Young Arabs make their voices heard at Moltaqa Conference
Lina El-Wardani, , Friday 5 Dec 2014
In a conference that brought together 300 civil society representatives from mediterranean Arab and European countries, young Arabs voices were the strongest

“This house believes that Tunisia is not going out of control” is the most difficult position Ishraq Mattar has had to take in her debate club in Tunisia.

The 18 year-old wide-eyed Tunisian high school student has been enrolled in a debate club for the past three years. During this time she has been forced to defend arguments she is not convinced of and sometimes lose debates that she passionately wants to win in an effort to learn dialogue skills.

Mattar is one of 90,000 young people enrolled in the Young Arab Voices (YAV) programme, a joint initiative between the Anna Lindh foundation and the British Council launched in 2011 in the wake of the Arab Spring. The programme has engaged many thousands of young people in face-to-face debating activity through a dynamic cascade of training and skills development

Today, Mattar sits among 300 youth from Arab and European Mediterranean countries, debating and discussing arts for change, intercultural citizenship, media and civil society and creating spaces for youth participation among many other topics.

Mattar, together with her peers from Egypt, Morrocco, Algeria, Libya and Jordan discusses the project that they have taken into their own hands, getting into expansion, challenges in their respective homes and exchange experiences.

Mohamed Eraqi, assistant professor in Cairo University, has trained 500 young people on debate skills in Cairo, Assiut, and Zagazig universities as well as the Future University. He also oversees the training in several NGOs, at the Britsh Council and other public spaces.

“The challenge is to finish the paper work when you deal with state institutions who get very suspicious and are afraid to sign any anything,” says Eraqi who took the training of trainers course administered by both the British Council and Anna Lindh foundation three years ago.

“Debate doesn’t have to be political, it’s sometimes easier to convince university students to debate in their own field, and apply them anywhere,” added Eraqi who gives an example of a successful science debate in Cairo University.

Twenty-five year-old, Abella Ibovrk a coordinator from Morocco, faces a different challenge. Although finishing paper work and dealing with the state is easier in Morocco, Ibvork is part of a forum which targets youth living in remote areas, which can prove to be challenging.

Belal Omar, a 25 year-old assistant teacher in Zagazig University in Egypt’s Nile delta, says the program is very successful because people are finally able to speak up after 30 years of silence and repression under former president Hosni Mubarak.

“Instead of the continuous name calling on daily talk shows, in our debate clubs we learn that everything could be subject to argument, we learn to agree or disagree politely and respect the other no matter what,” Omar says.

YAV is one of many programmes discussed in The ‘Moltaqa’ Conference, a conference held from 1 to 2 December at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina which doubles as the Anna Lindh Foundation’s international headquarters. It was attended by 300 civil society leaders from nine Arab Mediterranean’ countries – Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Palestine, and Tunisia – in addition to representatives from 20 European countries.

“Our societies are in a significant process of change which short-term media headlines and certain political narratives rarely reflect. We know from our experience in the field that tomorrow will be better than today, that there is a convergence of values and aspirations among citizens of the Mediterranean, and the purpose of ‘Moltaqa’ is to put civil society at the heart of that journey in sharing ideas and practice in building open and plural societies," said André Azoulay the President of the Anna Lindh Foundation at the opening plenary.

Participants of the Young Arab Voices programme were allowed a unique opportunity to debate with international figures like Nabil El Arabi head of the Arab league, among others like the European parliament and Elders foundation.

They were also allowed to take part in some regional televised debates, allowing the program to reach many more young people than those enrolled in the programme.

As of next year, the programme will expand to three more Arab countries and two European countries. "We really think that communication between eastern and western societies is much needed at this point in history, that's why we are expanding our programme, said Paul Walton of the Anna Lindh Foundation.

"We use gallop to do polls in Europe and the Arab world. And in a poll we conducted, we asked people in Egypt and the UK what their number one value is and the result came the same family values, but the perceived results of one another’s values differed, so in reality people are closer in thinking but their perceptions are not always right," Walton added.

Ishraq Mattar, is excited about organising a national competition back home in Tunisia where she thinks debate is much needed among the thousands of young Tunisians "shaping the future.”