President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi sponsors and participates in the first national youth conference in Sharm al-Sheikh.
The idyllic spot of Sharm al-Sheikh on the Red Sea coast on the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula made the headlines more than a week ago for something other than its serene beauty. Some 3,000 of Egypt’s young men and women who came from all over the country and from a variety of backdrops, together with more than 300 public figures and experts in different fields, converged on the Red Sea resort for the First National Youth Conference. Under the theme “Innovate, take off” the conference took off on 25 October 2016. Throughout three days and 23 sessions, the youth debated Egypt’s political, economic, cultural, and social predicaments with the experts and with President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, under whose sponsorship the conference was held.
President Sisi had first announced the conference during Egyptian Youth Day celebrations on 9 January when he declared 2016 “the year of youth”. The President pledged that various State institutions would hold dialogue with young people, leading right up to the National Youth Conference in Sharm el-Sheikh. He said the process aimed to “be an effective nucleus for a real channel of communication between young people and the State to allow for genuine exchange of visions and opinions, and to lead to the development of a shared vision.” At the time, the President said that the Central Bank of Egypt would support small and medium sized projects for young people, and that the government would build 145,000 housing units for them.
The Sharm al-Sheikh youth conference took off to a chorus of scepticism. “Sisi’s austerity: a EGP3.6 million youth conference. Whatever for?” was a comment common on Facebook. Other posts sneered: “How were the 3000 young persons picked? On what basis?” A few political parties, including the Popular Socialist Alliance Party and a number of Islamist-leaning parties declared a boycott of the conference. In a joint statement they said their young members refused to take part in a conference geared towards photo opportunities and which “distracts from real problems such as price hikes, lack of basic services, the sharp decline in basic rights and freedoms, and the imprisonment of young people.”
Once the conference took off, however, political observers pronounced it a qualitative change in the manner the political leadership in Egypt deals with young people. Given the full freedom to express themselves, the young displayed full awareness of the problems Egypt faces, and the capacity to analyse them and propose serious, innovative solutions for them.
The young people supported President Sisi’s call for solidarity and unity in the face of terrorism and Egypt’s enemies “who attempt to impede the country’s efforts towards development”. They specifically demanded better job opportunities and facilities for small and medium sized projects.
The conference offered an annual Creativity Award for youth. Among those who won it this year were eight young men and women: internationally recognised Soprano Fatma Said; Paralympics table tennis champion Ibrahim Hamadtou; young inventor Mariam Bayoumi; Physics researcher John Magdy; Director Muhammad Mekki; construction engineer Muhammad Hany who works with the Suez Canal tunnel authority; soloist Hussam Shehata; and Muhammad Shaker Khodeir for directing the TV serial drama Grand Hotel.
President Sisi praised the conference as “a great opportunity to exchange views without exclusion,” and promised it would be held annually.
The conference resolutions targeted many issues which disturb young Egyptians. The President fully endorsed the resolutions and announced decisions to directly put them into action.
The first was the formation of a national commission of youth to review the cases of young people detained without trial. President Sisi said the commission would present its first report to him in 15 days time. The necessary measures relevant to each case should be taken in accordance with the constitutional and legal competences of the President.
The President also promised that amendments to the 2013 protest law proposed by the conference would be studied.
The Egyptian presidency will coordinate with the cabinet to found a national centre to develop young people for political and social leadership roles through systems and courses that work to root the Egyptian identity.
The conference resolutions also included meetings to be held monthly till the 2017 conference, in which youth from all sectors of society may join to follow up on the implementation of the moves recommended by the 2016 conference.
It was also proposed that the government should organise an extensive societal debate on education reform, that would come up with a paper including out-of-the-box solutions to the education predicament in Egypt. The paper would be presented to the December session of the projected monthly youth conference.
Another resolution demanded the speeding up of the passage of legislation that should regulate media work.
The President endorsed the youth call for volunteer work to solve social problems, beginning with the widespread illiteracy.
A resolution which earned strong presidential endorsement required the government to join forces with the religious institutions in Egypt to launch a vast social dialogue to root ethics and values and reform religious discourse so as to preserve the full dimensions of the Egyptian identity.
Dreams for Egypt
The conference was about more than political discussions. On the sideline, an art exhibition was held as well as a talent show.
On 26 October the President joined in a marathon alongside the young men and women who participated in the conference. He said the marathon served as a “message of peace to the world…We say to the whole world that it’s very important to promote peace and to combat and reject the violence and terrorism that seek to destroy and harm the entire world.”
Watani talked to Iman Saber, a Masters degree student in Mass Communications, who was among those who represented the Delta governorate of Menoufiya in the conference. Ms Saber said she had participated in the National Forum in her town to discuss local government problems and come up with proposal to resolve them. From there, she said, she was short-listed among the distinguished candidates in her governorate and, later, nominated to take part in the First National Youth Conference.
Ms Saber was happy with the conference. “It has succeeded in achieving much of what we dreamt of,” she said. “In addition, we had a good chance to get close to Sisi. We were truly amazed at his spontaneity in the manner he dealt with us; his genuine warmth came through strongly as he listened and conversed with us. It was not only during the bigger sessions; we sat with him in smaller groups and talked freely and candidly of our interests. He also spoke of his concerns and plans and dreams for Egypt. These were wonderful moments, and I only wished that all Egypt’s young people would have lived with us these instances.”
Watani was keen to sound the opinion of various young persons on the conference.
According to Islam Muhammad, 29, the conference was all right, “but the country suffers from so many crises; we’d rather have seen any answer to them. Prices are spiralling; we face frequent shortages the most recent of which is the sugar shortage; the Dollar is reaching frightful new heights against the Egyptian Pound; electricity is getting more and more expensive…Besides, there are problems which have become chronic such as the traffic and crowding owing to population expansion; lack of clean water and sanitary drainage in much of rural Egypt; corruption in local government; and many others.”
Romany Nageh, 35, says the youth conference is a positive step that was long overdue. “We should shoulder our youth with more responsibility and involve them in more decision-making,” he says, “not merely listen to what they have to say about reform and change.”
Most impressive, according to Hind Magdy, 39, was the young people’s interest in reforming education. “This is one field where we most need change,” Ms Magdy says. “Education is the mainstay of the progress of nations; our young men and women were right to give it priority.”
“The conference was far removed from official domination,” says Monica Fawzy, 18. “We were treated to free opinions and ideas by figures who are known to be in the opposition; this gave wealth to the discussions and prompted even more free discussion.” Ms Fawzy says she was happy with the Creativity Award, especially that the winners were individuals of real merit albeit not famous.
In total agreement with Ms Fawzy is Michael Girgis, 31, who is also impressed by the fact that the participants in the conference came from a variety of fields, not merely from the political circle. Mr Girgis is very happy with the President’s decision to review the cases of the young people in prison. “All in all, I’m quite comfortable with the conference, especially since it included a large variety of young people. This allays my fears of ever going back to the days of a one-party political system.”
So what happened to the sceptic opinions that had been expressed on social media prior to the conference? Watani approached several of them for a post-conference opinion. Some, of course, remained sceptical that anything of value would come out of the conference. But the majority simply dismissed the idea of discussing the matter, saying they had not followed what went on in Sharm al-Sheikh. This, as far as Watani is concerned, brings scepticism to a level all of its own.
2 November 2016