Politicising participatory culture at the margins: the signicance of
class, gender and online media for the practices of youth networks in
the MENA region
LSE Research Online URL for this paper:
Politicising participatory culture at the margins: The significance of class, gender and
online media for the practices of youth networks in the MENA region
Short title: Class, gender and new media in MENA youth networks
Shakuntala Banaji, LSE
Cristina Moreno-Almeida, KCL
Our paper focuses on case-studies of artistic, creative and political participation by young
feminists and civil society groups in Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia and UAE. Central questions
uncover the intersecting significance of class, gender and new media in young MENA citizens’
participation; the connections between mediated cultural production and political intervention;
and the role of structural barriers for online community and agency. Analysis of our original data
reveals that the internet and digital apps provide differential opportunities for agency to young
teachers, football ultras, feminists, gamers, performance collectives and metal music networks
depending particularly on gender and social class. Our findings highlight: the significance of
offline spaces for youth participation in cultural and democratic action in the MENA region; the
increased possibilities afforded by new media to specific demographics; the ways that they change
existing networks of participation rather than bringing networks into being; and that some young
activists have learnt to use social media sparingly, and with caution. Our conclusions challenge
the notion that the democratic ethos of civic participation networks has burgeoned since
digitisation; and highlight that digital tools and online spaces work more effectively for youth
with existing offline economic power and/or cultural capital.
Keywords: Online media, creative production, feminism, marginal identities, MENA region,
politicised youth culture, offline networks
Emerging patterns of digital media networking, consumption, and collaboration with a particular
focus on political and civic identities amongst young people in Europe and North America have
been examined (Banaji and Buckingham, 2013; Bennett and Segerberg, 2012; Dahlgren, 2007;
Jenkins et al., 2018). In these works, the notion of civic participation is broadly defined – and
problematised – as democratic collective action that encompasses overtly political pursuits but
goes well beyond these to a range of creative and compassionate endeavours. While civic
participation thus-defined is widely regarded as contributing to a wider public good, increased
cohesion and tolerance in communities, and to a sense of collective well-being amongst citizens,
some studies caution that it is possible for those with narrow and exclusive views of community,
and with a sense of their own religious, cultural or political community’s entitlement above all
others, to partake in action that is defined as civic, and guarantees access to wider civic networks,
while actually undermining tolerance and general well-being (Banaji, 2008).
Building on these complex arguments, it would seem that we can, alongside the older mass
media, classify personalised media as media that is formatted for and accessed in isolation or in
groups via internet-connected digital devices and that, rather than catering to an entire
population appear to be amenable, for instance, to age-based, taste-based, culture-based,
community-based or politics-based differentiation. Such differentiation is made possible via tools
and platforms that apparently allow individuals to choose to connect with each other directly
with minimal reference to the state or commercial agents, to interact with or even modify
content, and to develop or refine ‘menus’ of consumption, and networks of interaction at will.
We use the words ‘apparently allow’ advisedly, as we will demonstrate. It is our contention,
based on the views and experiences of our interviewees as well as on existing literature (Moreno-
Almeida & Banaji, 2018), that the appearance of no intermediaries in the individuation of digital
content such as person-to-person messaging on WhatsApp and Facebook or podcasts and
amateur videos accessed on dispersed mobile devices is more illusory than real. Notwithstanding
such concerns, personalised media (Couldry, 2010; Lüders, 2008; Thorsen & Sreedharan, 2019)
have been said to redefine the relationships between individuals, audiences and media
organisations, and between citizens and the state by acting as a virtual public sphere in which
people can be creative, and form participatory networks to meet the challenges of civic and
political life at local, regional, national or international levels, in ways that they cannot offline.
According to Ibahrine (2008) and Sabbagh et al. (2014), for instance, young people in the
MENA region are active in the co-creation of their own entertainment, suturing cultures of
production to those of consumption as outlined by Jenkins (2006). Findings from the
Entertainment Media Use in the Middle East (2014) study were already suggesting that 58 percent of
internet users accessed YouTube, Hulu or Istikana. According to this digital-optimist narrative,
young people have moved from the mechanical ‘habits’ of passive content consumption to the
new generative ‘habitus’ (Bourdieu, 1980) of personalised media and participatory culture.
Discussing a cultural habitat that becomes internalised and forms a particular disposition for
viewing and acting in the world, Pierre Bourdieu’s scholarship encourages us to approach the
concept of digital participatory culture from a historical and psychological direction, examining
the ways in which people’s everyday milieus produce meanings which become the pattern for
other aspects of their lives. Bourdieu’s conceptual stance orients readers towards the social
distinction conveyed by particular practices of cultural consumption and creative participation,
pushing us to pay attention to social class and gender as axes of access, inequality and creative
participatory endeavour. In this context, this paper examines what new media participation
actually consists of, and the type and extent of new and older practices and cultures in four
historically contrasting countries of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Jordan,
Morocco, Tunisia and UAE.
Just as in Europe and America, the governance, economic circumstances and sociocultural
practices of countries in the MENA region, though alike in some aspects, offer sharp contrasts.
Yemen, Libya and Egypt, for instance, are characterised by dramatic agitations and transitions
and deepening economic crisis. Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and UAE are stable but autocratic, with
notable economic growth and tight control of media and civil society. Assad’s aggressions
against Syrians, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, as well as the 2003 occupation of
Iraq, and the consequences of military aggression by the US-UK led coalition in Iraq and Libya,
have further devastated security in the region (Fawcett, 2013). In the media sphere, while
television is still the most popular medium (Inside the hearts and minds of Arab youth: Arab
youth survey, 2016: 41), Morocco, Tunisia and UAE have initiated widespread digital media
adoption amongst their middle classes.
Increasing personalised media adoption can translate into an assumption of horizontal and
democratic dialogue (Ibahrine, 2014). This may be accompanied by the notion that previously
off-limits physical borders and political boundaries are being breached (Hussain and Howard,
2013) or that through a ‘digital elite’ who are more politically active, anti-authoritarian protest
movements are consolidated (Breur, 2016). However, in light of long-standing critiques of new
media and social networks as vehicles of ignorance and compliance (Carr, 2008; Mejias, 2010)
and of counter-hegemonic media as potentially reinforcing hegemonic power (Saber & Weber,
2017), it is important to establish precisely what claims about democratic participation, and new
and emerging media in the MENA (or the technosocial spaces enabled by these) can be
Here, in order to present the complexity of young MENA citizens’ cultures of participation, we
discuss how the internet and the technosocial spaces it affords are being used by groups of
young people from different classes to intervene either via creative production and consumption
or via more traditional political means in struggles over gender, politics or sexual identities in
localities or across borders and transforming offline practices in the region. We draw on roughly
half of our sixteen original in-depth case studies of groups or initiatives involving young civic,
political and artistic content creators. These case studies were generated through a combination
of systematic online searches and textual analysis in English, French and Arabic, offline
observation, interviewing and focus groups. Analysing data generated through discussions with
geographically proximate and non-proximate, interest-based clusters of young people aged 17 to
35, we find that levels of participation and agency enabled by new media vary hugely depending
on age, class and gender as well as availability, censorship, surveillance, and the strength of ties
Our contrasting countries Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia and UAE were chosen for their different
colonial histories, their contrasting governance structures, socioeconomic patterns and the levels
of internet penetration. All have a proportionally large urban middle class, a high number of
university graduates and relatively significant levels of technology access, indicated here by
internet users: Jordan 53.4 %, Morocco 57.1 %, Tunisia 48.5 % and UAE 91.2 %1. All currently
enjoy relative political and economic stability, although there is evidence of mass unemployment
of university graduates and of social injustices towards women, LGBTQ, migrant workers,
refugees, and indigenous groups. Jordan and Morocco are traditional monarchies with some
contemporary political institutions. Tunisia is a newly democratized country, with a prominent
urban working class, and a burgeoning literature on internet-fuelled protest. In UAE only 10%
of the population hold citizenship. Taking these disparate histories and demographies into
1 ‘Internet Users (per 100 people)’, UNdata (2015). Available at http://data.un.org/Data.aspx-
account, our aim was to answer the following research questions linked to the use of
participatory networks and online communication in the MENA region:
1) In selected cases in Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia and UAE, how do young people express the
connections between creative cultural production, technosocial spaces, and relationships to
2) What role do structural barriers associated with gender and social class play in young civic
activists’ and artists’ cultural endeavours across our cases in the MENA region?
Our first question was made deliberately broad in order to allow for a wider range of
perspectives, links and relationships than are usually found in research which looks for links
between new media and civic participation in the region.
Personalised media, participatory networks and cultures of participation
Discussions of full and partial participation in democracy, and between ‘fake’ and ‘real’ or
‘channelled’ and ‘autonomous’ participation (Arnstein, 1969; Pateman, 1970) show how the
concept of participation in inherently concerned with equity and power. Banaji (2008 and 2018)
nuances the connections between power and participation by delineating the complex ways in
which defining the ‘common good’ in inclusive or exclusive ways can lead to mass participation
in networked fascism and othering. Drawing on the case of India where far right Hindutva non-
state actors claiming the mantel of civic organisations with covert backing from the ruling far
right parties, Banaji demonstrates that it is possible for far right actors to seize power through a
combination of rightwing populist rhetoric and ostensibly democratic elections. Sidestepping
such cautions about the quality of participation and its connections to power, authors such as
Benkler (2006), Bruns (2007) and Jenkins (2006, 2018) valorise the role of collaboration, co-
creation of artistic musical or literary content, sharing, remixing, and prod-usage in initiating
participatory culture and civic participation. Brough & Shresthova (2012) articulate this overtly as
an intersection of fan cultures and activism, de-centring technology and foregrounding
knowledges and networks. One might, as an instance of this, look at ‘batala’ on YouTube, a so-
called hub for young women content creators in the MENA region and examine a number of
funky, slightly ironic, or intentionally inspiring videos about life and fashion by young women,
including ones by girl gamers. Many of these young women wear headscarves and speak Arabic
colloquial to the region they inhabit. There is a combination and modification of modest dress in
ways that connotes modernity and urbanity.
The notion of participatory culture is commonly used to refer to ‘the involvement of users,
audiences, consumers and fans in the creation of culture and content’ (Fuchs, 2014: 52), but
frequently delinked from the networks of political economy, social capital and neoliberal modes
of production identified by Fuchs and others (Banaji and Buckingham, 2013; Couldry, 2015;
Terranova, 2010) as being equally important to new and emerging media as they were in the
context of television and print media. With little reference to social class, an important body of
work in this field regards digital platforms such as Twitter and YouTube as themselves
manifestations of and essential hubs for participatory culture (cf. Jenkins, 2006). In this view,
these participatory activities on digital platforms can enhance transcultural organising,
mobilising, distributing and networking, and thus civic engagement.
Herera and Sakr (2014: 1-4) argue that there is a distinct break between the traditional labouring
classes in rural areas or underclasses in urban ones and the contemporary ‘Young poor’, who are
using their digital connections to ‘work out ways to live outside the system’; repeating a common
trope of digital agency somewhat unproblematically, they suggest that during the Arab Spring
facility with social media enabled young people to ‘rewrite the script’ of democracy. From the
culture of online influencers, their book suggests, grew the enormously influential ‘We are all
Khaled Said’ Facebook page. But in this field of socially mediated youth culture and politics, too,
findings about connections between personalised media, the online (civic) sphere, and young
people are neither always so hyperbolic, nor so clear-cut.
Miriyam Aouragh (2016a & 2016b) examines the pre-existing political mobilisations and
confluences that enabled the emergence of protests in Lebanon in 2011-12. She argues
persuasively that low internet quality and lack of access meant that protestors from across classes
did not all have the same experience of online activism and ended up being channelled through
‘brokers’ such as the techie feminist collective Nasawiya. Gajjala et al. (2010) examine the forms
of empowerment emerging from personalised (female) youth media content online and argue
that it is often characterised by logics of charity and fun in place of solidarity and justice;
meanwhile, Ghaytanchi & Moghadam’s (2014) examination of women’s cyberactivism in four
countries including Tunisia and Morocco shows that politicised uses of personal media cut
across generations and are not confined to young people.
Any discussion of creative participation online must tackle the vexed concept of culture. In
discussing it, we return to Raymond Williams’ formulation of its broader meaning as ‘a particular
way of life, whether of a people, a period, a group, or humanity in general’ (1983: 90). Williams
adds, however, that the most widespread current use of this concept is in its description of ‘the
works and practices of intellectual and especially artistic activity’ (Ibid) and we are conscious of
this articulation in our discussion of cultures of creativity across our case studies. Further,
Williams (1983) argues that we need to consider ‘culture’ as both material production and symbolic
system. ‘Culture’ and the meanings with which it is imbued are subject to the shaping forces of
economic and political power (Schudson, 1989), but are also productive and inflect or create
forms of power. As we will demonstrate in our analysis, the field of culture and personalised
media also helps youth networks to garner what Pierre Bourdieu (1986) refers to as ‘social
capital’ by allowing them to benefit from cross-border, cross-class and cross-generational
relationships and resources.
In this sense, our interest in participatory cultures in which new and emerging media play a role
is tripartite: first, addressing the ways in which young people create and co-create their own
mediated communities of practice and the taste cultures and structures of sentiment therein;
second, understanding the dialectical relationship between power and culture in each given
historical case; and third, unravelling whether, how and to what extent groups of young MENA
citizens incorporate the idea of participatory culture and networking as a result of their use of new
and emerging media as opposed to incorporating new media use into existing participatory and
Colonial rule, especially in Tunisia and Morocco, affected the countries’ ‘ways of life’ in a
heterogeneous manner. French rule focused on the countries’ elites, aiming to ‘educate’ them,
and produced in North Africa a ‘category of Maghrebians who spoke French with native fluency,
and [with French] intellectual and artistic tastes, attitudes and mannerisms’ (Gill, 1999: 124).
Ultimately, however, this urban French speaking bilingual elite became leaders of independence
movements in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia and emphasised the importance of Arabisation and
Islam in their anticolonial discourses (Entelis, 1989: 6; Tessler et al., 1995). Despite
2 The difficulty in defining ‘culture’ is also evident in Arabic. The Arabic translation of ‘culture’,
al-thaqāfa, as it is employed nowadays for example in Ministry of Culture (wizarat al-thaqāfa),
youth culture (al-thaqāfa al-shababiyya) or Arab culture, al-thaqāfa al-ʿarabiyya, in line with
William’s explanation, is absent in the main Arabic dictionaries. In contemporary dictionaries,
the term al-thaqāfa appears in al-Waseet that describes culture as ‘the sciences, knowledge and
arts that, in order to be learned, require cleverness’.
independence, French is still promoted in Moroccan schools, side-lining Arabic (Boutieri, 2012:
444). Islam too has remained part of the dominant discourse of power, to an extent guaranteeing
the monarchy’s legitimacy since the king is used by Moroccan nationalists as a symbol of national
unity against French rule (Sater, 2010: 20; Stenner, 2012: 584; Stora, 2003: 16). In Tunisia, despite
the avowed secularism of the leading anticolonial party, the use of Islamic symbols to gain the
support of the masses (Tessler et al., 1995) was a frequent practice, suggesting a desire to co-opt
popular iconography in order to exercise hegemony via what Williams also calls a ‘common
Culture, seen from the perspective of historical power relationships, has played and continues to
play a critical role in shaping postcolonial identities within the MENA region and across borders.
In the region, artistic culture – music, cinema, literature, embroidery, museums, and/or sports –
is often used to shape and represent national identity (Mcdougall, 2003; Nooshin, 2009). As we
will demonstrate in the work of the Tunisian groups Les Volontaires and CHOUF, tensions over
the control of cultural spaces, and over what kinds of culture and cultural relationships can be
created and expressed, are evident both on and offline. Dilemmas about the extent and
significance of symbolic content in French or Arabic, and associated with Islam or secularism,
remain in new social media spaces.
Methods and research design
Our wider study, on which this paper draws, surveyed the field of civic participation initiatives in
Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia and UAE, through expert interviews, on and offline searches, regional
contacts and a systematic state-of-the-art literature review. This qualitative ‘mapping’ phase saw
us plotting a spreadsheet of connections between groups, initiatives and movements within our
case study countries and noting the overlapping creative, sociable and/or political civic networks
frequented by young people between the ages of 17 and 30. We examined how widespread – in
terms of claimed membership – and how digitally interconnected – in terms of links to other
groups and domains – these networks appeared to be based on existing scholarship and using
original searches online. Guided by offline contacts in the region, and expert interviews with
scholars of participation such as Wanda Krause and Francesco Cavatorta, we homed in on civic
participation networks in the four countries which represented a wide range of social interests,
media genres and civic activities with moderate (dozens of members) to large (thousands or
hundreds of thousands of members) followings: from gaming, film, music and football, to trade
unions, staff associations, refugee and migrant associations, feminist collectives, poetry slams and
We undertook this qualitative mapping (see our Moroccan example in Figure 1) in order to
demonstrate that our case studies instantiate particular types of initiatives and share features with
other similar civic networks in each country and across the region. Reading civic participation as
a zone that encompasses politics and extends beyond that to apparently apolitical fandoms and
hubs for artistic creativity, volunteering, and professional or gender-based solidarity, we chose
case-studies that represent a broader cross-section of young people in the MENA region than is
usual in works on new media and political participation. We deliberately included not only some
of the most interesting and vibrant networks in terms of online production (CHOUF artivist
feminist collective, digital podcasting network) and ones that appeared to have arisen from the
2011 protests (Manich_Msamah) but also ones that were historically resilient: for instance,
teachers’ associations, neighbourhood volunteers, and Sufis. This, we argue, decentres the types
of overtly politicised networks and initiatives that typically get chosen in discussions of the 2011
uprisings, and lends our sample a particular historical robustness that allows us to draw wider
Insert Figure 1 here. This diagram which we generated illustrates how a host of more or less civic
networks exist and are connected to each other
Each case, and each interviewee, illustrated the peculiarities of a set of young people involved in
a cause in that particular country while also holding many commonalities with young people in
other collectives and networks across the countries and the region more widely. Connections
between the members of these initiatives were organic (ie. based on neighbourhood, workplace,
economic need) or serially constituted (based on shared identities, interests or beliefs, as argued by
Sartre and elaborated by Anderson, 1998 and Young, 1994).
Four research assistants in the region trained extensively in qualitative methods – redacted for
anonymity – built connections with local and diasporic young people involved in artistic and
cultural, social, economic and political or spiritual and religious endeavours. Every effort was
made to include both avowedly political and apolitical civic networks. As with all research,
chance and serendipity played a role: rural-based activists were difficult to reach and recruit; the
women’s group we selected in the UAE pulled out, and members of a Palestinian student
support group proved disparate and busy. In replacing cases that did not materialise, we drew on
existing resources: personal connections of our research assistants helped to build trust amongst
Sufi musicians in Morocco and metal enthusiasts in Jordan.
Table 1 Groups and networks examined in the MENA and diaspora
Books on the Road
Jadal – cultural cafe
creatives and fans
Counselling and self-
All the networks listed in Table 1 were treated with the same ethical care in terms of offers of
anonymity, reciprocity and connection to the research process.
The mapping and selection of our cases was followed by observations, in-depth qualitative
interviews and focus groups in each country to generate a series of contrasting case studies with
the erstwhile producers or organisers and (where there was a distinction to be drawn), the
members, users or audiences, of these networks. Time was spent making contacts, reading and
watching materials produced by the groups, building up trust, hanging out, observing and
helping out at events, or meeting key organisers. The interviewees were carefully chosen to
represent the different types of individuals participating in the organisations or activities selected,
including newer members and experienced ones (who might have been involved in setting up the
network). We allowed interviewees to choose a pseudonym and later to redact transcripts if they
We coded all the data arising from interviews and observations around issues such as national
histories of participation, trust, old and new media use, the depth and types of individual and
group participation in civil, religious, political and other networks offline, the connections
between social class and creative production, the extent to which emerging digital platforms are
being transformed into networked communities of participation, the connections between
creativity and political activism, and whether there is evidence that these networks include
marginalised communities in the MENA region. In the sections which follow, we present and
then discuss findings from ten of the sixteen case studies.
Results and discussion
In Amman, ‘Books on the Road’ was an initiative that promoted reading as an everyday practice
in the streets of the capital city. Ghaith, its founder, graduated in Insurance and Risk
Management from the Hashemite University. His trajectory follows a pattern increasingly
familiar in neoliberal metropoles: After working for four years in the corporate sector he decided
to start a cut-price bookshop. Funding or lack thereof – a problem we encountered across many
networks trying to remain independent of the state, prompted Ghaith to use an aged Mercedes
as an ‘alternative space’ from which to exhibit books. Using this vehicle, he moved between
different neighbourhoods in Amman and visited other Jordanian towns. Ultimately, the creativity
of Ghaith’s initiative showcased on blogs and by international news (Watar FM and Melody FM,
and international TV channels such Al Arabiya and CCTV), attracted foreign funding. The
Danish NGO Action Aid helped him to organise a book exhibition in Madaba, thus adding to
the few available libraries in the country.
Thanks to the work of social media strategist Obeidat, Books in the Road has a strong social
media presence. Repeating clichés about smart media and data ubiquity, Obeidat explained to us
the tension between local and trans-local perspectives:
Ghaith believes in personal relationships that happen in the street… But from my
personal perspective I believe that we have a bigger auditorium. Everyone has a smart
phone, everyone has his mobile with him or her all the time, people open all their
applications on the phone: WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc.
Ghaith counters that: ‘a person who walks on the streets does not need to have the internet to
see the car’. Obeidat’s strategic enthusiasm for social media conceals a class bias that
marginalises groups with limited access to smart technology and expensive data packages
allowing the use of apps. Other interviewees (users) claimed to have become interested in this
initiative thanks to the creative Mercedes bookshop. However, our observations found that the
initiative does not distribute books for free in marginalised areas to inculcate a love of reading
but rather sells them, even if the price is negotiable, and more often than not Ghaith frequents
gentrified parts of Amman, where he will encounter the already literate. Confirming our
observations, Anas, another interviewee, was critical, maintaining that those who surround the
car seem mainly ‘hipsters, middle class people in their twenties and thirties who can speak
English. That has to do with the area that he is in’. The sharp division of the Jordanian civic
sphere based on class positionality became a running theme across our encounters and
Anas made a similar class critique of another initiative, the cultural centre and café: Jadal. Jadal
was founded by Fadi Amireh a member of the Hirak, the main opposition movement during
Jordan’s ‘Arab Spring’. Jadal is located in Amman in the trendy El Webdeh neighbourhood. Its
popularity over the years attracted the presence of White expats and among other courses it
offers ‘Arabic for foreigners’ which attracts this audience. Jadal also caters to the Syrian refugee
community present in the neighbourhood. Having become disillusioned with the quick-fix
politics of political movements such as Hirak, and seeing the need for a longer contest over
cultural forms and ideas, Fadi aims to promote an interest in philosophy, politics and culture and
to create spaces in which open dialogue between different cultural and philosophical viewpoints
can take place. As Yamen, one of our interviewees insisted, although what Jadal does might
sound mundane to readers from cities where parks, museums and libraries offer spaces for
conversation and debate, this is an important urban refuge as there are few similar spaces in
Amman. Interestingly, despite its online hype, for Yamen, the presence of Jadal on social media
is irrelevant: ‘I don’t follow anything on Facebook. On Facebook I only open my own page, or I
see posts where people tag me. Yesterday I realised that it would be better if I deactivated my
Facebook account, so I did.’ In line with this dismissive attitude to social media, we also noted
that being self-funded Jadal struggles to keep its doors open despite its online fame.
In the absence of a welfare state and any tradition or movement favouring one, the delivery of
‘thinking space’ falls on the shoulders of individual social entrepreneurs such as these. Reading
and cultural discussion might be central issues for civic participation, but our observations
suggest that the location of these spaces in trendy neighbourhoods hinders the possibility of
catering to the needs of the urban poor. While social media gives the illusion of broadening
geographical boundaries, our research emphasises that in both these cases, everyday encounters
and relationships inflected by class exclusion shape the activities of Jadal and Books on the
In Morocco, social media emerged as an important communication tool for groups without
access to physical spaces as is the case for the women football fans we spoke to. Ultras are
football fans known for their involvement in and support of football clubs, and sometimes for
their politicised attitudes and slogans: they are known to create songs, tifos (visual choreography
made with slogans printed on thousands of disparate plastic or card squares and displayed by
fans in the stands of an arena or stadium), and other cultural expressions to support a particular
team. While social class is not an impediment to joining ultra groups, women are not allowed to
become members, to follow the teams across the country or to access the areas of the stadium
reserved for these groups. Sara, an ultra-identified fan of Wydad, argued that she had to fight
male family to attend matches in the stadium, announcing ‘we live in a male dominated society, a
young guy can go to the stadium but a young woman cannot.’ For Sara, social media is a way of
keeping up with news on the team and on the ultras whom she follows: ‘The internet nowadays
includes everything. Mobile apps include news of Wydad, you stay informed through these
applications; whenever there are updates you get notified.’ Yet, reflecting an entrenched social
pattern, women and girls are notable by their absence in the ultra’s online materials.
Further, ultras are aware that social media is not a safe haven and that they are constantly
surveilled. Ahmed, an ultra, told us that while the internet is seen as an important space to share
practical ideas and build up movements,
the virtual world is no longer an open space to express yourself. If you want to start an
initiative, they [the state] can install people to destroy it. For example, the 20 February
movement, there were people sent from the government to create obstacles and
dismantle their unity and cohesion… The police in Morocco base everything on the
virtual world. The surveillance of cell phones and computers from satellites come first
and then comes the work of the district chief.
This awareness of state surveillance and the dangers imminent in organising civic connection or
protest was also clear in our interviews with an informal Moroccan trade union for trainee
In their fight to gain voice, this group use hashtags, a Facebook page with over 60k followers,
and upload videos to YouTube showcasing demonstrations. Social media actions also helped
them to battle the initial void in traditional media in their struggle to get fairer pay: during our
research they were brutally attacked by the police for protesting a reduction in their scholarship
provision and increased requirements in terms of examinations before they could teach officially
(https://www.africanews.com/2016/01/11/trainee-teachers-protest-in-morocco//). Yet, as
Houda, a trainee teacher told us, they prefer to organise themselves through phone calls, face-to-
face contact and private WhatsApp groups, which are constantly reorganised for security
reasons. Bouazza, another interviewee, insisted that their members use even resort to using new
media to provide the surveilling authorities with misleading information concerning their
mobilisation plans: ‘[W]e give a wrong spot to the Ministry of the Interior because they try to
oppress us… we agree on all the points on the phone… and the time and place are the last
things we know’. This slippery relationship between social media and creative participation in the
teacher trainee network exemplifies what several civic networks across our four countries
reported: the use of social media to their advantage by showcasing symbolic content that builds
solidarity for the cause, yet the keeping of strategic information private through face-to-face
interactions or phone calls. But it also encapsulates a key feature of the Moroccan state
apparatus’ relationship with its citizens: a desire to appear progressive in terms of its
encouragement of a thriving digital sphere while also curtailing privacy and keeping a firm grasp
of all potentially political consequences from civic connection and solidarity online.
In Tunisia, given the range of political and civil society groups and activities, we examined a
cross-section of political and seemingly apolitical, local and transnational activities. Manel, a
young woman online gamer playing from computers in and with residents of Tunis but against
other Tunisian gamers and in transnational tournaments, describes the requirements for high
spec computers if any parity with other gamers is to be maintained. Members of this gamer
community (without access to the requisite high-speed machines or interested in face to face
contact with other gamers) come together in physical spaces called ‘cybers’, while others play in
isolation, from their homes.
Experiencing persistent sexism and misogyny from male gamers both in real-life during
tournaments and also in online environments, some girl gamers such as Narjess have come
together to form TGG – Tunisian Girl Gamers – a resistant sub-network within a network.
According to Manel, these young women need to distinguish themselves as serious and
authoritative gamers against the banal and eroding sexism of their male contemporaries, but also
in the wake of frequent let-downs by young female players whom they perceive as non-serious,
and there ‘just for fun’. As such Manel’s aims include a complex intermixture of implicitly
political goals and proto-professional ones:
I play because I actually want to get good at the game as a person, as a gamer, not as a girl;
but at the same time, I really want to say “I am a girl and I play as good as the boys”;
that's what I want to do too... I mean, I want to make people say “look she is a girl and she's
better than most of the guys in gaming”... I want to get to a point where I would be that good.
Other young women from this network too described their encounters with sexist behaviours
and their determination to overcome and be the best (The Authors) in a way that positions them
as a network within a network.
Les Volontaires, with their commitment to improving the cultural environment in which young
Tunisians grow up, and their emphasis on highly motivated young people, were explicit about
their wish to foster civility and civil society outside of the grasp of political parties and the state.
The founders include a group of friends who used to meet to play to go to cafes or play football
in high school, some of whom were in another political organisation with which they became
disillusioned because ‘it wasn’t very neutral and was obviously working for a political agenda…
while they wanted to be independent and neutral’ (Sami, Tunisia). One of their projects BE-ART
involves removing what is considered vulgar language from walls and train stations left after the
revolution, painting the walls in artistic ways and putting up graffiti that is pleasing to the eye and
non-partisan. Funding remains a key difficulty for this non-profit, non-state network, who raise
the money necessary for equipment and projects through other activities such as sponsored
hikes; or appeals for donations in radio slots and online.
In a post-revolution situation, where everyday life is finely balanced between the tentacles of the
previous dictatorship and secular opposition and various Islamist tendencies, the significance of
maintaining depoliticised everyday spaces cannot be underestimated. Members of Les
Volontaires whom we interviewed were emphatic about wishing to remain outside the sphere of
commercial culture, refusing to make a profit from their work. Tarek, himself a graffiti artist,
explained the necessity of changing the sorts of slogans on train station walls where otherwise
one might await a train gazing at the ideologically loaded ‘There is no rule but God’s Will’. The
association is run through a series of youth committees, all autonomously constituted. The
communications committee to which Sami belongs is ‘in charge of managing all the Twitter,
Facebook, and other social media pages … so that young people can identify themselves with
the actions and anyone who wants to collaborate finds it easier to get in touch’.
In contrast to the emphatically apolitical self-definition of Les Volontaires, Manich_Msamah (M-
M) and CHOUF see themselves as challenging political and social injustice, but again without
party affiliation. Dorah from Chouf explained to us the evolution of their group, with a double
mission: to make visible the non-normative sexualities amongst women in safe spaces, creating
dialogue between women; and to build solidarity with everyone who identifies as a woman and
wishes to support gender queer rights.
It is absolutely an everyday thing if you identify yourself as a woman that you really feel
the oppression that results because of your physical appearance, or because you are
gender-queer (non-binary), or simply because of your reproductive role as a woman
which was chosen for you by the Society without you having any opinion in it, or maybe
because of daily harassment, I think it is a very natural thing to start working in
Feminism. There are definitely, many types and forms of Feminism. But we are at the
‘inclusive’ end of the spectrum, we do not really discriminate against anyone… If
[Islamist women’s groups] can go along with our fight for these rights, we can
collaborate with them. I personally do not think it would be possible honestly, but it all
depends on our group’s decision. If they agree with our vision, then why not?
In this context, digital communication serves several purposes: Skype meetings with new
members precede face-to-face meetings as a necessary precaution, just as they did when we made
our approach as researchers; distressed emails from isolated queer women or those experiencing
violence elicit a quick response; and the artistic and creative activism (‘Artivism’) of the group,
which might be dangerous to advertise too openly offline, is connected to an international
feminist cultural scene through mail-outs, banners and webpages. Despite their desire to be
inclusive, safety precautions and individual histories mean that the reach of this group into non-
French-speaking and rural communities of women is curtailed.
22-year-old Khalil joined M-M in March 2016 in frustration at the possibility that the economic
Reconciliation Act might ‘let politicians from the dictatorship off the hook’. M-M’s WANTED
campaign aimed to expose the corruption of the leaders of the previous disgraced Ben Ali
regime and to prevent them from being honoured or taken back into government. Figure 2
displays an image from this campaign. Khalil recounts how he was drawn to the movement
when he first saw the Twitter hashtag Reconciliation_happens_in_Court, and M-M
[Insert Figure 2 here]
'WANTED' campaign in a wall in Tunis. Picture by X [redacted].
Khalil’s feeling that the release of criminal leaders from the previous regime would be a betrayal
of the 2011 Tunisian revolution was shared by hundreds who attended organised protests in
public places, sit-ins, talks and marches, posted on social media, tagged walls and circulated
graffiti and images online. Their movement has now broadened to focus on issues of economic
and civil rights under the current regime, with strong resistance to the push for neo-liberalisation
of the economy. Khalil explained that immediacy and accessibility are key to youth involvement:
‘what makes people join a movement or initiative or campaign is the way you talk to them and
try to convince them. People don’t really like theoretical language’.
Discussing why the internet is not useful if you want a broad base, but ‘tagging’ physical walls as
a means of communication is powerful, Khalil notes
I honestly feel that we have succeeded to reach out to those we really wanted to reach …
the common people who work by night, who spend all day at work, and could only go
back home late… you cannot really make these people hear about you and your message
in another way. The street walls are the best place to make them see and read, make them
He noted that online those with opposing views simply block contacts or ideas of which they
disapprove, whereas material walls are not so easy to avoid. Samah tells us that, given the breadth
of the movement now, they need to operate through committees, which discuss some things
virtually yet always meet face-to-face to make decisions in a democratic manner. He repeatedly
associated democratic decision-making with offline fora, arguing that being confined to online
contact would favour a polarisation of views on apparently inconsequential operational matters
as much as on ideological ones, which could diminish the extensive and patient debates needed
to reach democratic consensus. In all these accounts from Les Volontaires, Manich_Msamah and
CHOUF members we received a strong impression of a society in tension over unresolved
injustices, of the hard work of democracy being undertaken voluntarily, outside the limelight
(and therefore not labelled ‘revolution’ or ‘uprising’) but absolutely critical to ensuring that the
mandate of the so-called uprisings did not get lost of hijacked by those with powerful vested
interests (large businesses, politicians and not least, the police).
In the UAE, across all of the networks we worked with and the young people interviewed, a
palpable sense of curtailment, self-censorship and frustration pervaded the accounts of all but
the wealthiest White expats. Most were willing to speak freely only when the tape recorder was
switched off. In some instances, we interpreted this as a justified habit of caution formed
through experience of the state; in others, we attribute it to a desire to preserve the fictitious
national narrative of strong Emirati culture and openness to democratic values while also
wishing to record their perceptions of lack of space for cultural exchange. The last of our four
chosen networks, a women’s cooking circle comprising some expats and some refugees,
withdrew their permission to use their interviews at the last minute, citing fears about
government surveillance; however, since it appears that several of them were also highly
connected within government circles and not perceived as a threat in any way, the possibility that
they did not wish to jeopardise their position also arises.
In this highly politicised context, where paranoia, surveillance, ethnicity, and economic capital
play a role, we sought for evidence of a strong and vibrant civil society, and in particular for one
that was not entirely stratified by social class. We did find cases of individuals who, via their
offline social connections and talents, had started a cultural or leisure initiative for young people.
Most of these depended on the ability of the individuals involved to draw on existing social
and/or financial capital to hire musical equipment or private spaces as venues. The Green
Room, which we have written about elsewhere (The Authors), and Freshly Ground Sounds were
two such initiatives.
Others unreflexively used their economic status to pursue their interest in a particular subculture
– such as biking and bike ownership in the case of online networks ‘Track Attack’, the App
‘Biker AE’ and individual Ducati bikers. There is something parodic about the manner in which
some of these individuals boast about equipment, the price of their bikes, stunts, and the ways in
which women are apparently attracted to their subcultural capital (‘nothing sexier than a woman
on a bike’). Several of them hail from Dubai’s wealthiest families or from Europe and North
America. All swear by the power and significance of social media for maintaining their
subculture and ‘biker family ties’, noting that without the internet none of the offline meet-ups
would be possible. It becomes clear that individual connoisseurs of motorbikes have now
constituted themselves as ‘groups’ and even ‘gangs’ (according to their own terminology) via
word of mouth but also via social media. They meet regularly in offline spaces to show off their
gear, exchange rare bike parts, and race each other (a practice that is banned in UAE and carries
strict penalties). The ban adds an element of subversion to these groups that some dwelt on in
Overall, our findings in UAE are that youth participatory networks whether direct or mediated
are curtailed by gender, social class position and beliefs about or attitudes to surveillance and the
state. Civic solidarity exists but is atomised amongst those who can either afford it, or access
networked spaces – in Ahmed Kanna’s words a ‘spatialized biopolitics’ (2012: 161) which thrives
on cordoning off the millions of South Asian migrant workers and their protests about labour
issues from the much smaller general population, and their putative struggles for self-expression.
Creativity within these networks is often subjugated to and bound up with the imperatives of
marketing and promotion, the desire to have one’s initiative do well and get talked about. Being
talked about and becoming popular in turn brings up issues of safety and security in terms of
what can and cannot be said, leading to a limiting of critique, and a watering down of messages
about sex and sexuality, governance and gender. This vicious circle means, ironically, that evident
creativity with new media tools is mainly allowable and spreadable when it is depoliticised or
linked to entrepreneurial values.
The role of social class, knowledge and skills
While acknowledging the value of the opportunities offered by the internet, a fetishist focus on
digital participation as a political motivator, which ignores traditional offline forms of
participation, knowledge sharing and community building amongst young people is problematic.
Our analysis of the data generated for our project urges us to do two things: first, to view the
digital as far more complex than merely that which is online; and second, to delve far wider for
an understanding of participatory cultures in the MENA region than personalised digital media.
According to our analysis of observations and interviews with young Jordanians, Moroccans,
Tunisians and residents of UAE, a major part of lasting cultural learning, political socialization
and civic participation happens in families, communities and peer groups, primarily offline.
Alongside apps, film, music, digital photography, phone calls and texts, newspaper reports,
television and radio continue to play a major role in their communicative practices. Knowledge
from fandom, organised religion, institutional politics, formal education and household caring
permeate the habits young MENA citizens and residents bring to bear in their media use.
The division of interviewees’ views with regard to the role of the internet in all four countries is
clear: it is a central tool for those who have started an initiative to keep in touch with peripheral
members, organise big events that require meeting offline, monitor competitors or like-minded
groups, and gather the views of grassroots members. This was the case across all of our
countries, although we chose countries for their different histories and internet penetration rates.
However, it is also seen as too ‘invasive’, ‘always on’, used for ‘self-promotion’, and ‘dangerously
exposing’ which was felt most keenly in UAE and Jordan and in particular amongst wealthier
participants. This supports the notion that combining on and offline media and action
strategically and trusting neither fully is becoming second nature, especially in communities with
low financial barriers to internet-use.
Our interviews and observations also reveal that constant internet use is normalised amongst
some of the civic groups but not amongst others; with some it has reached saturation point,
leading to reduced use or to the quitting of social media altogether. Although Jadal in Jordan, Les
Volontaires in Tunisia and the Ultras in Morocco promote their work and organise meet ups or
donations of money and labour through photographs and posts online, their organisations
cohere around physical public spaces; young volunteers gather offline to make banners, to
beautify the environment or to debate philosophy, thus challenging inequalities or mitigating
religious and political schisms and presumptions.
Like Hirzalla & van Zoonen (2011) and Gerbaudo (2018), we wish to draw attention to the
intertwined nature of digital and non-digital, of leisure, fandom and activism. In making tifos for
games, ultras meet beforehand in abandoned lots or warehouses to decide on images and
slogans; a gifted set of designers digitally designs the output for printing. The thousands of
metres of printed parts of the tifo are then taken into stadia and distributed based on the
computerised analysis of the stadium to make the final non-digital visual choreography, which
may be, but is not always, filmed and uploaded to You Tube. The banning of the ultras from
stadia due to an avowed perception of violence or a sense of their politically anarchic potential –
and an attempt by the authorities to curtail their burgeoning power – results in the production of
political, anti-club management and anti-state boycotts, tifos and chants, demonstrations outside
stadia and generalised resistance.
Social class inflects how comfortable young citizens in our sample feel in using transnational
sites on the internet and in uploading original content or participating in online debates. In
addition, female football fans, Girl gamers, and LGBTQI activists’ testimonies suggest that
gender, too, structures how such interventions are received, and how or from whom
participation is encouraged. Our analysis of the data above adds weight to the finding of
previous studies (Banaji, 2015; Banaji and Buckingham, 2013: 104; Lee, 2008), that, for a majority
of young people, creativity, cultural production, or civic participation initiated off or online, takes
place in an embodied social world that is structured by historical patterns of socio-political
mobilisation, and by resilient inequalities. dana boyd (2014) argues that social interactions of
teenagers on digital platforms generate new habits that are not technologically determined but
that are socially situated. In this view, technology is an enabler of social connections in virtual
environments, an archive for the storage of disparate narratives and voices, and a spark or
catalyst for further creative encounters when it is difficult to be geographically co-present or to
establish relationships and archives in real physical spaces.
Most young people in our study value their connectivity circles as well as their belonging to –
and agency within – communities of friends, fans and followers. In a small number of cases,
such as that of the Tunisian gamer network, the affordances of the technology enable members
to enhance their skills and abilities as players and is inseparable from their identity as serious
gamers: however, for the sub-group of Tunisian young feminist gamers and girl gamers who are
challenging the status quo of sexism in gaming, a new transnational identity of solidarity with
other young serious women gamers is born and flourishes in part through online networks but
also through trust in individuals met offline.
Our inclusive, historicised, contextually specific study triangulates data from existing MENA
literature, expert interviews, a survey of participatory initiatives, textual analysis of materials
produced offline and online, focus groups, interviews and participant observation. It is thus
uniquely placed to draw conclusions about the constitution, genealogy and boundaries of
participatory networks inhabited by and available to young people in the MENA region. In the
countries we examined, most participatory networks of both civic and more narrowly political
provenance precede and influence the quality of communicative interactions between newly
formed creative and civic groups – friends, neighbourhoods, fandoms. The significance and level
of impact of the internet in maintaining connections between persons or groups in the MENA
region varies enormously and is often trivial; but phones and apps are useful in existing
communities. Yoking together ‘digital networks’ and ‘participation’, as if the one precedes the
other and entails an engagement with egalitarian or democratic politics, creates a narrative that
short-circuits contextual histories of organisation, struggle, artistic endeavour and political
mobilisation as well as of authoritarian and orchestrated participation in facile or dangerous
In disaggregating ‘digital’ from ‘networks’, our study helps to draw strongly evidenced
conclusions about the ways in which agency in participatory networks is enacted, enabled, or
curtailed. Social inequalities around gender and social class are not only reproduced, but also
reinforced through agentic participation on digital platforms. Many narratives that emerged from
accounts of the 2011 uprisings and of the music cultural field in the region perpetuate the idea of
a region in a constant state of upheaval, and where emerging and social media plays a crucially
revolutionising role. The ‘fragmented and inaudible collectives’ (Bayat, 2010: 14) of which
citizens are ordinarily composed are, frequently, implicitly reformulated with regard to the
MENA region as homogenous and purposive social movements or networks in the wake of
major political events. They are often framed towards particular ends, whether in support of
democracy or of authoritarianism or even of the maintenance of the status quo and of cultural
However, the young people we interviewed in the MENA region emphasised that their digital
‘beings’ are always only fragments of their social beings and relationships. They emphasised that
physical spaces and face-to-face meetings are crucial to build consensus, to engage socially, and
culturally in civic endeavours, and to ‘do democracy’ before, during and after episodes of crisis
or political discontent. Further, our analysis of the cases discussed above emphasises that the
internet and new mobile media are not only a domain within which cultural borders can be
transgressed, conflicts redressed or authority challenged, but also instantiate and entrench the
greater social capital of youth from economically stable backgrounds, and reinforce negative
patterns of gendered and/or state surveilled interaction. The agency of historically marginalised
groups in the MENA region remains comparatively restricted online when it does not coincide
or come to coincide with the choices, desires and intentions of more powerful groups or
individuals; it may be expressed through conformity to accepted cultural narratives online as it is
offline. As such, an important question for future research will be: how can the entrenched
social, cultural, economic and political barriers to egalitarian participatory cultures be overcome
online and offline?
Figure 1. Moroccan networks. By The Authors
Figure 2. Wanted poster. Credit: Redacted while under review
[Redacted while under review]
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