Reshaping Political Participation in Non-Democratic Regimes: Changes and Challenges

Emanuela Buscemi

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


The present paper investigates youth initiatives and urban practices in Kuwait, with specific reference to the post-Arab Spring period. I argue that youth initiatives and urban practices in the city contribute to reforming dominant narratives through the appropriation of national cultural symbols, thus, quietly defying the nationalistic rhetoric. The boundaries between private and public spaces become porous, new forms of socialities and socialization are made possible, and (political) engagement shifts to informal venues. The multiplicity of practices exemplified by quotidian youth cultures, and the creation or repurposing of urban spaces such as itinerant farmers’ markets, community gardens, art galleries, parks and cinemas, transform the city and give its inhabitants renewed possibilities of living the urban fabric beyond the strict religious, social and cultural prescriptions. The challenge to the status quo takes up urban practices signaling youth engagement as the reaffirmation of the Lefebvrian “right to the city”. However, Kuwaiti youth urban practices also seek to bridge the past and present by appealing to the local and regional cultural memory intended as a set of “symbols, media, institutions, and social practice which convey versions of a shared past” (Erll, 2011, p.9). Moreover, Maurice Halbwachs in his influential study on collective memory, maintains that “every collective memory unfolds within a spacial framework” (1992), linking thus memory to social structures, to places and groups, to symbols and landmarks.
Youth cultures are influenced by global processes and new media, producing a transculturation as a process in which “an innovative, composite and complex reality emerges; a reality that is not a mechanic agglomerate of attributes, nor is it a mosaic, but a new, original and independent phenomenon” (Malinowski, 1982, 5). It is precisely the originality of the merging and transformative process that attests for the vitality and creativity of a culture (Rama, 1982, 33). Beyond cultural homogenization and assimilation, transculturation, thus, contributes to the deparochialisation of local cultural and narratives.
Kuwaiti youth geographies of belonging were also profoundly affected by the local Arab Spring-inspired protests (Buscemi, 2016). The demarcation of national identity and nationness (Bhabha, 1994) within the protests has both marked allegiance to the regime and, simultaneously, has informed the demonstrations with a need to readjust the current relations of power. Benedict Anderson maintains that all nations are imagined communities (Anderson, 1983), which need symbols, cosmogonies and narratives to establish a sense of comradeship among its people. By forging a counter-community, a community within the larger national community, protesters have fabricated an oppositional discourse based on the alterity between the ruling family and the people, the governors and the governed, rights and duties. Activating the national landmarks as symbols of a Kuwaiti collective identity has empowered the opposition by establishing a sense of patriotism and belonging, and has enabled the demonstrations to grow and gather more supporters. However, the criminalisation of activists and the crackdown on individual freedoms has shifted youth engagement to more informal venues, while encouraging subdued cultural forms of expression. The critical elaboration of the Kuwaiti Arab Spring departs from, and its originality lies in, the re-imagination and re-appropriation of the landmarks and symbols of collective memory as sites of demonstrations in order to counter national rhetoric, foster (some degree of) democratization, yet inscribing the discourse of the protests into a frame of allegiance and nationalism/patriotism.
The present paper relies on two ethnographic fieldwork carried out in Kuwait through participant observation between 2011-2013 and 2013-2016.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationReshaping Political Participation in Non-Democratic Regimes
Subtitle of host publicationChanges and Challenges
EditorsEmanuela Buscemi, Ildiko Kaposi
PublisherRoutledge, Taylor & Francis Group
Number of pages34
ISBN (Electronic)ISBN 9781003048626
ISBN (Print)ISBN 9780367500658
Publication statusPublished - 31 Dec 2020

Publication series

NameYouth, Young Adulthood and Society


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