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From Active Citizenship To Activist Citizenship in Egypt and Beyond

January 22, 2012

Out of the schools and workshops and into the streets--that's the transition from active to activist described by Geographer Lynn Staeheli.

Out of the schools and workshops and into the streets--that's the transition from active to activist described by Geographer Lynn Staeheli.

“What happens off the street is as important as what happens on the street” says Lynn Staeheli, a Geographer at the University of Durham). “They are part of the same process.”

Staeheli asked this question at a conference in Great Britain that challenged academics to find links between the uprisings in North Africa and protest movements happening elsewhere, especially elsewhere in the Mediterranean. Sponsored by the British Academy (aka The National Academy for the Humanities and Social Sciences), it was held in December at the Royal Holiday University of London (RHUL).

In her paper entitled “Youth and citizenship: Struggles on and off the Street,” Staeheli explores the nature of this on and off the street process.

The abstract is as follows:

Young people may well represent the greatest potential and greatest challenges for democratic participation and change. In countries around the world, they are imagined as capable of effecting dramatic social and political change. As a result, a range of institutions and agents expends considerable effort to foster, but also to direct that potential. Citizenship education and civic engagement programmes, for instance, often promote pedagogies of active and responsible citizenship to be enacted in families, communities, and civil society.  Yet recent youth-led protests in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East make clear that youth often take the “lessons” of active citizenship into the streets, challenging and making demands on the state. The result is often an activist, insurgent pedagogy of citizenship, as compared to the active but depoliticised citizenship developed through education and civic engagement programmes.  The paper draws from examples of student activism in Lebanon and the UK to outline a framework for understanding efforts to shape young peoplesí citizenship on and off the street.

The talk begins by taking up the trope that people have a right to protest but that they must stay within the bounds of the law, because that is their responsibility as citizens. This trope is familiar to us everywhere: from Hosni Mubarak to David Cameron to SCAF.

Staeheli looks at “active citizenship” programs in Lebanon (and elsewhere), promoted by schools, religious institutions, civic organizations and NGOs, and other groups that seek to channel the energies of young people into “more positive” practical projects that will solve social problems. Toward this end they are taught a number of skills and given tools to implement these projects.

Readers of Connected in Cairo will immediately recognize Amr Khaled’s calls for an active Islamic citizenship that seeks to make the world better through specific projects that feed the hungry, care for the sick, and so forth.

She contrasts this this with “activist citizenship” which involves citizens going beyond the structures of the state, inventively working around those structures or deliberately breaking laws and flouting regulations, often very creatively, as a way of forcing more rapid social change.

Young people often quickly realize that “active citizenship” programs are often  designed to keep you from engaging in challenges to the state by bringing you into the process in such a way that you can work for change without actually becoming any kind of real threat to the status quo, and they evolve into activist citizens.

Prof. Lynn Staeheli, Geography, Durham

Prof. Lynn Staeheli

BUT, she says, it is often skills learned in these active citizenship programs that they draw on to create more effective challenges to the state through their activism.

The talk is available through

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