Sisi in Herculean effort to win over Egypt’s youth
Cairo - Only a few metres separated President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, his prime minister and a host of cabinet ministers seated in the front row and a group of young people on the stage of a conference hall in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh in late October.
Those on the stage had been invited to speak about involving young people in solving Egypt’s problems.
One speaker suggested revolutionising the education system to make pupils partners, not mere recipients. Another said automating administrative processes was indispensable. A third spoke of the need for media freedom.
Sisi, much of the time listening and scribbling notes, said the speakers needed to be realistic.
“Before speaking, you need to ensure that you can translate your thoughts into action or you will be misleading the public,” he said.
He also said his mission was to ensure that Egypt would survive its current challenges.
Sisi’s remarks might have revealed the disconnect between those who rule Egypt and its young people, who make up almost 60% of the population of 91 million, with a third under the age of 15.
“The president wanted to listen to youth in preparation for enlisting their help in running Egypt’s affairs,” Assistant Youth Minister Youssef Wardani said. “The conference was the first serious attempt by the presidency to contain these youth.”
Some critics say Sisi saw and heard only the people he wanted to, mainly those who agreed with him.
“Those the president did not want to hear are now either in jail or in total desperation,” said Gamal Eid, a rights advocate and an outspoken critic of Sisi. “They are in their thousands.”
Eid and other rights activists estimate the number of revolutionary youth in Egypt’s jails at 60,000. Most of them were at the forefront of the revolution that brought down long-standing president Hosni Mubarak in 2011. Some of them were at the heart of the mass protests that helped oust Islamist president Muhammad Morsi in 2013 and Sisi’s subsequent election as president.
The objectives of the revolution, namely increased freedoms and social justice, are far from materialising and Egypt is a long way from being the country the revolutionaries envisaged when they poured onto Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2011.
Egypt’s young people have been largely absent from political participation. Relatively few could be seen voting in the presidential election that put Sisi in power in 2014 and even fewer at the parliamentary elections that followed in 2015.
But Sisi has been seriously trying to develop ties to these young people.
Sisi participated in almost all sessions of the three-day Sharm el-Sheikh conference, including debating other attendees. He accepted criticism and listened attentively to young people’s suggestions.
Some participants lambasted Egypt’s protest law, which has led to thousands of arrests. Others called for improving the working conditions of the country’s medical doctors, among other demands.
As he listened, Sisi often agreed, promised to act. At times, he cracked jokes. He said he would form a committee to study the cases of imprisoned youth and release those wrongly convicted.
That promise came as his opponents prepared for what they hope to be major protests against him on November 11th.
Those with whom the president joked were not representative of Egypt’s youth, said Shady el-Ghazaly Harb, one of the Tahrir Square revolutionaries and an opponent of Sisi.
To demonstrate the challenges facing Sisi in uniting Egypt’s youth behind him, Harb and disaffected young people organised an online conference parallel to the Sharm el-Sheikh event.
They lashed out at the jailing of thousands of their friends, criticised the lack of freedoms, lambasted the successive failures of post-revolution governments and expressed deep mistrust in Sisi’s rule.
“There is no democracy and the president’s talk about empowering youth is always betrayed by the actions of his security agencies,” Harb said. “He cannot claim that there is freedom when thousands of innocent people are in jail.”