Youth in Lebanon: Policy Narratives, Attitudes, and Forms of Mobilization


As Lebanon is undergoing one of the worst economic and financial collapses in the world, one that was caused by the deliberate inaction1 of its rulers, it is important to tell the story of Lebanese youth. With a focus on their diverse attitudes and on their political mobilization efforts over the past decade, this study seeks to shed light on some of the reasons that could explain the challenges constraining youth-led political organizations from introducing much-needed political change—although some of them did manage to institutionalize modalities of collective action that opened up cracks in the sectarian political system, which coalesced at opportune times, most recently during the October uprising of 2019. Building on research conducted in the context of the EU-funded Power2Youth project, the situation of youth in Lebanon will be investigated through three lenses.2 First, by relying on policy reports and unpublished documents, I analyze policy narratives and frameworks that structure the lives of youth and determine their world views. Second, using the project’s survey results, I provide a quantitative reading of youth attitudes through the clustering method, which potently profiles youth’s multidimensional attributes into five clusters. Third, building on desk reviews, interviews, and participant observation, I examine the different forms of youth mobilization into mainstream political parties, professional NGOs, and progressive political organizations—underscoring the potential possibilities the latter’s type of mobilization holds for future political change in Lebanon.

 1. Policy Narratives on Youth

The Lebanese state notoriously functions as a political system sealed by hegemonic political-sectarian parties operating simultaneously in competition and complementarity.3 Attempts to break this hegemony (from within or outside the system) result in small gains (such as the holding of the 1998 municipal elections4) that do not fundamentally challenge the political sectarian system’s elaborate machinery. Perversely, many attempts at change get co-opted and end up reinforcing the system’s domination (such as the case of the labor movement5). The election law,6 which could serve as a substantial channel for political and social change, is another domain where reforms are stopped short: the parliamentary elections still obey a political-sectarian logic that facilitates the reproduction of existing power groups as well as the consolidation of their sectarian territories. The election law excludes people below 21 years of age from voting and demands that voters cast ballots in the original place of birth of their father’s family—even though this is often a remote village or town they left generations ago. The procedure for changing one’s place of registration is not facilitated administratively, nor is it acceptable socially or politically, as citizens are expected to be attached to their territorial identities. The ostensible motive is to sustain the demographics on which the Lebanese sectarian political quota system is based, even though everyone knows these demographics, based on the 1932 census,7 are now obsolete.

Public officials produce two narratives on youth. One celebrates the Lebanese young people who are successful and emigrate; these are highly educated and skilled young men and women who are destined for broader horizons where they will carry Lebanon’s name high and, if they are really successful, will invest their capital in their home country.8 They are not really expected to return nor to participate in voting for Lebanese representatives while they are abroad. They are useful assets to market the successful image of the Lebanese professional, as an entrepreneur, doctor, engineer, scientist, or scholar. This migration of highly skilled youth is thus a good “guarantee [of] socio-political stability” in that it “export[s] [the] looming discontent” of youth’s potential political competition.9

The second public narrative stigmatizes youth who are poorly educated and unskilled, viewing them as a potentially subversive group that should be policed and controlled. Those young people are frequently the main targets of sectarian political parties, which present them with viable employment and social services opportunities. Alternatives to sectarian politics are often much less rewarding and incorporate regulatory conditions and institutional setups that keep young people marginalized and vulnerable. Indeed, young people’s access to jobs is considerably impacted by corruption and clientelistic practices, referred to as wasta.10 Those youth also seek emigration to improve their living conditions; however, their options are not as diverse or gratifying as their better educated and skilled peers. They often end up in dire working conditions in Gulf Cooperation Council countries or Africa—two major destinations of post-World War II Lebanese emigration—and send remittances to their families.11

The public policy understanding of Lebanese youth is dominated by a generic and normative idea of youth exclusion, one focused on issues of unemployment, emigration, and a skewed female-male balance.

The socioeconomic inequalities that are established at the national scale are therefore reproduced among young people.12 In both narratives, youth are gendered into single young women, who will marry late or not at all—thus generating social angst—and single young men, perceived as a burden on society (given their unemployability) and as a security threat (given their propensity to become radicalized). Accordingly, the public policy understanding of Lebanese youth is dominated by a generic and normative idea of youth exclusion, one focused on issues of unemployment, emigration, and a skewed female-male balance.

How do these depoliticizing and stigmatizing policy discourses materialize? Public policies are not imagined or elaborated in ways to include youth actively in policy decisions about issues that concern them and their lives. For public agents, youth do not constitute a priority group that needs to be engaged in the reconstruction and reform processes. They are marginalized in a peripheral ministry, the Ministry of Youth and Sports, which in 2011 developed a national youth policy. A critical reading of the policy document reveals that it operates as a generic wish list of a range of policy issues that ought to be addressed. Youth issues are reduced to social and cultural concerns, and divorced from politics, under the spurious narrative of separating politics and conflict from society. The contents of this policy document are intentionally diluted under very general terms to maintain consensus among its authors. Although its drafting put in place a “Youth Advocacy Process” and established a “Youth Forum” that grouped 36 different NGOs, what remains of these efforts is a group including a dozen NGOs and the “youth wings” of the political parties, which are discussed below.13

The main sectarian groups that constitute the Lebanese political system agree that youth matters are better taken care of within their own structures: their political parties, foundations, and NGOs.14 They also profess that family and kin ought to manage youth’s lives. Given that personal status laws in Lebanon are linked to religious institutions, both family and religious authorities play a major role in youth’s socialization and mobilization through norms, values, and attitudes. Saghieh underscores three sets of youth’s exclusion generated by personal status laws: first, youth are strictly framed in relation to sectarian belonging (and hence they are mobilized according to sectarian grounds); second, youth’s—especially young women’s—ability to organize their everyday lives freely is largely inhibited; and third, individuals who do not fit the patriarchal “normal” frame (e.g. those who are LGBTQI+, children born outside of marriage, and offspring of Lebanese women and foreigners, and those outside the 18 recognized sectarian groups) are largely excluded from society.15

Public policies are not imagined or elaborated in ways to include youth actively in policy decisions about issues that concern them and their lives.

In addition to public agencies, political parties, religious authorities, and family structures, several other actors are also keen on managing the youth’s affairs. The private sector and international donors focus as well on the “problem” categories facing youth: unemployment, emigration, education, and political participation. For the private sector, the “good” and “natural” career choice of youth should be becoming successful entrepreneurs who will succeed as competitive capitalists in the market economy.16 For international donors, “good” youth need to mobilize into reformist NGOs. Each in their own way, they thus advance the homogenization and depoliticization of youth, namely “by shifting political energies away from ‘sectarian politics’ and toward pragmatic problem-solving.”17

Accordingly, the macro-picture of youth in Lebanon is one where they are depoliticized persons, passive agents, unworthy of being seen and heard, unless they contribute to concrete problem-solving and capacity-building initiatives. They are generically packaged as non-political and non-sectarian, or they provide successful entrepreneurship projects to business incubators. They are also welcome to migrate and demonstrate to the world the genius Lebanese mind, succeeding abroad while investing at home.

As such, Lebanese youth are imagined through fragmented lenses and policies that lack a holistic, interdisciplinary, and integrated understanding of their complex, dynamic, and highly differentiated lives. Indeed, public policy largely ignores youth or, at best, undermines their role as active agents of change. Policy discourses and actions are disembedded from the complex dynamics of legal, economic, social, political, and urban policy issues, and they do not prioritize youth’s needs and desires. Most policy actors, as well as experts and scholars, objectify “youth problems” without taking into account how they intersect with wider and transversal policy issues (such as personal rights, civil laws, gender discrimination, domestic violence, voting rights, citizenship, labor law, access to housing, public transportation, public space, or building laws). Indeed, public policy does not read youth relationally nor links them to social networks and experiences. This would capacitate an understanding of how being young is a highly diverse and subjective experience, overlapping with several other relationships and inequalities. In sum, public policy discourses and actions regarding youth depoliticize the highly educated and skilled young people, stigmatize and exclude the vulnerable ones, and nudge the others into the sectarian oligarchic system.

Lebanese youth are imagined through fragmented lenses and policies that lack a holistic, interdisciplinary, and integrated understanding of their complex, dynamic, and highly differentiated lives.

 2. Reading Youth through Clusters

Framing youth as a homogeneous group is essentializing and reductive and undermines their rich and dynamic subjectivities that cannot be reduced to a few variables. Indeed, conceptualizations of youth often emphasize a few dimensions (e.g. gender, sect) at the expense of others, insufficiently accounting for the intertwining of characteristics that shape a young person’s complex life, at a certain moment and place. Research on youth needs to be reframed using a relational and intersectional lens that sees young people as a largely diversified group whereby their ideas, attitudes, practices, and experiences differ across a range of variables (such as class, gender, sexuality, religion, sect, education, and geography), and according to varying situations of power, especially to adult authorities.18 While qualitative research lends itself well to a nuanced, multilayered, and holistic analysis, quantitative research has been less successful in this respect as it reifies youth’s attitudes into rigid categorizations correlated to variables that do not capture well their complex subjectivities.

Research on youth needs to be reframed using a relational and intersectional lens that sees young people as a largely diversified group.

Using the Power2Youth questionnaire fielded in Lebanon in summer 2015, which interrogated 1,000 young people based on a national sample equally divided into males and females, this study proposes a quantitative reading of youth in Lebanon using the k-means clustering method that is multidimensional and intersectional.19 The survey results on young people’s views on women’s roles and rights, attitudes (ideas about religion, willingness to migrate, participation in political action), and other questions on marital status, occupation, and age were used to identify five youth clusters that were labeled according to the dominant characteristic in each group (age, religion, schooling, and migration). These are: a) potential migrants, b) secular youth, c) school-to-job youth, d) conservative students, and e) maturing youth. It is beyond the scope of this paper to discuss how each cluster differs from the others and the variations in youth’s attitudes towards politics, women’s rights, and religiosity.20 The following two tables showcase the share and characteristics of each cluster (Table 1) as well as the profiles and attitudes of the members of each cluster (Table 2).

Table 1: Share and Characteristics of the Five Youth Clusters

Potential Migrants Secular Youth School to Job Conservative Students Maturing Youth Total Sample
Share of the overall youth group 18% 24% 8% 16% 34% 100%
Average age 21.3 21.7 21.4 20.4 26.9 23.2
Student 70% 69% 0% 100% 1% 46%
Married 1% 2% 27% 0% 68% 26%
Religious 55% 0% 97% 100% 78% 60%
Willing to migrate 100% 0% 14% 0% 9% 23%
Participated in political action 32% 12% 17% 22% 12% 18%
Women and men should have equal divorce rights 87% 89% 70% 86% 71% 81%

Source: Harb, Atallah, and Diab, 2020, op. cit.

Table 2: Profile and Attitudes of the Five Youth Clusters

Potential Migrants Secular Youth School to Job Conservative Students Maturing Youth Total Sample
% male 81% 54% 40% 35% 37% 49%
% urban 71% 66% 57% 80% 76% 72%
Sectarian Composition
Sunni 34% 25% 37% 30% 26% 29%
Shiite 16% 10% 38% 41% 37% 27%
Maronite 23% 34% 13% 12% 17% 21%
Christian minorities 19% 20% 6% 12% 16% 16%
Muslim Minorities 9% 12% 6% 5% 4% 7%
Household Income
Low 11% 9% 14% 9% 11% 10%
Average 69% 73% 79% 74% 70% 72%
High 19% 18% 6% 17% 19% 17%
Political Attitudes
Believes participation makes a difference 76% 67% 57% 73% 67% 69%
Sympathize with current protest movements 50% 35% 38% 48% 34% 40%
Interested in politics 32% 26% 22% 29% 33% 29%
Religious Views
Agree that religious practice is a private matter and should be separated from public and political life 88% 95% 81% 88% 90% 90%
Social Rights
Agree that men and women should receive equal pay for equal work 86% 95% 84% 93% 86% 89%
Agree that women and men should have equal inheritance rights 76% 84% 69% 82% 69% 76%
Agree that women and men should have equal divorce rights 87% 89% 70% 86% 71% 81%

Source: Harb, Atallah, and Diab, 2020, op. cit.

The clustering method productively demonstrates how young people’s political, social, and religious attitudes dynamically vary across a range of variables, rather than being rigidly confined to gender, income, religion, education, or geography. The high level of variation within and across the clusters reveals the diversity and heterogeneity of their attitudes and beliefs, and the intersectionality of variables of gender, age, income, education, sect, and geography.

The five clusters that were derived from the analysis yield three sets of implications. First, the clustering technique supports better insights and understandings of youth’s political and social attitudes. Challenging the reductionist views where youth need to be empowered to become “assets,” and to provide “hope,” rather than remain “liabilities” and a “burden” on society, clusters demonstrate that youth have multidimensional attributes that are more complex than such labels. The most obvious is that age is not an explanatory variable. More interestingly, we identify four findings that are worth exploring further. First, even if religion is confirmed as a defining factor, its impact on gender rights is influenced by the education one attains. Second, support for political mobilization does not necessarily translate into political action. Third, young people who support political action are also the ones who are the most willing to migrate. Fourth, only a quarter of youth carry non-sectarian beliefs, and they also happen to be the ones who least participated in political action. Furthermore, each of the five clusters is made up of youth from different gender, sect, and income and education levels. In other words, none of the clusters is composed of members who are solely from one socioeconomic group, gender, or confession—adding more complexity to the mapping.

Second, the clustering technique can act as a necessary method for informed policy making. Indeed, valuable policy and programmatic implications can be drawn from the results and are relevant to governmental bodies as well as to international organizations working with youth. For instance, programs that approach youth primarily through the variable of age are bound to fail. Policies and programs need to account for youth’s multidimensional sociopolitical categories such as the ones identified in the clusters; they include more informed and nuanced proposals that can effectively address constituents so they are impactful. For example, programs that encourage non-sectarian initiatives to youth whose views are conservative are less likely to be effective, and projects that teach entrepreneurship to youth who are likely to migrate are a waste of resources.

Third, deconstructing youth through such a complex lens opens up avenues for a more systematic empirical understanding of youth identities. Indeed, experimental methods can be introduced to test the impact of certain treatments on the willingness of young people to change attitudes or behaviors.

The clustering technique is hence a useful tool to qualify the features characterizing youth’s multidimensional ideas toward politics, religion, and society; they can perhaps explain why collective political action may be difficult to materialize and sustain. Indeed, the weak political mobilization and voting among youth in the 2018 Lebanese parliamentary elections could be associated with socioeconomic and political fragmentation and dispersion (validated by the existence of five clusters)—elements that do not facilitate organizing and coalescing into durable collective action according to the social movement literature.21

 3. Youth’s Political Mobilization

Despite the bleak public policy and political economy environment that rules their lives, young people still try to secure a meaningful future and engage in politics. Based on the review of the literature on the topic and on qualitative research, it can be argued that youth organize and get politicized via three types of groups. The first are groups that conform to sectarian identity and hetero-normative social structures and choose to adhere to mainstream political parties: these are the “conformists.” The second are groups that mobilize in issue-based NGOs, which are not necessarily non-sectarian but present themselves as “alternatives” to the corrupt dominant rulers: these are professionalized NGOs.22 The third are groups that reject NGO-ization and experiment with looser institutional formats, organizing campaigns and coalitions. They are generally more progressive and radical in their rights-based demands and their collective action; these are the “progressive activists.”

a) Conformists

Sectarian political groups in Lebanon typically have their own “youth wings,” which are organizations that target youth, socializing them through sports, leisure, and cultural events, and ultimately mobilizing them into their partisan structure. There are 10 main sectarian-based political parties in Lebanon: Hezbollah, Amal Movement, Future Movement, Democratic Renewal (Tajaddod) Movement, President Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, Lebanese Forces, Marada Movement, Phalanges Party (Kataeb), the Progressive Socialist Party, and Armenian Tachnak. All have their own institutions that serve youth. In addition, about six youth-relevant organizations, led by political elites, serve their own sectarian-based youth constituencies, such as the Moawad, Hariri, Safadi, and Makhzoumi Foundations.

Provision of youth services such as sports, scouting, and training depends on the party’s financial resources and ability to access public services. Among these parties, a few stand out for their professional and holistic network of service provision. Hezbollah is one of these as it has been mobilizing Shia youth effectively for about 40 years. Taking a closer look at Hezbollah is interesting for two reasons: on the one hand, its mobilization strategies provide insight into the reasons why youth are attracted to political Islam;23 on the other hand, it can be seen as the “ideal type” through which Lebanese political parties engage youth in their ranks early on and keep them hostage to their clientelistic system of service provision.24

Hezbollah manages two organizations that are specifically dedicated to youth.25 One is the Mobilization Unit, which incorporates a youth and sports department that manages youth clubs and sports activities, including scouts (al-Mehdi), a successful football club (al-‘Ahd), youth summer camps, field trips, and cultural activities for youth. The party owns several sports fields across south Beirut and many clubs that include more than 100 teams trained in diverse sports (ping-pong, basketball, volleyball, karate, boxing, and gymnastics). Several teams participate in national sports competitions with games often showcased during religious occasions and commemorations such as Jerusalem Day, Martyrs Day, or Eid al-Adha. Al-Mehdi scouts also operate according to strict recruitment and mobilization structures and yearly activities associated with Hezbollah’s schools and educational activities. The second Hezbollah organization catering to youth’s needs is a cultural NGO, the Lebanese Arts Association (LAA), which organizes music, theater, and leisure activities for youth in addition to building museums and parks (e.g. in Mleeta, Khiam, and Marun al-Ra’s).26 In both organizations, girls and boys are segregated and socialized differently—along the typical division lines of physical activities for the latter and artistic activities for the former. The purpose of both the Mobilization Unit and the LAA is to engage youth in purposeful and meaningful sports and cultural activities that involve the body and mind and that center the value of resistance.

Similarly, but less effectively, other sectarian political parties recruit youth and mobilize them into their structures, providing them with avenues of socializing and organizing that reproduce the sectarian political system while consolidating their allegiances to their sectarian patron.

b) Professionalized NGOs

According to a 2015 report that surveyed a sample of NGOs in Lebanon, there are 8,311 registered NGOs in the Ministry of Interior and Municipalities (MoIM); of those, only 1,094 were effectively operational. 27 The report also indicates that 41 percent of these NGOs lacked “structured human resource systems,” while 60 percent were short on financial resources and 75 percent had an operational budget of less than USD 250,000.28 This large number of NGOs is made possible by legal regulations that make it easy to set up an NGO with the MoIM, which then issues a number that legalizes the NGO’s existence.

The focus here will be on NGOs that were established in the aftermath of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri in 2005 and the withdrawal of the Syrian army from Lebanon. This was a milestone that catapulted the country into regular episodes of tension, violence, and conflict, interrupted by moments of protests (the 2006 Israeli war, the 2008 May clashes, the 2011 war in Syria). Amid these episodes, and with generous funding from western donors seeking to support reform and change, young people mobilized in dozens of new NGOs created to promote citizenship, capacity-building, inter-sectarian dialogue, social cohesion, conflict resolution, and human rights in addition to education, health, and environmental issues.

Aid strategies thus promoted and accommodated the existing sectarian system rather than seeking to structurally transform it, thereby demobilizing the associational sector, which became instead a springboard to public office or professional networks.

Termed “alternative NGOs” by Clark and Zahar, the post-Intifada (Cedar Revolution) youth organizations were mostly concentrated in Beirut and relied mainly on volunteers.29 Within them, youth experimented with social media as a novel mechanism of communication and with new strategies of mobilization, linked to workshops, fairs, conferences, and training programs, locally and abroad. Rapidly though, NGOs started suffering from fundraising difficulties and the challenges of attracting and retaining volunteers. Their work became more reactive than proactive. Several had a short life and closed down. Paradoxically, international funding was channeled in its majority to NGOs and foundations of political elites.30 Aid strategies thus promoted and accommodated the existing sectarian system rather than seeking to structurally transform it, thereby demobilizing the associational sector, which became instead a springboard to public office or professional networks. Among the alternative NGOs that managed to sustain themselves, youth became partners in a competitive industry in which donors and political elites dictated associative agendas.31 Similar to many NGOs elsewhere,32 youth collective action became depoliticized and prospects of political and social change dwindled. Several NGOs, even those with the best of intentions, discontinued their mission of empowering the communities they were working with, as they had to abide by donors’ agendas and conditions.33 Other NGOs became co-opted by sectarian politics and entrenched private interests.34 As Salloukh et al. demonstrate, sectarian political rulers have a repertoire of strategies that enable the reproduction of sectarianism within NGOs.35

c) Progressive Activists

The 2011 Arab uprisings timidly reverberated in Lebanon through short-lived street protests asking for the downfall of the sectarian regime. During this phase, new forms of collective action consolidated. Some earlier experiments undertaken in the aftermath of the 2006 Israeli war had engaged youth loosely in coalitions, helping displaced Lebanese and assisting reconstruction efforts (e.g. Samidoun and AUB Reconstruction Task Force).36 The war in Syria had a dire impact on the country, with the influx of refugees in the hundreds, then the thousands, reaching more than one million to date. The refugee crisis pushed youth and NGOs to mobilize to provide relief and support. It also brought international funding to NGOs that redefined their agendas to position themselves as legitimate partners.

The refugee crisis was well exploited by political leaders, who used it as an excuse to postpone the 2013 national elections, generating anger and protests, which were rapidly and violently repressed. In May 2014, the presidential elections were also canceled, furthering political limbo. Resentment grew deeper against unaccountable, corrupt political rulers who only service their own narrow interests, and against the increasingly inefficient provision of basic services. It erupted in a large wave of discontent that swamped Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square in August 2015, in reaction to a (still unresolved) garbage crisis. The #YouStink protests grouped dozens of small coalitions, NGOs, and independent activists. They raised an unprecedented slogan, for the first time, requesting accountability from all political leaders across camps: “all of them means all of them” (kellun yaani kellun). What became known as al-Hirak was quickly repressed by the police, who harassed and terrorized protesters, beating and jailing them, accusing youth of disrupting the social and moral orders, and threatening security.

Al-Hirak succeeded in “renewing recurrent topics of contestation and reinvigorating older forms of activism”37; it also gave more visibility and voice to loosely organized collectives and campaigns that had already been operating, each in their own niche—leading up to the celebrated municipal campaign led by Beirut Madinati in 2016.[38] Five features distinguish these new activist groups from the more typical, professional NGOs. First, their non-structured, open-ended, flexible setup allow them to discuss their issues openly. Their work is more freely organized, providing a safe space to debate and experiment in participatory and creative ways.39 They brainstorm, research, think, and discuss together, generating ideas for collective action. Second, progressive activists do not have a specific leader and do not want one: they often reject hierarchical structures and prefer horizontal forms of shared leadership, where decision-making is done collaboratively and often impulsively.

Third, progressives’ work is grounded in gender-aware action-research;40 they spend time understanding socioeconomic issues, conduct fieldwork and archival research, consult with experts, and dig up relevant laws. Fourth, new activists rely extensively on social media as their means of communication (WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram) for making their voice heard and disseminating their claims. They also build websites to feature their concerns and actions and use crowdfunding to fundraise. Fifth, they use a range of strategies and tools for collective action: lobbying, negotiation, media and social media, protests, direct action, litigation, as well as performances, exhibitions, conferences, installations, and design competitions.

The 2019 October uprising toppled the government but did not manage to break the entrenched sectarian political system, which was conveniently and ironically rescued by the COVID-19 virus.

Progressive activists organized further for the 2018 parliamentary elections, forming a national coalition, but only gained one seat in the Assembly, raising serious doubts about the capacities of these kinds of loosely formed opposition groups to organize effectively and contribute to political change. The 2019 October uprising, which expanded the hearts and imaginaries of thousands across geographic regions and reached an unprecedented scale, toppled the government but did not manage to break the entrenched sectarian political system, which was conveniently and ironically rescued by the COVID-19 virus. Indeed, activism and protests are not enough to bring about democratization, which requires organization and strategy that youth-based protest movements negotiate with difficulty.41 As Paciello and Pioppi note in their discussion of these new activisms, “[their] horizontality and atomized character is also clearly undermining their chance to engage in long-term battles, to build larger alliances and to form a solid political alternative to the regimes.”42


This study examined youth in Lebanon through three lenses: the policy narratives and frameworks that structure their lives, a quantitative reading of youth using the clustering method, and an analysis of young people’s different forms of political mobilization. It discussed some of the complex challenges preventing youth engaged in oppositional politics from successfully organizing toward durable political change, even though some groups did institutionalize novel modalities of collective action that generated uprisings that seriously threatened the sectarian political system. The research underscored the exclusionary and alienating policy narratives and frameworks that structure youth’s lives and constrain their world view to sectarianism. It also showed, through the clustering method, how youth are socially and politically fragmented into five clusters, which prevents them from allying, organizing, and coalescing to achieve durable collective action. In addition, youth’s available forms of mobilization largely consolidate and reproduce sectarian politics, with little room for progressive coalitions to form.

Indeed, young people either conform to mainstream sectarian politics, hetero-normative social structures, and pious norms, or integrate into professional NGO groups, or engage in progressive activist platforms—which have more potential for political change, albeit tenuous. Activist networks face the huge odds of a hegemonic sectarian political system keen on protecting its assets, an ineffective political representation system, and a fraught geopolitical context in which wars, conflicts, crises, and disasters keep unfolding. However, amid this incredibly structurally constrained environment, the perseverance of struggles should be analyzed as experiments and trainings for the next episodes in the arduous and long battle toward social justice and political change.

* Photo credit: Twitter/Aya Majzoub
1 “Lebanon Sinking into One of the Most Severe Global Crises Episodes, amidst Deliberate Inaction,” The World Bank, June 1, 2021,
2 The paper synthesizes findings from two published articles: Mona Harb, Sami Atallah, and Mohamad Diab, “Using the Clustering Method for a Heterogeneous Reading of Lebanese Youth,” Mediterranean Politics 26, no. 3 (2021): 370-392, doi: 10.1080/13629395.2020.1749812; and Mona Harb, “New Forms of Youth Activism in Contested Cities: The Case of Beirut,” International Spectator 53, no. 2, (2018): 74-93, doi: 10.1080/03932729.2018.1457268.
3 Mona Harb, Le Hezbollah à Beyrouth (1985-2005): de la banlieue à la ville (Paris: Karthala, 2010).
4 Sami Atallah, “Turning a Research Idea into a National Movement: How the LCPS’s Advocacy Initiative Led to Municipal Elections,” in Democracy Think Tanks in Action: Translating Research into Policy in Young and Emerging Democracies: 55-66 (Washington, DC: The International Forum for Democratic Studies at the National Endowment for Democracy, 2013), 55-66.
5 Marie-Noëlle AbiYaghi, Myriam Catusse and Mariam Younes. “From isqat an-nizam at-ta’ifi to the Garbage Crisis Movement: Political Identities and Antisectarian Movements,” in Lebanon Facing the Arab Uprisings, eds. Rosita Di Peri and Daniel Meier(London: Palgrave, 2017), 73-91.
6 “Lebanese Electoral Law 2018,” Ministry of Information, Republic of Lebanon, April 4, 2018,
7 “The 1932 Census and the Making of Today’s Lebanon,” Collective for Research and Training on Development – Action, January 15, 2013,
8 Today, Lebanon is among the top ten countries in the world in terms of remittances, reaching about 20 percent of its GDP with a diaspora said to reach seven million people (two times its population). See Choghig Kasparian, L’émigration des jeunes Libanais hautement qualifiés (Beirut: Université Saint-Joseph, 2010).
9 Françoise de Bel-Air, “Policy/Institutional Factors of Youth Exclusion/Inclusion: Youth Migration from and to Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon, Turkey,” Presentation at the Power2Youth Workshop in Beirut. February 24-25, 2015.
10 Jihad Makhoul and Lindsey Harrison, “Intercessory Wasta and Village Development in Lebanon.” Arab Studies Quarterly 26, no. 3 (2004): 25-41,
11 Paul Tabar, “Lebanon, A Country of Emigration and Immigration,” Institute for Migration Studies 7 (2010), While Gulf countries are a destination for mostly skilled professional labor, Africa attracts less skilled youth and mostly people working in commerce, often in black market trade.
12 In its 2014 Global Wealth Databook report, Credit Suisse states that 0.3 percent of the Lebanese population own 50 percent of its wealth. For more information, see “0.3% of Lebanese Own 50% of Lebanon,” A Separate State of Mind, February 8, 2015,
13 Mona Harb. “Assessing Youth Exclusion through Discourse and Policy Analysis: The Case of Lebanon,” POWER2YOUTH Working Paper no. 8, February 2016, 1-29.
14 On sectarian political parties’ service provision, see Melani Claire Cammett. “Partisan Activism and Access to Welfare in Lebanon,” Studies in Comparative International Development 46 (2011), 70-97. doi: 10.1007/s12116-010-9081-9.
15 Nizar Saghieh, Youth Participation in the Law (Beirut: UNESCO, 2012)
16 Harb, “Assessing Youth Exclusion,” op. cit.
17 Caroline Nagel and Lynn Staeheli, “International Donors, NGOs, and the Geopolitics of Youth Citizenship in Contemporary Lebanon,” Geopolitics 20, no. 2 (2015): 223-47, doi: 10.1080/14650045.2014.922958.
18 Linda Herrera and Asef Bayat, Being Young and Muslim: New Cultural Politics in the Global South and North (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 7.
19 Using the k-means clustering method, first random cluster centers are assigned. Each point is assigned to the cluster with the nearest cluster center using Euclidean distance in the seven dimensions deployed here. Cluster centers are then re-assigned through multiple iterations to minimize the sum of distances from each observation to its closest cluster center. A cluster center therefore represents average characteristics of observations in its group—young people in this case.
20 For the full discussion of these issues, see Harb, Atallah, and Diab, “Using the Clustering Method,” op. cit.
21 Walter J. Nicholls and Justus Uitermark, Cities and Social Movements: Immigrant Rights Activism in the US, France, and the Netherlands, 1970-2015 (London: Wiley, 2016).
22 I use “professional” to refer to the fact that NGOs have little potential to foster significant democratization given the typically project-focused and short-term nature of their activities. See Islah Jad, “The NGO-isation of Arab Women’s Movements,” IDS Bulletin, 35, no. 4 (October 2004): 34–42, doi:
As such, NGOs thus end up focusing on fundraising activities to secure their staff salaries and sustain themselves, and on projects’ completion: in other words, “paying professionals [becomes] the norm, while activists and volunteers [start] to disappear in a trend that [leads] to less action-oriented and more ‘managerial’ type of organization.” See Dalya Mitri, “From Public Space to Office Space: The Professionalization/NGOization of the Feminist Movement Associations in Lebanon and its Impact on Mobilization and Achieving Social Change,” Civil Society Review, 1 (2015): 87-96. For more information, see Marie-Noëlle AbiYaghi, Léa Yammine, and Amreesha Jagarnathsingh, “Civil Society in Lebanon: The Implementation Trap,” Civil Society Knowledge Centre, January 1, 2019, doi: 10.28943/CSKC.002.70000.
23 On Sunni youth’s mobilization, including the short-lived excitement around Ahmad al-Assir, see Robert G. Rabil, Salafism in Lebanon: From Apoliticism to Transnational Jihadism. (Washington DC: Georgetown University Press, 2014).
24 This is especially true for political parties with strong ideology such as the Tachnak and the Lebanese Forces, which best compare to Hezbollah in terms of managing autonomous professional institutions, but with fewer financial resources. For the other political parties in which political ideology is more fluid, such as the Amal Movement, Future Movement, Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, the Progressive Socialist Party, and the Kataeb, mobilization strategies are less organized and professionalized, more clientelistic in their structure, and parasitic of public resources. This and the following discussion on Hezbollah’s organizations are based on Harb, Le Hezbollah à Beyrouth (1985-2005), op. cit.
25 Ibid.
26 Mona Harb and Lara Deeb, “Culture as History and Landscape: Hizballah’s Efforts to Shape an Islamic Milieu in Lebanon,” Arab Studies Journal 19, no. 1 (Spring 2011): 12-45.
27 Mapping Civil Society Organization in Lebanon, Beyond Reform and Development, 2015, (7-8,
28 Ibid., 13 and 73.
29 Janine Astrid Clark and Marie-Joëlle Zahar. “Critical Junctures and Missed Opportunities: The Case of Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution,” Ethnopolitics 14, no. 1 (2014): 1-18, doi: 10.1080/17449057.2014.924659.
30 Ibid., 7.
31 Mayssoun Sukarieh and Stuart Tannock. Youth Rising? The Politics of Youth in the Global Economy. (London: Routledge, 2015); Lamia Moghnieh, “Local Expertise and Global Packages of Aid: The Transformative Role of Volunteerism and Locally Engaged Expertise of Aid during the 2006 July War in Lebanon,” Civil Society Knowledge Centre, July 29, 2015, .
32 Uma Kothari, “Introduction,” in A Radical History of Development Studies: Individuals, Institutions and Ideologies, ed. Uma Kothari (London: Zed Books, 2005).
33 Nagel and Staeheli, “International Donors, NGOs,” op. cit.
34 Janine Astrid Clark and Bassel Salloukh, “Elite Strategies, Civil Society, and Sectarian Identities in Postwar Lebanon,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 45, no. 4 (2013):7, doi: 10.1017/S0020743813000883.
35 Bassel Salloukh et al., The Politics of Sectarianism in Postwar Lebanon(London: Pluto Press, 2015), 53, 58-9.
36 On the work of Samidoun, see Moghnieh, “Local Expertise,” op. cit.; on the role of the American University of Beirut Reconstruction Task Force, see Howayda Al-Harithy, ed., Lessons in Post-War Reconstruction: Case Studies from Lebanon in the Aftermath of the 2006 War (London: Routledge, 2010).
37 AbiYaghi et al., “From isqat an-nizam at-ta’ifi,” op. cit., 78.
[38] See their website,, to check these documents, as well as their Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts. Beirut Madinati’s list included 12 women and 12 men, none of whom were affiliated with the political establishment—a first in Lebanon’s political history. It opposed the “Beirutis’ List” sponsored by Saad Hariri, the son of Rafic, and led by Jamal Itani, the CEO of Solidere; this was the real estate company that epitomized the neoliberal reconstruction of Beirut which brought together all representatives of sectarian political parties who, typically, forgot they were yesterday’s enemies. Beirut Madinati’s list did not win but gathered 32 percent of the votes, while Beirutis List got 43 percent. It was an outcome that greatly exceeded the campaign’s expectations. Had the electoral system been proportional, ten of Beirut Madinati’s candidates would be serving on the capital’s municipal council today.
39 Based on interviews and participant observation with activists, November 2015.
40 On the role of action-research in social change, see Jethro Pettit, “Learning to Do Action Research for Social Change,” International Journal of Communication 4 (2010): 820-827,
41 Larry Diamond, “Postscript: From Activism to Democracy,” in Taking to the Streets. The Transformation of Arab Activism, eds. Lina Khatib and Ellen Lust (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2014), 322-34.
42 Maria-Cristina Paciello and Daniela Pioppi, “Youth in the Southeast Mediterranean Region and the Need for a Political Economy Approach,” POWER2YOUTH Working Paper no. 37, May 2017, 17,