organized, unregistered networks. While ‘non-political’ youth-led ngos have traditionally faced less harassment than human rights and advocacy groups, post-Arab Spring regimes have become increasingly suspicious and vigilant about the activities of young people.

Since the presidency of El-Sisi commenced in June 2014, the state has reinstalled full control over universities (Abd Rabbuh 2014; El Khawaga 2014; Sayed Ahmed 2014) and ushered in a new era of crackdown on civil society. In mid-2014, the ministry of social solidarity – overseeing all ngo and foundation work in Egypt – issued an ultimatum to all groups involved in activities that could possibly be considered similar to ngo activities, to register as ngos within few months. Otherwise, they would face legal investigation (Hellyer 2014; Khater 2014). This new requirement suggests that the regime, like its predecessors, is aware of youth initiatives and the potential role of non-political csos in preparing young people for political engagement and mobilization. A new ngo law, under discussion by successive Egyptian parliaments since 2012, introduces a few improvements on its predecessor; however, it generally maintains the same restrictions that csos face regarding crucial issues such as the need for a government approval for registration and scope of activities, and their access to funding (The International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (icnl), 2016).

Service Sector

The highly volatile post-2011 period has encouraged most respondents to consciously invest in sectors and activities that do not directly address political processes or issues. Whether their initiatives were created before or after 2011, many invested in initiatives or companies focusing on business entrepreneurship, education, training and job creation, or cultural understanding and tolerance. Even if some of these activities might seem similar to the non-political activities they carried out in the pre-2011 years, respondents made sure to point out that youth leading these efforts are now approaching them with a sharpened understanding of their role in encouraging wider awareness and civic engagement in order to contribute to the ultimate desired change. Other forms that were cited included recently established runners’ or cycling clubs in large Egyptian cities. Respondents saw these as indirectly challenging the status quo through promoting a sense ownership of public spaces and streets.


During the interviews most respondents were cautious of presenting their views about the political situation and possible implications of their political judgments. We are cognizant that conducting interviews over Skype might have omitted critical insights that respondents would have otherwise expressed in person. Self-censorship is a dominant adaptation and survival strategy used by many, including youth groups, vis-à-vis the authorities and other partners who might not share their vision. For instance, one of the respondents, who leads the largest platform for non-formal learning in Egypt, elaborated on how he had to refine his language based on discussions with some older, higher-education academics who strongly criticized his proposed non-formal learning approaches, seeing them as clear threats to the order of the academic establishment.

Significantly, key concepts were visibly missing in the respondents’ narratives. Although ‘social justice’ lies at the core of youth-led community organizing, their purposes and self-definition (Delgado and Staples 2008, 26), it was absent from most of the interviews. This omission could point to conscious self-censorship whereby these leaders are deliberately distancing themselves from views that sound seemingly radical or revolutionary. The term ‘social justice’ has become heavily loaded given its use as a unifying slogan chanted by peaceful demonstrators during the 2011 uprisings. Alternatively, the omission could suggest that social justice is not at the core of their agendas or consciousness. While human rights and advocacy groups have largely framed their efforts within these concepts and definitions, these youth-led nonpolitical csos have clearly avoided that. Finally, since most respondents come from relatively privileged backgrounds, as mentioned above, social justice might be an important, though not the primary, motivation of their work.

Because the space within which youth operate is political and politicized, youth-led csos interact with and adapt to the regime in ways that allow them to survive and potentially thrive. The politics of survival leads them to give a different legal status to their initiatives or invest in ‘strictly’ social, economic or cultural issues. Being non-political may be a self-conscious choice that engages with the political realities of the country. In the increasingly ideologically polarized Egyptian society, it has been helpful for some youth to maintain that ‘ideological neutrality’ to be able to better navigate differences and garner needed support and possible human and financial resources for their causes.

Such neutrality was characteristic of the political movements of the 2000s, which Shehata argues were “predominantly non-ideological in nature” with an overriding commitment to “human rights, pluralism, democracy, and social justice” (2008, 6). Just as important, a respondent reminded us, is that we need to acknowledge and use “politics in the broad meaning of the term”. He further explains that rather than advocating any one ideology, his cso seeks to “give youth all options and seek to empower them in general to be effective citizens”. Despite the obvious political implications of their work, like several others we interviewed, this respondent refrained from openly declaring their cso’s work political.

Politics of survival aside, most respondents talked about responding to concrete, identified needs in the community as the major motivator for action. Many, for instance, identified the poor quality of services (education, sanitation, housing, etc.) in working class neighbourhoods or informal settlements. Many respondents turned their attention specifically to the basic unmet needs of children in marginalized communities. Thus, despite fear of the vigilant state and misunderstanding and discouragement from their friends, family and surroundings, virtually all spoke about how they had mobilized their social capital, resources and knowhow to launch their initiatives. However, an important question remains as to the effectiveness and impact of these initiatives that target underprivileged neighbourhoods when they are established by relatively privileged outsiders who might not necessarily understand the real needs, priorities, social dynamics and networks governing these areas.

Defragmenting Spaces, Creating Networks

The strict laws regulating csos in Egypt have not weakened the motivation of youth-led csos to bring about positive social change. The restrictions have, nevertheless, imposed a situation where youth initiatives operate in a fragmented and uncoordinated fashion. In this context, suspicion and mistrust of those aiming to effect social change emerges as a common element. One respondent speaks directly to this: “There is some suspicion – when I travel abroad for example – questions from neighbours about travel and why? … Silly loaded jokes about foreign funds, clearly inspired by conspiracy theories … But there are mechanisms to overcome these fears and misconceptions and also not to allow them to de-motivate you.” Foreign funding has been continually equated with foreign power intervention and meddling in internal Egyptian affairs; this narrative has often been deployed by the Egyptian government as a pretext to crackdown on activists and civil society groups (e.g., Gohar 2008; icnl 2016; Onodera 2015). Recent escalations have instigated travel bans, frozen personal assets, and filed lawsuits against the most prominent Egyptian human rights activists (icnl 2016).

Virtually all respondents identified the fragmentation of civil society activities as a major challenge to be overcome in the long-term. Indeed, interviews are rife with reference to the need to build ‘networks’ and invest in ‘coordination’ and ‘collaboration’. While some hold the regime responsible for this fragmentation, other respondents blame the whole ‘development industry’, its rigidity and its being donor-driven as opposed to responding to the communities’ needs and priorities. As one respondent put it, “The overuse of the development narrative has pushed us to work in silos or moulds. I can’t and do not want to classify [our organization] in rigid terms of development or education.” Vying over limited local and foreign funding sources, which is further exacerbated by state-imposed restrictions on access to funding, has allowed a competition paradigm to dominate as opposed to one that is based on coordination and collaboration (Abdou et al. 2011; Abdou and El-Ebrashi 2015).

In recognizing the need to defragment currently divided civil society spaces, respondents were critical of csos in general and of their own work. However, it was not clear if any of them, especially those established before 2011, critically revisited any of their own strategies or approaches after 2011. Several of the respondents spoke about the need for civil society at large to make better connections between what they see as real ‘grassroots’ work and policymaking. Others mentioned the importance of developing think tanks to guide policy decisions. This line of thought reflects a growing conviction that civil society actors need to play a more deliberative role beyond the traditional charity work or socio-economic development with which they are involved. Indeed, respondents articulated a strong need for greater advocacy and policy reform organizations. Some regarded their own interventions as short-term remedies to address specific socio-economic needs, while retaining the long-term goal of building sustainable and ‘strong, functional formal organizations’ that could help tackle more deeply rooted structural issues.

Between Autonomy and Institutionalization

Although youth csos constitute a relatively new sector, several respondents realize that their impact is contingent on their success in balancing between autonomy and institutionalization (i.e., establishing formal organizations), as well as balancing the ideals of doing good for the community and the pragmatism of entering into partnership with the public and/or private sector. This entails maintaining the right distance from power centres or transitioning to formal politics. Some experience these balancing acts as inhibiting challenges, while others consider them unavoidable dilemmas with potential rewards.

Fear of institutionalization was a serious concern for many respondents. Most of them did not seriously consider setting up a legal entity except: (1) to avoid being labelled a threat to the regime or an underground group with serious and negative repercussions; and/or, (2) to access certain funding that requires such a legal set-up. One of the respondents decided to dissolve his initiative a few years after he had legally registered it as a company. His initiative sought to use various artistic mediums and tools to encourage people to voice their opinions and express themselves, especially in public spaces. For him, institutionalization had killed the ‘initial spirit’ that launched his loose network. Belonging to and developing formal organizations is apparently done to appease the authorities or abide by the rules, but in none of the cases was it seen as a goal or an aim. These leaders seemed to be both aware of these burdens and fearful of ‘becoming too much like the system’ once they conform to the dictates of the regime, as some respondents stated. This is understandable given the amount of reporting and paper work needed to register which then had to be provided on a regular basis to the relevant governmental entities (Kharas and Abdou 2012); several of the respondents found this overwhelming and restrictive.

Nonetheless, some interviewees saw collaborating and partnering with the private and/or public sector as an opportunity to scale up their initiatives to have a wider reach and greater impact. As one respondent put it, there are ‘open and progressive individuals who believe in change and are trying to help and support csos, but you need to find the right people within the government agencies and relevant ministries’. For another, rigidity inhibits all potential collaboration as was explained:

The initial idea was to have a strategic partnership with [the] Ministry of Education. However, due to [the] volatility of agreements with the Ministry, we sensed a lack of seriousness or ability to commit. For instance, in a draft agreement that we were discussing, the Ministry unilaterally added a clause stating that [our organization] will have to abide by traditional educational tools and methods. This, for us, would defeat the purpose of the agreement, which was to help the Ministry adopt innovative approaches.

Autonomy of csos is perceived as key to entering and exiting political action. One of the key themes that emerged, and that was deliberately probed in the interviews, relates to getting involved politically after January 2011 through joining or helping found political parties. Most of the respondents maintained their non-political civil society involvement, but most of those spoke about politics having been their priority for that short period in the recent history of the country. However, due to the disillusionment they experienced with formal political processes, including the lack of vision, elitism and short-sightedness of some of these political movements, they decided to return and channel their energies back to civil society. However, as was obvious from the interviews, their return to civil society after January 2011 came with at least two new realizations that were clear across the board. First, they returned with a stronger conviction and belief in the significant role civil society has to play in terms of development and awareness-building among people as a prerequisite for any sustainable political change. Second, they returned from the brief political engagement with a better grasp of the bigger picture and hence a clearer understanding of their role as civil society leaders.

By late 2014, most respondents spoke of a strengthened sense of confidence, purpose and collective identity since their shared lived experience of the uprisings. Although post revolution regimes restricted freedom of expression and issued tough laws restricting freedom of association, the respondents seemed optimistic about the long-term future. The uprisings have helped them encounter other individuals and groups with a similar vision and commitment for change.

The connection between young people’s involvement in non-political csos and their role in political mobilization seems to have become more clearly established in their consciousness after the January 2011 uprisings. As one respondent put it: “Because this is a space where we get together and engage with problems, it is as much politics as you can get.” Yet, many respondents were quick to comment that recent political movements reveal a serious lack of vision, civic skills and capacity among some youth-led csos. Predictably, the criticism made by these leaders about their disillusionment with politics points to the fact that the skills developed by some of their initiatives could be lacking in political orientation and not playing a role in familiarizing young people with the realities of politics.


Over the years since 2011, young Egyptians – once again alienated by the political establishment – have continued to carve out their own spaces within the country’s civil society. With mounting restrictions imposed on Egyptian civil society at large and the regime’s specific vigilance towards young people who have demonstrated their potential in mobilizing mass protests and opposition, it is to be expected that Egyptian youth will have to continue to seek alternative spaces through which to channel their energies and resources towards their ultimate vision for social change. The study also shows that early involvement in civic activities, as already established by scholarship on youth civic engagement (Flanagan and Christens 2011; Youniss, McLellan and Yates 1997), has been instrumental in building the skills, knowledge and confidence of our respondents. No matter how hard an authoritarian regime seeks to depoliticize youth and civil society spaces, civic engagement has the potential to keep politics front and centre. Youniss et al. (2002) rightly argue that there is a continuum between formal political acts and other forms of community service. Our data points to this continuum in the way the founders of these initiatives, who are directly interested in politics, enter and exit political spaces and activities. Virtually all our participants engaged in civil society with no prospects of engaging in ‘formal’ politics. Yet many had taken part in political action during the revolutionary moment, only to retreat back to csos in response to post-revolution disillusionment with politics and political activism.

It is also important not to over-romanticize youth csos as entities fighting for justice and equality. Our respondents did not launch their initiatives with social justice as their primary motivation, nor can they claim to have created spaces free from power struggles and class distinction. In her critical study, Abdel Rahman argues that overall, Egyptian civil society, unknowingly in most cases, reinforces “unequal relations and an unjust status quo” (2004, 1). Alhamad (2008, 39) has also critiqued many formal ngos across the Middle East for the “elite nature” embodied in some of the issues they choose focus on, which might be important but which are controversial, such as women and human rights, thus limiting their ability to mobilize larger segments of society. Our analysis of youth-led csos in Egypt confirms that Bourdieu’s (1973) ‘cultural reproduction’ is at work. Given the relatively privileged middle-class upbringing of the founders of the majority of the large initiatives and their access to elitist education and social capital, they unintentionally participate in the reproduction of societal power structures. For instance, as mentioned above, it remains to be seen how sustainable some of their efforts to serve less privileged neighbourhoods are, given that those efforts were not necessarily implemented in full collaboration with youths from these communities. Abdel Rahman problematizes that situation, finding that most of these csos attempted to “alleviate poverty” as opposed to challenging “structural inequalities” (2004, 197). She also finds that, in terms of class structures, these organizations “inject the values of their class and the bureaucracy of their professional life into the ngos” (2004, 198).

Even if these csos deliberately reached out to marginalized and disadvantaged young people to encourage their active participation, these marginalized youths’ lack of resources (including time and money) put them at a disadvantage since they are not familiar with the culture of the dominant class and are not savvy in using its instruments. They lacked what Bourdieu calls “the system of predispositions that is the condition for the success of the transmission and of the inculcation of the culture” (1973, 80). Their exclusion is happening both overtly and subtly, in many cases perpetrated by these csos themselves, which are still using a language and tools that unintentionally alienate and exclude marginalized groups. Institutionally, the Egyptian ngo law is discriminatory in its requirement that founders of prospective ngos must own or rent premises for their headquarters, and submit proof of that, even to be considered for official registration (Law 84 2002; personal interviews).

However, we also found a critical self-awareness emerging in some of the interviews. Actors from these csos see their work as having an enormous potential to contribute to the empowerment of a new generation of young social and economic actors. Some speak about the empowerment that comes with being part of ‘something bigger’ and having ‘ownership’, while others stress the power of networks, coordinated efforts and coalition building. These ambitions explain the optimism expressed by virtually all respondents despite the possible reinvention of a new authoritarianism in Egypt. This is captured by the following respondent who sees great promise in building capacity and creating awareness “since the notion that each of us has a role and that I, as an individual, have something to contribute, means we have more and more people seeing themselves as part of civil society”. Perhaps the most significant expression of this optimism is the continued investment of many of these leaders and their persistence in generating common good despite the mounting uncertainties and continued crackdown on freedom of expression and association that define post-2011 political developments in Egypt. Such commitment is not only fed by these leaders’ ideals and beliefs in their initiatives’ and organizations’ missions, but also seems to be further fuelled by their ability to overcome the barriers of fear during their involvement in the 2011 uprisings that ousted Mubarak, and the events subsequent to that.


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What Politics?

Youth and Political Engagement in Africa


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