He sat in the front row, next to President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, at the World Youth Forum (WYF) that opened in Sharm El-Sheikh on 3 November.
The next day his picture was on the front pages of all Egyptian newspapers that were covering the event. He is Oliver Roy, a Canadian from Montreal who is currently completing his studies in Russia, in public policy.
“What motivated you to attend this forum?” I asked him after that session had ended. He told me that he had been following this event since it first convened last year.
He was keen to acquaint himself with different societies which was why he had decided to continue his academic studies abroad, in Russia. He wanted to experience life in a society that was different to Canadian society.
It was there that the WYF Website caught his attention and that he decided to apply to the next round.
“Actually, I didn’t have much hope that I’d be accepted,” he said. “The Website has about five million followers from around the world. I’m merely a drop in the ocean. Who would notice me? Still, I registered and then I kept an eye on the Website until one day I had the surprise to find I’d been accepted.”
What was his opinion about the WYF?
“I think it’s a unique experience. It’s not just one of the largest gatherings of youth in the world; it’s an attempt to empower them. They’re the ones who steer the forum and who present their views on an array of issues. They simulate international organisations and practice leading them and taking part in their activities. As I would learn while I was taking part in these activities, the organisers were also young people. The forum wasn’t just a fantasy, a three-day dream in which kids make believe that they are world leaders, after which life goes on just as it was before. They watched how many of their suggestions and recommendations were heeded and could influence the issues they dealt with.”
Oliver could testify to this personally. From his place right next to President Al-Sisi, he could observe how the president took notes on what the young speakers said and then took up some of their suggestions.
For example, one participant suggested that an African youth convention should be hosted in an Egyptian city since Egypt will be chairing the African Union next year.
This, she said, would give youth the chance to influence the Union’s leadership and the direction this organisation takes in the future. At the end of the conference, Oliver would learn that President Al-Sisi decided to name Aswan the “capital of youth” next year and that this city would host the convention that the participant had called for.
“I was very impressed by that decision,” Roy continued, “because of my interest in African affairs as well as those of China and India. I think those regions will assume a leading role in the world in the future. Naturally, Egypt will play an instrumental part in this. This is why I was also very interested in the subject of ‘Africa 2063’ which was the focus of a main session in the forum. Some important recommendations emerged from that session which I believe will help shape the future of this promising continent.”
In answer to my question as to how he was selected to sit next to the president, he said, “I don’t know. One of the young organisers came up to me and spontaneously asked me whether I would like to sit next to the president in the session that was just about to begin. I gladly accepted, of course. This was the first time I had ever sat next to a head-of-state. The same thing happened with the girl who sat on the president’s other side.”
“Did you speak with the president?” I asked.
“No. I saw that he was concentrating on what the speakers were saying and noting down their ideas in the diary he had with him. I didn’t want to disturb him.”
“If you had spoken with him, what would you have said?”
“I would have expressed how impressed I was by the great attention he dedicated to youth. But he’s probably heard that from many others as well.”
Our flight from Cairo to Sharm El-Sheikh was delayed. We sat in the plane with our seatbelts fastened for an hour, which is longer than the flight takes.
A young Bosnian woman next to me began to fidget, so I said something to put her at ease. She seized the opportunity to shower me with questions about Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, the state of the economy, etc. She told me that she had visited Egypt once, a long time ago, with her mother, but she was a child at the time and so did not remember much.
I asked her how she became involved in the WYF. She said that she was a university student studying political science and that her university nominated her. She added that she was particularly looking forward to the workshops that would be held during the forum and that these would be useful for her studies.
After the forum, Mustafa Ihab, a 25-year old computer engineer, told me how happy he was to have had the opportunity to take part in this event.
But I asked him to tell me about any negative points that should be avoided next year. Not sticking to schedule, he answered without a moment’s hesitation.
The inaugural session started an hour late and the break during the closing session, during which we were not allowed to leave the hall, lasted an hour and a half.
I will add, here, another suggestion for next year: dedicating 10 to 15 minutes at the end of each general session for feedback from the youth on the speakers’ inputs.
UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura rightfully pointed out the need for this at the end of the session in which he took part. As he said to the moderator of that session, we should not end the dialogue without listening to the views of the young people.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 15 November, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: In the seat next to the president