“Nothing will ever be the same again”

How does one become an activist? What does it happen when one takes on the initiative of committing for a political change? What are the prerequisite of this choice and what its consequences? These are some of the questions we aim to address in our research project, focusing specifically the case of the young people who have become politicized during or in the aftermaths of the 2011’s uprisings in North Africa and Middle East. This reflection is informed by a theoretical goal – developing a theory of the process of commitment as a major subjective move – and a political one, related to assessing the change produced by the so-called ‘Arab spring’ in terms of imaginaries and transformative possibilities on a longer term. This interrogation arises out of a very common statement, made by different (young) people across the region, according to whom after 2011, despite the many unfulfilled expectations and the following disappointment, “nothing will ever be the same again”. Instead of dismissing it as a case of ‘cognitive dissonance’ (the need to justify personal engagement in terms of rationality and success), we want to take this emic perception seriously. What do they mean with this? If the general perception of the events unfolded after the self-sacrifice of Mohammed Bou ‘Azizi is that of disillusionment, what do their protagonists think it has, nonetheless, permanently changed?

Some of our interlocutors articulate this idea in term of collective empowerment, as a new (or renewed) awareness of people’s power. Others admit that, although collective achievements remain well below expectations, their worldview and lives have been transformed. It is precisely this sense of personal transformation that we wish to focus, trying to understand the relationship between political change and subjectivity. What are the experiences that are most influential in producing a political subject? Does the choice of taking part in a movement for social change is made in continuity with the previous experiences of socialization or happens as a personal ethical turn? What does it happen when the social and political reality is seen through critical eyes? How do the experiences of participation and activism contribute to shape new worldviews? How these worldviews are related to being a part of a wider movement or organization? And how these are influential for future choices, being reflected, for example, in feelings of frustration or hope?

Through this focus on the individuals and their political biographies, we wish to understand the long-lasting consequences of being an activist and describe what has remained of the political impulse generated during – what we propose to call – ‘the long 2011’.

A number of authors who have written on young people during and after the ‘Arab uprisings’ have insisted on the failure of the revolutionary élan and the following sense of ihbat, or frustration (for the Moroccan case, see for example the article of Taieb Belghazi and Abdelhay Moudden on The Journal of North African Studies at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13629387.2015.1084097). However, in this phase of the project, we are noticing that, well beyond frustration, many of our interlocutors either have continued to intervene publicly through art, music or media or have engaged in new forms of political participation, whether in formal organizations, political parties, NGOs or through their personal investment in studies of law, human rights, social and political sciences. Although this is certainly a shift to more formal ways of doing politics, it shows also that activism has produced a change which informs choices and orientations on a longer term. In particular, this impact is visible in the biographies of young people with relatively poor experiences of political socialization within the household, for whom participation has allowed to develop a critical look over their environment.

Interestingly, some of them maintain that the protest left a mark due to the affirmation of a principle: the right to rise, figured out as a kind of ‘spirit of the protest’, a long-lasting idea, which would persist in the future. As one of our Moroccan interlocutors, a young woman who took part in the February 20th Movement, has put it:

“The February 20th is not an organization, it is a spirit, an idea. This is February 20! Everyone who is repressed and who calls to protest is someone who brings forward the spirit of the Movement. The idea of taking to the street, claiming reforms and exposing the situation of the country is a permanent action and its spirit will endure. This is the main idea of February 20!  Even if the young people who form the Movement disappear, the idea is still working and proves its efficacy”.

In point of fact, protests did not appear out of nothing, but were in continuity with previous forms of mobilization which influenced in diverse ways the 2011’s outburst. In the case of Morocco, for example, a number of young protesters were somehow inspired by the political experiences of other members of their families, who often took part in political movements in the so-called ‘lead-years’ and who gave a significant contribution in shaping their children’s critical posture.

According to the emic view of many of our interlocutors, things certainly did not go how they expected, but the struggle seems not finished either…

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How to cite this blog post:

Vacchiano, F. (2018) A point of departure: “nothing will ever be the same again”. Available at: https://globallysens.hypotheses.org/51 (Accessed [date]).


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