It would have been yet another youth conference organized by the Egyptian government, like those held every few months – lavishly furnished, attended by the daughters and nephews of government senior officials and their entourage, with a smiling Sisi in the front row, sharing his wisdom amid thunderous applause. A modern, Facebook-Live-d youthful take on Party meetings.
But the government decided this time it would be a “World Youth Forum” – which essentially entails inviting a handful of young participants from select countries (incidentally through an online googleform, making the process somewhat more transparent than it ever would be for Egyptian participants), and plastering a few more posters in Cairo airport and inserts in the Egyptair inflight magazine.
Thus far, nothing of concern for the rest of us.
But what genuinely irked the Egyptian public however was the media campaign – a tv advertisement played on government-aligned channels repeatedly, and its accompanying hashtag: #WeNeedToTalk.
Narrated by a native British speaker and produced by a local advertising agency, the advertisement bills the conference -and Egypt – as the place to and express opinions freely, particularly if one is voiceless, oppressed, or discriminated against.
Unsurprisingly, the hashtag was largely hijacked by irate social media users, who used it to highlight the abject hypocrisy of a government that regularly detains people for expressing their opinion – in protests, in print, online; which discriminates against ethnic and religious minorities; and imprisons young people for years on end with no charges, without even the courtesy of a kangaroo court.
Every sentence of the one-minute advert is infuriating – if we break it down and simply highlight just a single example:
“If there are streets you can't cross and clothes you can't wear, we need to talk.”
Two weeks ago, Cairo was named the “worst city to be a woman” by the Thomson-Reuters Foundation. 99.3% of women report being harassed. And just this week, a famous demagogue lawyer stated on television – with no repercussions whatsoever – that ‘raping women who walk in revealing clothes and ripped jeans was a national duty’.
“If your ideas could change the world, develop a country, cure a patient, or help a child, we need to talk.”
Aya Hegazy and her husband Mohammed Hassanein set up the Belady Foundation for Street Children, caring for homeless children, and providing them with a safe space and literacy and art classes. They, along with 6 of their colleagues, were arrested, accused of “organised gang crimes, including child abduction and trafficking”, and spent three years in jail without trial.
“If they expect you to know who you are tomorrow while you don't know who you are today, we need to talk.”
Egypt trails world rankings in primary education – actually scoring dead last a couple of years ago. It is unclear how young people are supposed to determine what they want to be in the future when they are deprived from the basic knowledge that would allow them to discover their interests and preferences. Extra-curriculars are virtually inexistent, and is children’s exposure to art in any form.
“If your parents think you are still too young to make a difference, we need to talk.”
Of the many article addressing this precise issue, the NYTimes’ “In Egypt, a Chasm Grows Between Young and Old” is worth a read. The generational chasm in Egypt is indeed unsurmountable – between the ideas of status quo and ‘stability’, and the ideals of service and improvement. And while 3 out of 4 Egyptians is under the age of 40, they hold no say on the nation’s affairs – nor on their own.
Until last month, the head of the Youth Committee in the Egyptian parliament was the 71 years young Qassem Farag. He was replaced in October by 66 years old Mohamed Farag Amer. The minister of Youth, Khaled Mohamed Abdel Aziz, is 58.
if you're an olympian, an amateur, a champion, if you're afraid to express your opinion,
Not sure why athletes were tossed in that sentence but let’s focus on the “afraid to express your opinion” bit.
There are upwards of 40,000 political prisoners (And this is the most conservative estimate I know of). The mere act of protesting is punishable by 5 years in prison. Scores of people are in jail for a facebook post. Self-censorship is rampant, among citizens as well as journalists, concerned about repercussions.
More than 450 websites have been blocked by the authorities this year.
And there’s a million other cases of opinion suppression, and punishment for freedom of thought, belief, and expression. Today’s Egypt is a place where one is afraid to think dissenting thoughts.
Photojournalist Mohamed Shawkan has been in jail for more than 4 years – again, on no charges – for doing his job. Just this week, a TV presenter was sentenced to three years in prison, again for doing her job. (if you’re curious, she was bold enough to discuss premarital sex on her show).
“if you're forced to leave your country, we need to talk.”
“You don’t realise it, but Egyptian exiles are becoming like the Iranian diaspora after 1979 – they think they’re going home soon, but that won’t happen any time soon”, told me a New York-based analyst once.
I know, and know of, scores of Egyptians across the political spectrum who have been forced to leave the country, for their safety. But I leave you with this heartbreaking oped by Nancy Okail, a dear friend, sharing her experience as a political exile – constantly harassed, prevented from going home for her parents’ funerals or her kids’ birthday.
And this is not to speak of Egyptians who have been forced to leave to find jobs. An estimated 10 million Egyptians are overseas, seeking economic opportunities their country cannot or will not offer. In addition, thousands travel illegally, at high peril. Last year, a boat carrying 600 capsized shortly after leaving the Egyptian shore, drowning hundred. This hasn’t deterred people however from seeking opportunity wherever they can – including to active war-zones.
“If you face discrimination because of your race, gender, colour or beliefs, we need to talk.”
The Egyptian government is depriving a third generation of Nubians from even setting foot on the ancestral villages that were summarily confiscated from them, with some protesters – who had walked the streets of Aswan singing – in jail (again on ‘temporary detention’) as I type; it denies the discrimination and violence that Christians, Bahaiis, Shia Muslims, and others are exposed to on a regular basis; in the first half of 2017, 90 people had lost their lives to sectarian attacks.
And just a couple of weeks ago, the government detained 33 people who attended a Mashrou3 Leila concert where a handful of rainbow flags were waved. Some of the detained were subjected to illegal, invasive ‘anal examinations’ to determine whether they were gay. for waving rainbow flags at a concert. One young man was sentenced to 6 years in prison in an express trial. For waving a coloured flag. And the parliament is currently preparing one of the most anti-LGBT laws worldwide, and it will most probably pass.
Oh wait, ‘discrimination based on sexual orientation’ is not listed among the list of issues that ‘we need to talk’ about. My bad.
“If you have the voice and want to be heard by world leaders, join us in the world youth conference in Egypt, where the conversation begins.”
Many conversations need to be had. It’s unlikely that the Egyptian government is willing to have them.
But we might as well enjoy the show. After all, we paid for it.