Last Friday, the Egyptian national under 23 team won the U23 African Cup of Nations and qualified for the Olympics to be held in Tokyo in summer 2020. The win created a wave of happiness for Egyptian football fans who were frustrated after the national team was knocked out in the 16th round of the African Cup of Nations in summer. Moreover, the performance of the Egyptian Olympic team was more than satisfactory; the players had both zeal and passion to win the tournament. Egyptian youth managed to make millions of Egyptians happy, and recreate the charisma of Egypt’s National Team in the African continent.
At this point, a comparison needs to be made. While the Egyptian first team could not qualify for the finals of the African Cup organised in Egypt, the Olympic team managed to win the tournament, also organised on Egyptian soil. Here we must recognise the idea of investing in youth, and understand that there is a new generation of Egyptian youth more capable and more empowered in comparison to previous generations. This fact poses the question, how can we invest in youth? More than 30 per cent of Egyptian society is composed of youth under 30 years of age. From a demographic perspective, youth are the most influential and crucial faction within society.
Two African tournaments were organised in Egypt this year, one that saw the exit of the first team, and another that saw the Olympic team winning the title. Regardless of the technicalities of football between both tournaments, there are profound meanings and more lessons to be learned behind these events. The main idea is the generation of youth and the capacities that they can exhibit. Whoever saw the game last Friday would know that more than 70,000 Egyptians were there and they went home jubilant. This is, of course, besides the millions that watched the match on television screens and slept satisfied. There is a generation of youth in Egypt capable of great accomplishment, and prepared to prove themselves as providers of happiness within this nation — something the older generation failed to do during the tournament of last summer.
And now the question becomes, how can the state develop the capacities of youth in a more significant manner, in order to witness what we witnessed in football in more than one dimension? The core idea is that there is a new generation of youth that is exhibiting talent and professional skill. However, if these talents are not empowered and utilised, it will indeed be a loss of potential for Egypt. There are some sectors that require more attention from the Egyptian state regarding youth. The concept is to create a mechanism that transforms experience from one generation to the next, and to adopt a long-term strategy for developing and aiding youth who are capable of achieving success.
The Egyptian state undertook the idea of youth forums, where youth selected according to certain criteria get to interact with the Egyptian president himself. The idea is both nationalist and noble, but implementing it in the ground does not necessarily mean that it achieved its objectives. Youth forums are a platform that could generate lots of capacities that have been hidden from sight in previous times. How to transfer this dialogue into an actual process that materialises the outcomes of strategic plans is the question being posed within the context of investing in youth in Egypt at the current moment.
Some modification needs to be introduced on the mechanism of youth forums, and each forum must come out with a list of recommendations that the state will aid in implementing. Youth forums are not a mere process of dialogue (despite how important this dimension is); youth forums are supposed to be a path for Egypt’s youth to implement ideas that they were not able to implement before, and hence create a difference within society.
It could also be a good idea if the Egyptian state designed programmes of public service for university students. The idea of national collective action needs to be used in a manner that generates an identity. The lack of a national identity is one of the main problems that Egypt’s youth face; one which could only be resolved with this youth’s direct participation in social reform projects. An agenda for public service in fields like education, medical care, raising awareness and envisioning long-term development projects, needs to be quickly developed in order to have a structured process regarding investing in the youth sector in Egypt.
Winning the U23 Africa Cup of Nations and qualifying for the Olympics was not a work of magic; it was a process that took over 18 months where a coherent work team was focused on a specific target. Perhaps there are other fields where youth could be active that do not get the same attention that football does. If we are talking about the development of a society, with its different demographic factions, plenty of variables need to be taken into consideration. At such times, keeping a focus on youth and their empowerment seems the most viable solution on both the political and social levels.
The writer is director of the Programme for the Mediterranean and North Africa Studies at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.