Egypt champions youth conferences but questions remain

Critics complained that the government-sponsored events have failed to result in major changes.
Sunday 24/03/2019
A young man uses a VR headset on the second day of the World Youth Forum in Sharm  el-Sheikh, last November. (AP)
Changing reality. A young man uses a VR headset on the second day of the World Youth Forum in Sharm el-Sheikh, last November. (AP)

CAIRO - The Arab-African Youth Platform, which concluded March 17 in Aswan, was another attempt by the administration of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to harness the power of Egypt’s youth, analysts said.

“These gatherings open the door for the required dialogue between the youth and the presidency,” said Hassan Salama, a professor of political science at Cairo University. “It is important for the government to listen to young people and these gatherings offer an opportunity for that.”

The event shed light on a new aspect of Egypt’s foreign policy priorities, including Cairo’s attempt to serve as a contact point between the Arab world and Africa.

About 1,300 young people from Egypt and other African and Arab countries were given free tickets and free accommodation to attend the 4-day event, which included meetings with senior Egyptian officials, including Sisi.

At the heart of the event was Sisi’s address to the country’s youth, who have become increasingly disaffected in recent years.

“We had a problem communicating with youth and it was one of these youth who came up with the idea of the conferences,” Sisi said March 16 at the gathering.

Eight national youth conferences and two international ones have taken place in Egypt in recent years, although critics complained that the government-sponsored events have failed to result in major changes.

The conferences feature round-table discussions, seminars, workshops and interactive sessions during which participants exchange ideas and discuss possible solutions to Egypt’s problems.

At the latest conference, Sisi agreed to form a committee and institute a community dialogue on the country’s controversial NGO law. After the meeting, Sisi issued several recommendations, including the need for greater communication between Arab and African countries, the establishment of a joint Arab-African counterterrorism mechanism and founding a council for cooperation between Arab and African universities.

While few observers said they think Sisi’s overtures to Africa will succeed, the president’s overtures to young Egyptian youth might be different, analysts said.

“The fact is that there is still a gap between those in power, on one hand, and youth, on the other,” said MP Ahmed Tantawi, a member of the parliamentary opposition 25/30 coalition. “This is particularly true when it comes to economic and social rights.”

Youth participation in elections has been on the decline following the 2013 ouster of Islamist President Muhammad Morsi. Official figures indicate that voter turnout at last year’s presidential election was approximately 40%, down from around 47.5% in 2014 and 52% in 2012. There is no breakdown as to the percentage of young people voting in each election, although anecdotal evidence suggests that political participation among Egypt’s youth is also trending downward.

The overriding sense among the country’s youth is that Egypt is coming full circle since the 2011 revolution. The return to pre-revolution practices, including restrictions on freedom of speech and the imprisonment of demonstrators, has enhanced those feelings.

Despite this, Sisi has been seeking to tap into Egypt’s youth power, including mandating that deputy ministers, ministerial advisers and assistant ministers be under the age of 40. He assigned academic institutions the mission of offering free leadership courses for young people.

It remains to be seen whether Sisi’s strategy can pay off. Of the 568 elected members of the Egyptian parliament, 60 were under 35 years old at the time of their election in 2015 and 125 were 36-45 years old.

Political parties founded by young Egyptians have secured a place on the political stage but a lot more needs to be done to convince youth that they matter, political analysts said.

“The government needs to lift restrictions on political activity, especially on university campuses, and help the political parties become more appealing to youth,” said Tarek Fahmi, another political science professor at Cairo University. “Nonetheless, the youth conferences are proving successful in opening channels of dialogue between the government and youth, which in itself is a very important thing.”