I live in a neighbourhood in Cairo that hosts plenty of schools and colleges. On my way home a few days ago I shared a conversation with a number of university students who were also on their way home after finishing their classes. While walking home together, I heard them talking about politics. I respectfully asked to intervene, which they gracefully allowed me to do.
I was attracted when I overheard the diversity in the conversation. And I was also alerted to the fact that there are many young Egyptians who do follow politics and understand the domestic and regional issues that the country is involved in. In just a few minutes of conversation with the students, I heard comments about internally contentious politics and the videos of the expatriate contractor Mohamed Ali, the economic reforms, the issues with Ethiopia and the matter of terrorism in Sinai.
Here we have to pause to make several points. First of all, there are many young men and women talking about politics in Egypt, without their taking part in any violent actions or in any particular political organisations. Second, the level of political awareness within Egyptian society is definitely increasing, even among young people who do not necessarily subscribe to any political agendas. The experience of talking to these students led me to believe that it is necessary to adopt long-term policies on some of the political issues the Egyptian state is facing and explaining these to the younger generations that constitute the majority of Egyptian society.
There are two points that need to be taken into consideration here. The first is how the state communicates with young people about politics, and the second is the need to develop long-term strategies to reach solutions to various political challenges. Both issues must be dealt with in parallel in order to resolve contentious issues within society.
The state has been organising annual youth forums over recent years, in which meetings are held between representatives of the country’s young people and the president. Although a fruitful process of interactions has taken place during these meetings between the highest executive of the state and the country’s young people, long-term strategic plans may be of more use than episodes of regular interaction. There are many benefits to holding regular platforms for conversation, but there must also be a comprehensive platform where such meetings can result in positive results.
Producing direct benefits from the politically aware youth of the country, and not merely communicating with them, could be of much greater benefit. Each one of the youth forums should thus come up with a list of recommendations that should be monitored by the state in order to see to it that they are acted upon. In this way, the state could make the best use of its interactions with the country’s young people, with the latter being highly important owing to the demographics of Egyptian society.
Egypt’s current negotiations with Ethiopia over water security are part of another issue that is no less important for the country’s young people. There are many concerns about the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) that Ethiopia is building on the upper Nile. Water security is indeed a strategic issue for Egyptian national security. It has become of paramount importance for today’s young people, many of whom exhibit keen political awareness. It is also one of the main issues that require a long-term strategy from the Egyptian state in terms of both implementation and monitoring.
Water security is also an issue that takes up a lot of space in public perceptions. Therefore, the course of action that the state should follow should take into consideration the effect of such concerns on politics in Egypt, particularly among the country’s young people who have views on how the future should be formulated on domestic and regional issues.
The expatriate contractor Mohamed Ali is another phenomenon that intersects with Egypt’s young people, posing a threat that should not be ignored. Ali is causing arguments within the country’s youth, and the allegations that Ali makes in his videos without providing any evidence to support them is one of the burning issues among popular public opinion. We need to ask how the questions concerning such issues are being manufactured.
Because of the complete lack of evidence backing up any of his allegations, Ali lacks any form of credibility. However, the idea that YouTube videos could lead to threats of violent mobilisation should also be taken into consideration. There are also research questions that could be asked as to why such a figure can have an effect within the Egyptian public sphere. Although this effect is minimal, it exists nonetheless.
Long-term strategies to counter such false information need to be developed. Several actors from civil society have already proposed solutions, but the state also needs a comprehensive strategy to deal with this issue once and for all. Once more, there is a dual track here, one side having to do with how to objectively discredit false information, and the other with the credibility of the state institutions that deal with political matters. In other words, the state institutions must develop a new relationship of trust with the country’s young people by developing and adopting long-term strategies on various issues.
Finally, there is the generation gap between the decision-makers in the Egyptian state and the country’s young people who have political awareness on the ground. This gap could be bridged by adopting new policies to counter various political and social challenges. There are problems within Egypt that require the development of long-term policies that will not necessarily immediately yield results in the short term. However, these policies will eventually be reflected in practical decisions over longer timeframes depending on the overall political context. Regardless of the political contentiousness, there are many long-term strategies that Egypt must develop.
The writer is a senior researcher and director of the Mediterranean & North Africa Studies Programme at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.