Last week saw the graduation of the 24th and final class of Watani’s Youth Parliament (WYP); the curtain fell on the dynamic pedestal born back in 2000.
WYP was launched in an era when, in the absence of an inclusive climate that could nurture and involve them, Egyptian youth were starved for political participation. The aim of WYP was to raise awareness among young people—men and women, Muslim and Christian—of the significance of active participation in public and political life, and to equip them with the expertise to do so.
Since 2000, WYP has served some 1,000 young Egyptians who together debated the various challenges that faced the nation on both the local and international fronts. They learned to form informed opinions through scrutiny, analysis, and respect for diversity and difference. They acquired new skills through managing themselves their parliament, learning first-hand about independence and power rotation. The result was that they built up confidence and were able to move on from merely emulating parliamentary democracy to being effective players on the Egyptian public and political arena. Our graduates became active members in political parties, rights organisations, and civil society institutions.
WYP was a haven to youth during a time when the political scene was barren and desolate. Back then, the National Democratic Party (NDP) controlled the political arena, allowing only a number of feeble other parties to operate, just to project to the world a fake image of political pluralism. The only thing in common between the NDP and other parties was the sway the leading figures held on decision making and their reluctance to involve the youth, except those who demonstrated special skills at flattering the aged leading figures. In this unhealthy climate, the youth were by and large accused of apathy, in disregard of the fact that it was the attitude of the aged party leaders that was the main cause of this apathy.
Egyptian young people eagerly responded to the call to join WYP, hoping to get out of the dark tunnel where they were trapped. But even as they enthused about their participation in WYP, they were worried about mingling and communicating with others of different gender or faith, in addition to their usual wariness of control by the older generation. But we at Watani were well aware that the success of the experience depended on the degree of freedom and independence afforded to it, and granted this freely.
Day in day out, WYP thrived. The young people basked in managing and developing it. They spoke of it to friends and acquaintances who in turn sought to join in droves, giving rise to a long waiting list. The graduation ceremony of the first WYP class in 2001 was especially moving. The graduating youth talked of their experience, their initial fears and subsequent confidence, maturity and boldness. We advised them to join the political movement where they could have an impact, create change, and serve Egypt.
Later, Watani would invite WYP graduates to talk of the role they undertook in political and party life. Pride warmed our hearts as we witnessed how these young persons were able to re-place a fallen stone in the political pyramid. The WYP became an important part of Watani’s mission, taking it from a mere media calling to one of spreading awareness and working development.
Then the 25 January 2011 Revolution erupted. Its spark, fuel and success were the youth. Ever since this point, the political cards changed; the NDP fell and left the scene to a large number of political parties representing diverse political streams. But the real, tangible change was in how society looked at youth. They were no longer rejected or marginalised; rather, political parties and movements competed for their participation, believing them to be the effective ingredient in communication with the masses. When Egypt was hijacked by political Islam, it was the dynamism, enthusiasm and political maturity of the youth that fuelled rejection and opposition, and generated the Tamarud (Rebel) movement, the godfather of the revolution against the Islamists on 30 June 2013.
At this point, we at Watani felt we needed to reassess the mission of WYP. The rules of political participation had changed, and the youth held the pivot point. Our role had changed too. We needed to press the youth to engage in the actual movement rather than the model. It was time for us to let the youth off WYP without giving up on them, a wish which they reciprocated, both their men and women. Let me proudly point out that the positive participation of young women in all the rounds of WYP exceeded that of men.
Watani is thus today launching a “Youth Parliament Forum”, with the objective of reinforcing the experience of the youth, maintaining open channels with them and securing their ongoing participation. No going back to the quagmire of isolation or sectarianism. Watani Youth Parliament is giving way to Watani Youth Forum.
2 March 2014
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