Youth Agency and Public Space in Arab Mediterranean Societies

Playing in Dar as Salaam, Cairo (Credits: Jose Sánchez García, 2015)
Playing in Dar as Salaam, Cairo (Credits: Jose Sánchez García, 2015)

Youth Agency and Public Space in Arab Mediterranean Societies

In Social Sciences, youth agency is seen mainly from two different approaches: the first sees youth as a potential danger to social order; the second looks at young people as social agents, potentially involved in processes of social and cultural innovation, as producers and distributors, who can have an important economic impact. The juvenile construction of culture – the ways in which young people participate in the process of cultural creation and circulation – focuses on the influence of the “youth world” on society as a whole and leads to a recognition of youth cultural practices as an expression of the creative, not just imitative, capacity of young people. Nevertheless, youth agency – understood here as the ability of subjects to transform the social reality through their daily practices – in Arab societies is rooted in socio-cultural structures that they interpret temporarily in a complex manner and in which the secular/ religious dichotomy is only one possible orientation among others, including composite practices in constant change that they are global and local at same time (Parthasarathy, 2010). In this sense, youth cultural practices are directly related to innovative uses and appropriations of the public space, with a long history in Arab urban communities.

So, the emergence of socio-spatial dimensions to articulate informal innovative youth practices in urban areas is empirically evidenced in the SAHWA Youth Survey and Ethnographic Fieldwork. In North African youth cultures, the market, the coffee-shop or, simply, the street, are situated as centred spaces for youth agency. In this regard, as a social unit, the neighbourhood has endured in the popular traditional quarters of North African cities, along with many of the rules and regulations that make the neighbourhood operate as an extension of the family. In the 21st century context of rapid social transformation, which brought about new economic, social, and cultural developments for young people to contend with, the old social practices grounded in space are reworked.

Moreover, the hara, houma or hayt are some of the main sources to construct identities for young people. For youngsters as Bilal, Islam or Abderahmane (SAHWA Focused Ethnography nº1, Algeria), group identifications are based first on the place of residence – that is, they are rooted in local modes of social and territorial organisation. Membership in the community is the key mechanism for the creation of networks resulting from the social centrality of institutions like the market, mosque, coffee shops, religious spaces and informal economic associations. These social institutions arise in these social spaces where young people establis alliances and allegiances combining common interests against a system that excludes youngster of popular classes from formal policy. These policies are, mainly, designed for so-called “Global Young Arabs” -a kind of young Arab "entrepreneurs" sponsored from global economic and political levels with active local presence.

These neighbourhoods are veritable cities with a multitude of informal services that make up for the absence of the state (schools, clinics and bus lines). Youth inhabitants, in their strategies of engagement and disengagement, develop practices that challenge state authority. Through community organisation and the establishment of informal networks, the groundwork for autonomy is laid. Youth groups anchor themselves in void spaces already formed or in the process of formation. In these spaces, youth practices have opposite meanings to the hegemonic adult-centrism of Arab societies. The terms of this opposition are spatial, social, cultural, economic, and political. Nevertheless, young practices in public spaces propose a reformulation of the popular city, recovering the social role of the street and wasta as a traditional system of sociability. This cultural tradition (turat) should not be understood as a non-reflexive, primordial culture but, more dynamically, as the ensemble of practices and arguments that secure the social bond and provide cohesiveness to human communities of varying scales. In this sense, tradition is not the opposite of modernity intended as the manifestation of human autonomy and creativity. Thus, it is important to understand these youth “knowledges” not as “subjugated knowledges” in Foucault’s words – a series of knowledges that have been disqualified as non-conceptual knowledges, as insufficiently elaborated knowledges – but as knowledges that allow young people to live according to the context and to know how to manage economics, politics or social relations, and they are equally significant for formal and informal entrepreneurs.

This is a counter-culture – a term established by Herbert Marcuse in 1968, when governmental policies provoked by the Cold War and North American consumerism were challenged as obsolete and needlessly restrictive – that allows young people to create open spaces to express themselves, creating ideal conditions for the emergence of counter-cultures, placed in diverse space/time territories.




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