Young people of vision

Amina Khairy
Thursday 1 Nov 2018

This year’s World Youth Forum is bringing together young Arab men and women with striking visions for the future

The problems and solutions, headaches and cures, fears and hopes of millions of young people throughout the Arab world are still under the world’s spotlight.

However, not all spotlights are identical. Some project a narrow and intense beam of light on a specific feature, while others illuminate more broadly in search of a better view and a clearer understanding.

Understanding the challenges, risks, and dangers, as well as the opportunities and hopes, of almost 30 per cent of the Arab world’s inhabitants (those aged 15 to 29) is not an easy job.

The easy job is to criticise and direct accusations at others in what is sometimes referred to as the Arab youth’s “crisis” or “predicament”, among other descriptions.

Other than laying the blame on decades of political regimes that ignored the needs and aspirations of the younger generations, little is being done to address, or rather cure, the ailments of Arab young people and start building for the future.

However, steps are now being taken to rectify what went wrong and readjust to what is yet to come.

This Saturday, Egypt hosts the Second World Youth Forum in Sharm El-Sheikh in an Egyptian platform that has been built by Egyptian young people who have too often been seen either as “time bombs” waiting to explode or incompetent creatures who know nothing about real life.

These very same young people are sometimes referred to as the victims of political economic, social, and religious repression.

However, thousands of Egyptian young people have nevertheless decided to overcome the circumstances that are pulling them down and build new opportunities rather than lament lost ones in participating in the Youth Forum.

“Egypt’s Youth Need to Engage”, “No Political Engagement for Egypt’s Revolutionary Generation”, and “Reasons for the Low Engagement among Egyptian Youth” are just some of the headlines that have circulated in the media regarding Egypt’s youth.

There is a constant sense of revolutionary nostalgia sometimes hidden behind arguments that reach the conclusion that the problem lies in young people’s supposed passivity.

Some commentators have even called upon the youth of the Arab world to demonstrate angrily and to bring down dictatorships and tyrannies.

However, easy references, particularly by those who live in the West, to dictatorships and tyrannies in another part of the world are also a sort of despotism.

What we are seeing in Sharm El-Sheikh suggests a different insight, since here Egypt’s young people will be engaging in dialogue and communicating with others on issues ranging from how to rebuild post-conflict societies to employment in the digital age, water security, and disability and social responsibility.

A study carried out by the American University in Cairo entitled “Egyptian Youth: Networked Citizens but Not Fully Engaged Politically” has found no evidence to suggest that Egyptian youth are less politically active than the youth of more democratic societies.

It says that despite some restrictions, young people in Egypt have not lost their faith in formal political action and that they still participate in elections.

It also finds that the 2014 presidential elections garnered more participation from young people than the parliamentary elections, which may indicate that political parties and politicians are not strong enough to entice young people to become involved and engaged in formal politics.

The study says that Egyptian youth are currently engaged in civic responsibilities, which in the Arab region is a less contentious method of engaging in political processes.

The complexities associated with particular political orientations often drive people to avoid formal politics and instead to engage in non-political civic associations and charities.

One theme that emerges from the study is that Egypt’s youth are using social media networks extensively and that they frequently engage in online political participation.

The data also reveal that there is no necessary relationship between online political participation and real-life political participation amongst young people.

It states that most of the political parties formed in the aftermath of the 25 January Revolution eventually weakened or became absent from the political scene.

It says that the social climate also changed, becoming hostile to the youth in general, and the revolutionary youth in particular, after the failure of the Muslim Brotherhood’s year in power.

The study points out that a new political context emerged in 2013 and that several youth groups reappeared and allied with President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s administration.

“Youth have since been included socially and politically, and they were even recruited to participate in the drafting of the 2014 constitution. Nonetheless, they have not been able to play more than a limited role in Egypt’s transformation and current politics,” the study says.

Now, Egyptian and other young people from more than 100 countries are gathering in Sharm El-Sheikh to discuss the pillars of their lives at the World Youth Forum.

Living in a region that is far from peaceful or stable makes such issues as building and sustaining peace, rebuilding societies in post-conflict stages, and humanitarian assistance in the face of challenges, vital for the region’s young people to discuss and analyse.

Belonging to countries where more than 50 per cent of the population are young makes discussing topics such as entrepreneurism and start-ups, building future leaders, narrowing the gender gap in employment, and the future of jobs in the digital age priorities for all young people.

The calamity that has struck the region in the shape of religious extremism also makes topics such as the role of soft power in combating extremism crucially important.

The same thing goes for issues of water security, power challenges and opportunities, young people with disabilities, and the future of the African continent.

The importance of the World Youth Forum lies in the fact that it is one of the rare steps now being taken to empower the region’s youth.

It does not grieve over years of wasted opportunities, official neglect, social exclusion and economic deprivation, but instead aims to build and plan for the future rather than lament the past.

The thousands of Egyptian, Arab and non-Arab young people who will be attending the Forum may not be trending among popular figures on social media.

They might not be among the top 100 political dissidents on Facebook. They might not be eloquent when it comes to criticising what is going on around them.

However, they are definitely young men and women who see in themselves the ability and the will to become future leaders, successful entrepreneurs, responsible citizens and last but not least people who have a vision for construction rather than destruction and aim to bring about real and material opportunities.

* The writer is a journalist at Al-Hayat newspaper.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 November, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Young people of vision

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