After months of preparation the second World Youth Forum took place this week despite a bloody terrorist attack which claimed the lives of seven Coptic Christians.
The decision to continue with the annual event was intended to show the resilience of Egyptians and their determination to face down terrorism.
The event brought together 5,000 young people from 165 countries. The Sharm El-Sheikh Conference Hall was a beehive of positive energy as the young delegates moved between sessions discussing topics that ranged from terrorism to cinema and social media.
President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi seized the event to comment on a roster of controversial and pressing issues, including the fall-out from the Arab Spring, rotation of power in Egypt, the terrorist attacks against Copts and religious reform.
“In Egypt the state does not discriminate. The killing of any Egyptian citizen in a terrorist attack hurts us all and all Egyptians condemn any attempt to target a place of worship, whether it is a mosque or a church,” said Al-Sisi.
He noted that parliament has recently passed a long-awaited law regulating the building of churches.
“This law came after 150 years to finally settle the critical issue of building churches. Before the law the state was involved only in the building of mosques but now it is responsible for building both churches and mosques, particularly in new cities and communities,” said Al-Sisi.
“Every citizen has the right to worship or not to worship what he or she likes. Religious beliefs are a personal matter and every citizen is free. The state should not interfere in this.”
Al-Sisi highlighted the importance of “reforming religious discourse”, arguing that “it is one of the most essential tasks facing Egypt, the region and the Islamic world.”
“It is no longer viable for people to adhere to interpretations and thoughts that were correct 1,000 years ago.”
Al-Sisi argued that religious reform is central to achieving social peace. “This is an essential issue in Egypt because it will save society from internal conflicts,” he said.
During one session Al-Sisi offered his thoughts on the 2011 uprising in Egypt, saying that many people in the Middle East had revolted in the hope of reforming their countries.
“But in the end,” he continued, “they paid an enormous price in the form of chaos, suffering huge losses. Had they opted for the status quo they would have lost far less.”
Haphazard change results in a vacuum which only “evil people” will move to fill, said Al-Sisi, and even if people were unhappy with their former rulers they “should not have moved in such a destructive way to impose change”.
Speaking directly about Egypt he said that “at some point Egyptians decided they could reverse the status quo without careful study but when they did this they opened the door to chaos and gave groups which were living among us the opportunity to use arms to usurp power.”
He warned against listening to empty slogans which only lead to destruction as has been seen in Yemen, Syria and Iraq where millions have paid with their lives.
Al-Sisi defended Egypt’s position on the crisis in Yemen, saying that the conflict in the war-ravaged country is much more complex than a struggle between the government and the Houthis.
“Egypt chose not to interfere in the Yemeni crisis because the war in Yemen is a proxy war in which other countries are involved.
Egypt is very much aware of its limits and its strengths and its position towards Yemen is based on the knowledge that it cannot influence some of the parties involved in the conflict.”
The same applies to other regional hotspots, including Syria, Libya and Afghanistan, where the conflicts threaten to spill beyond borders and form a fertile breeding ground for terror.
Al-Sisi warned that terrorist elements in Syria will seek to infiltrate other fragile areas in the Middle East, undermining the security of neighbouring states, including European countries.
“I hope that there will be an end to all these conflicts so that the people of these countries are able to live in security and peace,” he said.
The forum afforded an opportunity for Al-Sisi to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for the first time in almost a year and attempt to push forward talks on Palestinian reconciliation, agreement over a ceasefire with Israel and the possible commencement of comprehensive peace talks.
Al-Sisi stated that the Egyptian position remained constant — a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital alongside an Israeli state in a framework that preserves the security of the two countries — and insisted Arab states were in no position to impose any solution on the Palestinians.
Al-Sisi warned against the politicising of legal issues and interference in judicial decisions, citing as an example the criticism levelled by some European countries against death sentences passed by Egyptian courts against terrorists who had attacked churches and mosques.
Although Egyptian law allows for the death penalty the court rulings were rejected by countries that oppose capital punishment. “While we respect that ...,” he said, “we also ask them to respect the will of the Egyptian nation and its desire to protect its own security.”
Al-Sisi said he supported Saudi Arabia because he wants to protect the stability of all nations in “a region that cannot bear any more turmoil”.
Conflicts in Libya, Syria, Somalia, Yemen and Afghanistan have claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions and as a consequence Egypt will stand firm in supporting the national security of Arabian Gulf countries.
“If such countries faced any danger it is all the Egyptian people, and not just the president, who will move to defend our brothers because it is a matter of Arab national security.”
Forum participant Yostina Tharwat appealed to Al-Sisi to use his constitutional powers to request a revision of the NGO law passed by parliament at the end of 2016 which she said had caused a lot of controversy.
“I agree that some fears led this law to be issued in a flawed way,” he replied.
“I suggest that a committee be formed to hold hearing sessions on the NGO law and that state authorities move to submit an amended version to parliament.”
Al-Sisi pointed out there are more than 50,000 NGOs and civil society organisations operating in Egypt and doing superb work and said the state is keen to ensure the law regulating their activities is balanced and lets them operate efficiently and effectively.
The NGO law, passed in November 2016 and ratified by the president in May 2017, triggered criticism in foreign circles, particularly in the US Congress where some members demanded part of America’s economic assistance to Egypt be withheld to protest legislation which they described as repressive and undermining of the activities of NGOs.
Amr Hashim Rabie, a political analyst with Al-Ahram, told Al-Ahram Weekly that it was positive to see President Al-Sisi listening to critical views on laws passed by parliament and responding to them.
“Although the law was drafted by MPs to prioritise national security concerns many now realise the law was overly restrictive and should be amended,” said Rabie.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 November, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Messages from Egypt