Sisi reaches out to Egypt’s youth but many remain unconvinced

Sisi speaking at a financial conference in Sharm el-Sheikh

Speaking at the World Youth Forum in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi once again sought to highlight the power of Egypt’s youth. However, the forum, convening under the slogan “We Need to Talk” and at­tended by young people from more than 113 countries, apparently failed to convince Egypt’s own youth.
“I do not think such events will succeed in improving Sisi’s relation with the youth so long as he contin­ues to put many of them in jail,” said Ahmed Darag, a political science professor at Cairo University. “It would be better if he were to release the thousands of youth languishing in jail, open the public space and stop muzzling the media.”
Egyptian youth activists com­plain that the Sisi government tar­gets them to shut down dissent. The conference hashtag #WeNeed­ToTalk was hijacked by youth activ­ists to raise awareness about human rights abuses in Egypt.
“#WeNeedToTalk about forced disappearances,” tweeted Amr Bak­ly, director of the Cairo Liberal Fo­rum, which describes itself as a civ­ic organisation that seeks to spread liberal values among Egyptians.
The forum was attended by re­gional and international leaders, including Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, United Arab Emirates Minister of Foreign Affairs Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, Gabon Presi­dent Ali Bongo Ondimba, Senega­lese Prime Minister Mahammed Di­onne and Equatorial Guinea Prime Minister Vicente Ehate Tomi.
Sisi addressed different sessions of the forum on issues such as un­employment and extremism. The government portrayed the forum as an example of Sisi’s commitment to listening to and engaging with Egypt’s youth.
“The president is very keen on getting close to the youth and lis­tening to them,” said Assistant Youth Minister Youssef Wardani. “Since coming to power, the presi­dent has taken many steps to em­power the youth and encourage them to participate economically and politically.”
Wardani, in his mid-30s, was appointed assistant minister of Egypt’s Ministry of Youth and Sports thanks to one of Sisi’s youth empowerment programmes. Sisi made it obligatory for cabinet min­isters to appoint assistants under the age of 40 to ensure that Egypt’s cabinet remains relevant. This has brought dozens of new faces to the second line of leadership in the cabinet.
Sisi has sponsored conferences across Egypt with the aim of engag­ing with the country’s young peo­ple who were at the forefront of the 2011 uprising but who often suffer from poverty and a lack of employ­ment opportunities.
The World Youth Forum in Sharm el-Sheikh sought to go further, engaging not just with domestic youth organisations and groups but also attempting to do so with regional and international youth associations.
However, many critics say this focus on engaging with younger Egyptians is superficial and fails to address the most pressing issues facing them.
“There are thousands [of youth] behind bars,” Darag said. “Hun­dreds of opposition websites are blocked because Sisi does not want the people to hear a different point of view.”
Government supporters argue that those who have been arrest­ed are not political prisoners but have been convicted of criminal of­fences.
“There were previous demands by young people to have a review of youth jailed pending trial. We agreed that a youth committee would be formed to undertake such a review, in accordance with the constitution and law. For my part, I was glad to sign such a review,” Sisi said during the conference.
The committee to review the cases, formed in October 2016, has reportedly secured the release of hundreds of youth activists de­tained in political cases but not for violent offences.
Hassan Nafaa, another political science professor at Cairo Univer­sity, said initiatives such as this, not youth gatherings, would help Sisi win the hearts of young people.
“The real test is for the president to allow for more freedoms,” Na­faa said. “You cannot claim to be a supporter of youth while there are many of them behind bars.”
Ahmed Meghid is an Egyptian reporter based in Cairo.

This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.