The fourth World Youth Forum (WYF) convened in Sharm El-Sheikh this week. The event, which was cancelled in 2020 because of the Covid-19 pandemic, was held under the banner “Back Together”.
The four-day forum, inaugurated by President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi on Monday, focused on a wide range of pressing issues, including the impact of the pandemic, climate change, human rights, the future of the African continent, social security, 5G networks, digital transformation, entrepreneurship, technology, healthcare, the future of energy, water resources, post-conflict reconstruction, and education.
This year’s WYF attracted senior officials, prominent public figures, and international youth leaders, all of whom were keen to either participate in person or address the forum by video. Among the attendees were Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Prime Minister of Lebanon Naguib Mikati, Jordanian Crown Prince Hussein bin Abdullah II, United Arab Emirates Minister of Youth Shama Al-Mazroui, Spanish actress Itziar Ituno, Russian actress Nicole Kinoos, and Indian actress Amika Shail.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres, former US Secretary of State and US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry, Director-General of the World Health Organisation (WHO) Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, President of the World Bank David Malpass, and UN Envoy on Youth Jayathma Wickramanayake addressed the forum via video.
WYF Spokesperson Sara Badr said more than half a million youth leaders from 196 countries applied to attend the event. “The demand,” she said, “shows just how popular the event has become on the world stage since it was first held in 2017.”
Addressing the opening session “Covid-19: A Warning to Humanity and a New Hope”, President Al-Sisi told participants that “the Covid-19 pandemic represented a huge challenge for humanity, replete with complex political, economic, and social threats.”
“Humanity cannot overcome the crises and challenges to survival it faces without ending conflicts, managing differences, and working jointly in the interests of peace,” he said.
In a recorded speech, WHO head Ghebreyesus hailed the forum as a great opportunity for youth to exchange expertise, create a better future, and improve health.
“Most of the world’s population are young people under the age of 30… The future is within their hands, and they are facing the challenges of today and tomorrow, including climate change, pollution, health, and others,” he said.
The opening ceremony also saw a recorded speech by UN Secretary-General Guterres who said the pandemic has had a host of negative psychological impacts but that “young people will manage to recover successfully because their minds contain inexhaustible innovative ideas.”
President Al-Sisi remarked that the presidential health initiatives which Egypt launched four years ago had contributed to reducing the number of coronavirus infections and deaths. “The health initiatives which the state took meant Egypt was capable of drawing a clear-cut map of the health of its citizens and provide treatment for diseases without which the Covid-19 infection rate would have been unimaginably high,” he said.
Al-Sisi also argued that Covid-19 infections would have been much higher had Egypt not implemented its three-year economic reform programme between 2016 and 2019.
“The first phase of this programme was harsh, but without it the pandemic would have reduced the national economy to a state of paralysis,” he said.
“The second phase of the programme, which the government is currently implementing, has rendered the economy capable of absorbing the pandemic-related shocks that have wreaked havoc in some other countries.
“Now, as we move forward and achieve high growth rates, we remain committed to maintaining tough protective measures against the pandemic.”
President Al-Sisi also hailed the LE700 billion Decent Life initiative, launched three years ago with the goal of improving the life of 60 million citizens living in rural areas.
“As a result of Egypt’s initiatives, we were one of only a few countries to achieve positive growth rates, of 3.9 per cent in 2019-20, and 3.3 per cent in 2020-21.”
On Tuesday, President Al-Sisi said that as was the case with Covid-19, Egypt had taken early initiatives to confront climate change. In a panel discussion under the title “Confronting Climate Change: From Glasgow to Sharm El-Sheikh,” Al-Sisi said the next eight years would be crucial in combating global warming.
The opportunity existed, he said, for countries to use cars operated by electricity and natural gas.
“Egypt began talks with vehicle manufacturers to produce cars operated by electricity and natural gas which are highly detrimental to the environment five years ago. As a result of these efforts, Egypt will introduce its first electric vehicles next year. We certainly have the industrial infrastructure to produce these cleaner vehicles.”
President Al-Sisi also noted that four years ago the government began cleaning up Egyptian lakes and “began lining 40,000 kilometres of canals at a cost of LE80 billion, a project which has created hundreds of jobs and supported cement and iron factories”.
He highlighted improvements to Egypt’s road and bridge network, saying: “The objective of this national project is not just to end traffic jams but reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Even though they are relatively low compared to many other countries we were keen to move early and forcefully to confront this challenge.”
Speaking to the forum on Tuesday, Kerry thanked President Al-Sisi for his leadership on the issue of climate change and his commitment to having the government of Egypt host COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh in November.
“The scientists have told us unequivocally that we have about the next eight years within which we must make the critical decisions and implement them in order to avoid the worst consequences of the climate crisis. And now today, in every country in the world, no one is spared. In every country, people are feeling the consequences of this climate crisis,” he said.
According to Kerry, “We accepted the responsibility in Glasgow, again, of trying to hold the earth’s temperature increase to about 1.5 degrees. And I’m proud to tell you that 65 per cent of global GDP has signed up to do exactly that.
“The biggest challenge we all face right now is to get our systems, our government systems, the private sector joined with it, to actually move fast enough. And right now, we’re not. So I hope we can rely on all of you to bring the pressure to bear that is necessary,” Kerry said.
Kerry concluded by saying Egypt and Africa were destined to play a critical role in helping set the mark and meeting the goals of the Glasgow conference, particularly on adaptation, mitigation, on dealing with methane, and on deforestation.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 13 January, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.