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Re-Imagining Youth in the Middle East

May 15, 2011

"Thank you Egyptian youth Facebook" reads this sign. But who are the "youth" being thanked?

The Egyptian “youth” are credited over and over again with having inspired, planned, organized, and sacrificed for the revolution. What kind of youth are the “youth movement” who inspired and worked tirelessly for Egypt’s liberation?

“Youth” is not simply natural stage in human development. It is also a cultural category, a set of discourses that seeks both to define youth and to articulate the behaviors, activities and values that should be associated with it.

Cultural studies maven Dick Hebdige (1998) observed that modern representations of Western youth tended to fall into one of two categories: “youth as trouble” and “youth as fun.” The images of “youth as fun” emerged amidst post-World War II affluence and the development of the category of the “teenager.” Such images depend on the ability of youth to participate as independent agents in consumer culture and on the growth of market niches targeted at youth. Youth who are marginalized from participation in fun consumption tend to be portrayed as a problem.

In Connected in Cairo I write about affluent Egyptian youth with the money to have fun–and why they are having less fun that they might appear to be having.

Ted Swedenburg’ wrote a great article in 2007 articulating the many ways in which Western observers have tried to describe the Middle East as having a youth problem. For influential political scientists Samuel Huntington, they are “a natural source of instability and violence.” And for ex-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld they are “easy to recruit to radicalism.”

The reality on the ground, as Swedenburg reminds us, is usually much more complicated than the sweeping generalizations of such “authorities”. Ethnographic descriptions reveal very different pictures, in which people can have fun, be angry, create art, express frustrations, and work for change.

If nothing else, the uprising in Egypt and elsewhere suggests we need at least one more category to add to Hebdiges: “Youth as liberator”


Hebdige, Dick. 1998. Hiding in the Light. London: Routledge.

Swedenberg, Ted. 2007. Imagined Youths. Middle East Report 245

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