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Sisi and the youth

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi announced a global initiative to invest in youth and discourage them from terrorism and extremism at the 70th United Nations General Assembly meeting on Monday evening.

The Hope and Work for New Prospects initiative is purportedly a “political declaration” to member states to uphold their responsibility to empower people and societies, according to a statement the presidency issued on Tuesday. The initiative, as detailed by the Reuters-affiliated Aswat Masriya website, focuses on support in various fields including youth employment, training programs, culture and education.

Sisi urged the international community to financially support the program, as investing in youth will “prevent them from being attracted to extremist and terrorist groups.” He added that there are ways to fight terrorism globally other than through security or military solutions, by offering youth alternatives that will pull them away from terrorism.

Sisi said that Egypt aims to implement the plan after it joins the UN Security Council in 2016, something the country has long been campaigning for. He is yet to present a fully detailed action plan for the initiative.

Another initiative that Sisi announced earlier this month, the Presidential Leadership Program (PLP), claims to be a response to Sisi’s call to empower Egyptian youth. The initiative, which was founded by a group of specialists and academics, aims to prepare youth for leadership positions in the state through an extensive eight-month training program.

The program’s vision is to “develop and create an enabled, enlightened and capable caliber of young leaders that will be the force for reform and change for a brighter Egypt.”

The program is based on three learning modules, including social sciences and governance, public administration and entrepreneurship, and politics and national security. In addition to the core modules, the program also includes community service activities and guest speaker sessions.

It aims to build a large database of youth leaders that will ultimately join the ranks of leaders within state institutions.

Program graduates will be divided into three levels, with the first caliber taking leadership positions in state institutions, along with opportunities to join renowned academic programs abroad. The second level of graduates will hold executive positions in ministries, governorates and local municipalities, and the third group will be given priorities in job fairs and continued training support.

Eligible candidates have to hold Egyptian citizenship, be under 30, have no criminal record and posses a university degree.

The program is run by a group of academics and business specialists, including the secretary general of presidential specialized councils, Tarek Shawky, who is also an engineering professor at the American University in Cairo (AUC). The program’s evaluation head is the dean of AUC’s School of Continued Education, Deena Boraei, and the institutional development head for the program is Khaled Habib. The program’s youth representative is Sarah al-Batouty, an entrepreneur who is also a member of the presidential specialized council for social development.

The program’s partners, according to the website, are the Defense Ministry, the Foreign Ministry, the Planning Ministry and the Cabinet. The privately owned news site Al-Bawaba reports that the program will include various field visits to state institutions, including the Morale Affairs Department of the Armed Forces and the military’s special forces and paratroopers departments, as well as the Air Defense and Naval Forces, and the Armed Forces’ National Services Project Authority. The newspaper added that the trainees will also spend a day at the Military Academy.

In a phone interview broadcast on the privately owned Al-Mehwar channel, Boraei explained that when Sisi attempted to choose youth leaders for government and municipal positions, he found none. “It is not their fault. The youth lack the skills needed to compete locally, regionally and internationally,” she explained.

Tarek al-Khouly, a member of Sisi’s presidential campaign, says that “all allegations about the youth’s lack of interest in political participation are a myth. Thirty thousand applicants have applied to the PLP program so far, and the youth are nominating themselves for elections.”

Khouly is taking part in the parliamentary elections as part of the For the Love of Egypt electoral list, largely known as a pro-Sisi coalition.

The program is a “much-awaited dream for the youth,” Khouly says, as it prepares the youth for leadership positions in the near future. “This initiative is by far the greatest achievement in the field of youth empowerment,” he sasserts.

But Emad Tharwat, a curriculum developer of youth programs at the Arab Digital Expression Foundation (ADEF), is skeptical. He strongly disagrees with Khouly regarding the strong participation of the youth in the political process.

“The youth are upset, it is very obvious from the low levels of political participation in recent elections. Their voices are not heard. Are we really willing to talk to the youth and listen to their criticism? I doubt it,” he says, mentioning that his older son moved to Canada this year to escape the situation in Egypt.

For Tharwat, the youth speak a different language, and what the youth understands as politics is different from the state’s approach to politics. “Whoever wants to train youth leaders has to listen to them. A top-down program won’t work. Such programs should be designed after consulting with the youth and hearing their feedback,” he explains.

The government’s failure to address the deteriorating educational system is a more important step that the administration has to be attentive to before talking about leadership, Tharwat believes. “It is great that Sisi managed to dig a new canal in one year, but does the regime know that it takes two years to cure a kid suffering from urinary incontinence after his teacher beat him up?” he says.

Amr Abdel Rahman, head of the Civil Liberties Unit at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, explains to Mada Masr that while Sisi’s administration has a clear strategy to confront terrorism and security, this strategy seems to be completely absent when it comes to youth.

“There are two conflicting factors here. The administration is worried about its declining popularity among the youth. There is a huge cultural gap with the youth that the administration already acknowledges, but at the same time, there is a security obstacle [from the state’s perspective]. Any reform means undesired concessions,” he says.

As a result, Abdel Rahman says, the state depends on propaganda and publicity more than anything else. “Youth inclusion or finding real solutions to confront unemployment are not on top of Sisi’s agenda. People want to see real reforms in education and economy — those are the key features for real integration for the youth. A complete strategy is needed here, not training programs.”

Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi gave a speech to the UN General Assembly on Friday. It has been amended to reflect that he spoke to the UN on Monday.

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Mai Shams El-Din