Egypt’s Youth Conference: Tapping into the Next Generation

President Abdel Fattah El Sisi hosted Egypt’s first national Youth Conference in Sharm El Sheik last week.  Although Presidents host, and hold conferences under their auspices all the time, this particular conference was different in that the President personally participated in the entire proceedings of the event, which was held for three days under the theme “innovate and advance”.

A large number of young Egyptians participated in the conference, not merely as attendees, but as speakers and organizers. Young Egyptians shared the panels with ministers and CEOs.  They posed questions, and made recommendations on various sensitive issues. Perhaps the most notable comment was that of Amira Adly who quizzed the president on the space (or lack thereof) given for freedom of expression.  She also requested the release of students held behind bars.

The Conference was one of a series of initiatives launched by the Egyptian president to mark 2016 as the “Year of Egyptian Youth”. The conference agenda included the potentially thorny issues of the political situation, economic challenges, freedom of expression and the role of media and the modernization of religious discourse. The deliberations were candid, and reflective of a youth that is invested in the development of Egypt.  One other notable intervention was that of Ibrahim Issa, a prominent Egyptian journalist and talk show host who commented that Egypt should not be known as one of the remaining two or three countries who continue to jail journalists for their opinions.

The President reiterated Egypt’s irreversible path towards a democratic and transparent form of government. He noted the need to strike a delicate balance between civic freedoms and the considerations of national security. There were also calls for amendments to be made to the controversial protest law. The government will study these proposals for inclusion in the next set of draft legislations presented to Parliament. One of the most notable tangible achievements of the conference is the formation of a youth committee under the President’s direct supervision to study the merits of pre-trial release of youth on a case by case basis. The committee will present its findings in fifteen days.

Egypt’s youth took the bull by the horns as they demonstrated first hand their abilities to simulate an Egyptian government (to the audience of the President and cabinet ministers).  Egypt’s greatest resource, its youth, participated in and led discussions on Small and Medium Enterprises as an indispensable component of our recovering economy. The government showcased its efforts in promoting what remains to be a nascent sector.  The conference also touched upon labour-intensive mega projects, and their role in in creating a dynamic platform for the youth to realize their full potential and unleash their ambition. The conference agreed on conducting a study on ways to develop the labour market to cater for the needs of such projects.

The merits of the State’s economic policies and its chief objectives came under thorough and frank discussions. The debate was intense on the role of both the public and private sector and the needed macroeconomic reforms in sustaining long-term growth. The conference discussed ways to shift away from wasteful and regressive subsidies in order to create room for more effective spending on public services, targeted cash transfers and capital expenditures. It was agreed to continue this fruitful dialog and launch a dialogue between the youth and national authorities to tackle the economic concerns of the young generations and present a paper in this regard to the next monthly youth conference scheduled in December.

A fundamental part of the conference discussions aimed at ways to reform education, and how to create a new, young, knowledge-based and scientific society, armed with high levels of education and training to compete successfully in an integrated global economic landscape. Improving the quality of education has been a challenge seemingly difficult to attain. Government officials showed commitment towards achieving this goal despite budget constraints. They youth on their part were eager to contribute to the state’s efforts to eradicate illiteracy that still runs rampant in Egypt. The President invited them to set forth policies and programs that would help propagate the culture of voluntary work, with a major emphasis on eradicating illiteracy in the Egyptian governorates. Their response was amazingly positive.

The conference attached a big emphasis on enhancing and upholding Egypt’s cultural identity and its long tradition of morality, moderation and tolerance. The President attended a workshop, where representatives from Al-Azhar Institute and the Egyptian Orthodox church affirmed the significance of the cultural and social dimensions in renewing religious discourse. They called on younger generations to adhere to their core national character in the face of the perverted ideology of extremism that promises a return to the past. Youth engaged in deep and rich discussions and demonstrated a sweeping sense of nationhood and awareness of the need to coalesce around their national identity. The President invited Al-Azhar Islamic Institute and the Egyptian Church to coordinate with the government in order to launch an expanded societal dialogue that works on devising a comprehensive strategy to enforce the moral principles of the society and lay sound foundations for the rectification of religious discourse, and the preservation of the State’s national identity.

Several workshops were held to discuss the enormous influence of the media in shaping youth public opinion and raising political awareness and societal development. The participants emphasized the need to develop a code of conduct to maintain professionalism in media coverage and convey an accurate, fair, even-handed and non-inflammatory message. One other key intervention was that of Makram Mohamed Ahmed, the former head of the Journalism Syndicate, who stressed the need for media accountability and a clear separation between media and politics. This was in response to the point raised by Ibrahim Issa and he [Ahmed] also stressed that while there was nothing against journalists entering into politics, they should not wear both hats at the same time and that it is their duty to resign from journalism before entering into politics.The President tasked the government with coordinating with the House of Representatives to quickly issue media related legislation and form the needed bodies to regulate the work of media and journalism.

Participants left the conference ready to take the debate forward, confident that they laid the foundation for youth to “innovate and advance”. They agreed to organize monthly meetings with an appropriate representation of the youth from spectrum of society, to follow up on conference recommendations and to further their discussions in the run-up to Egypt’s second youth conference scheduled in November 2017.

Egypt’s youth attending the conference brought to bear a formidable grasp of the scope and magnitude of difficulties their nation is currently enduring. They showed resolve and resilience in the face of these difficulties and gave sound views on how to tackle them. They conveyed a sense of dynamism, enthusiasm and keenness to rejuvenate their nation and chart a new path for themselves. The State’s officials demonstrated firm commitment and determination to heed their calls, bring the country closer to their highest aspirations and build a creative and innovative society primed for their future. The conference set the tone very clear; Egypt’s future lies in its young and growing population, Egypt’s future lies in their energetic beat and creative minds that embody a spirit of modernization and enlightenment.

The conference conveyed a message to the whole world. Egypt’s leadership and youth have come together to set their country on an inclusive course. They have come together to affirm their unity, solidarity and national identity against mounting challenges. Egypt’s vision is deeply rooted in the youth’s competence and ability to move ahead and build a bright future that will soon be their own. One can discern a buoyant spirit permeating the walls of the conference; a spirit of hope that Egypt is shedding its skin, that Egypt is passing the torch to the next generation.

In the days following the conference, the newly formed Supreme Investment Council issued a series of new measures to encourage investment and stimulate the economy. Some of these measures can be attributed to the proceedings of the youth conference so we are beginning to witness the prospect of real change brought about by open public dialog. The conference has definitely set some precedents. Not only has the President taken the time to attend the entire event but there was an unprecedented air of transparency and openness with some controversial topics being discussed with and in front of the President himself. It may be too early to tell but the Youth Conference may well be a boon for Egypt and signal the beginning of its much needed social, political and economic recovery.  In closing, the Youth Conference was a big step towards enabling Egypt’s future generations, those who shook the earth and forced change over the past five years, to finally have a hand in determining their country’s future. It has taken a while and it is about time but this is definitely a step on the right track and long may it continue.

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