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Young Egyptians, schooling, and meritocratic aspirations: A post-structuralist approach

Wed, March 28, 5:00 to 6:30pm, Hilton Reforma, Floor: 10th Floor, Suite 1 (Room 1001)


I suggest in this paper that the transversal educational exclusionary circumstances of studentship constrain the sorts of subjects that young people can become and at the same time constitute them as young and educated in the Egyptian context. In particular, I argue that Egyptian students' negotiations of notions of success and self-realization reveal a number of ambivalences through which students’ subjects are constituted. As such, negotiations carry fragments of western notions of individuality (Jeffrey 2008: 741-3), and local culturally idealized trajectories of national, communal and pious commitments and submission to patriarchal social norms. I further argue that such communal and nationalist commitments for some young people go beyond the model of the "good citizen" towards exploring and negotiating notions of “taghyeer” (change) in what they witness of examples of corruption, and absence of equity and justice.

A post-structuralist approach
In this paper I voice, through a school ethnographic study in a low-income Cairo neighborhood, Egyptian students’ sense of boredom and tension, regarding their current status as students and their future aspirations. I join post-strucuralists; Bayat (2003, 2007) and Schielke (2009a, 2009b) in examining young people’s engagement in self-fashioning practices, and the involved ambivalence and fragmentation. Studies by Bayat and Schielke explore how young people negotiate notions of ethical practices and modernity and note the ambivalence of young people in Egypt between moralities and their subjectivities as youth. Youth are navigating their way through the conflicting liberal and ethical discourses by creating their own “hybrid identities and realities as demonstrated by their new cultural forms and expressions” (Bayat 2003:1).
Other studies by Simone (2001), Osella and Osella (2000) and Jeffery (2008) discuss the extent to which “young people’s efforts to rescale their strategies often involves reaffirming rather than rejecting ‘traditional’ solidarities based on family, kinship, or religion” (Jeffery et al 2008: 751). They suggest that, with increased rates of unemployment and the prolonged state of “waithood”, young people in the south are capable of drawing upon kinship relations and religious networks in negotiating entry into new economic networks where the potential for employment and social mobility exist.

While acknowledging the value of passing the secondary high-stake exam as the pathway towards future success and social mobility, young people also showed their awareness of how the educational system was being used for the reproduction of domination and exclusion. Emerging from secondary schooling to college life, young people’s subjectivities were constituted while they made sense of their feelings of despair, frustration, uncertainty and exclusion. At the intersections of class, gender, and educational exclusive circumstances, young people showed their capacity for overcoming the conventional links that were aimed at subordinating them.

Coming from lower middle class backgrounds, the Egyptian students voiced an image of success that was somehow organized around and in relation to the living standards of wealthier citizens. Their narratives suggest the extent to which they aspired to become powerful and wealthy as a sign of successes. Young people’s notion of "self-realization" carried locally understood meanings of finding a good job, forming a family and believing that success is predestined by God, and it showed the extent to which young people valued the available local and traditional networks in negotiating their future aspirations and potentials.

Young people’s narratives reveal a number of ambivalences through which they are constituted as young and educated. For instance, voicing criticism against wasta (nepotism) networks and the corruption they entail, while at the same time thinking of the potential wasta networks available to them for employment upon graduation; swinging between the notion of “self-realization” with what it carries of western notions of individuality and longing to live abroad while voicing Egyptian lower middle class idealized trajectories of longing to benefit the country and make a difference; young women longing for equity in the labor market upon graduation while submitting to patriarchal social norms by being willing to drop their educational plans and going for an early marriage and admitting that men have a better chance in the labor market.


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