Youth conferences, the window opened by the regime as a conduit for youth, at least as claimed by the state from the first day they were organized until now, are divided into international and local (national) conferences. The international conferences are held at Sharm El-Sheikh on a continuous basis in a way that seemed at first that they will continue to be part of the whole idea. However, these conferences have become limited to a certain group of youth; those who are selected based on a deep trust in their loyalty to the state in all the various aspects. The National Youth Conference was, noticeably, segregated after the First International Conference “World Youth Forum” had kicked off .This paper focuses on the local youth conferences, which have been held “eight times” at unfixed intervals (time gaps), although they appear to be maintaining a standard or a certain pattern in terms of their style (method) and attendees. Since they have become a kind of the current regime’s customs and traditions for being frequently and extensively held (8 conferences in 3 years), it is important to keep them under close scrutiny to answer a simple question: Are Youth Conferences successful? Have they achieved their stated objectives? We also have to measure the cost-effectiveness compared to the revenue generated from Youth Conferences, in order to clarify the sources of expenditure on such conferences; who funded them and why?
Youth Conferences, the beginning and continuance:
The First National Youth Conference (NYC) was held in October 2016 in Sharm el-Sheikh. It was a global conference and not Egypt-specific as it witnessed a diverse number of events. Youth conferences were announced in the context of President Abdel Fattah El Sisi paying attention to young people. The first conference was attended by the President of the Republic and a number of officials and ministers along with more than 3,000 Egyptian youth. It lasted for three days and included 84 sessions and workshops. It was a diverse conference to a great extent; sessions and workshops covered a wide range of topics, including youth political participation and youth arrests, in addition to preparing a list of potential pardons for detainees and discussing possible ways of developing the media and information system. The conference was also attended by a large number of intellectuals and artists, and witnessed a number of sporting events, including a sport marathon. (1)
– In December 2016, the First Periodical Conference of the First NYC- as it was dubbed- was launched after it was agreed to hold a periodic/regular (national) conference without specifying the duration of the round/edition. The conference was held in Cairo at Al Massa Hotel with the participation of about 1,000 youth and lasted for three days. It encompassed six sessions and workshops with the adoption of 10 working hours. (2)
– In January 2017, the Second National (Periodical) Youth Conference kicked off in Aswan with the participation of 1,300 young people from the governorates of Upper Egypt. The conference focused on the problems and issues of Upper Egypt in general, and included 11 sessions and workshops with the adoption of 20 working hours. (3)
– In April 2017, the Third National Youth Conference was held in Ismailia city, with the participation of about 1,200 young people from the Suez Canal region. The most salient feature of this conference is that it launched the “Ask the President” initiative, which has become the most important part over time. The conference included six sessions and workshops with the adoption of 11 working hours. (4)
– On 25 July 2017, the Fourth National Youth Conference was held at the Great Hall of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria. The conference lasted for two days and marked a turning point in the type of attendees; with the participation of 1,500 young people from the West Delta region governorates, most of them are youth registered in the Presidential Leadership Program (PLP)’s second batch, as well as young people representing business associations, political parties’ secretaries of Youth, and a group of youth working in NGOs and voluntary civil society associations. (5)
– On 16 May 2018, the Fifth Youth Conference was held in Cairo at Al Masa Hotel once again, but the number of sessions in this conference was reduced to only three, most notably the “Ask the President” session. (6)
– On 28 July 2018, the Sixth Youth Conference was convened in Cairo too, but this time was in the heart of Cairo University and was attended by about 3,000 young people. The two-day conference was split into seven sessions, topped by the “Ask the President” discussion. (7)
– On 30 July 2019, after a year-long break, rather unusually, the Seventh Youth Conference was held in the New Administrative Capital- at its fully constructed parts- and was attended by about 1,500 young people, mostly parties’ representatives, university youths and the government- affiliated PLP members. The conference proceeded for only two days. (8)
– On 14 September 2019 and unexpectedly, the Eighth National Youth Conference kicked off at New Cairo’s Al Manara International Conference Center, after the Presidential Office started to prepare for a new conference although the majority had thought it would take place at the end of the year. The one-day conference has been organized in less than two months since the end of the 7th Conference. (9)
Where did you get that? The Money spent…From where and to where?
“From outside the state budget; international donors, money raised from commercials, ads, and local financiers and sponsors, but no funds were paid from the state treasury”, different state-affiliated sources replied (10), as some have raised questions regarding costs and the amount of spending on youth conferences in order to know who is funding such events, especially in light of the current economic situation, but it is different to access such information. Nevertheless, we have managed to collect some information that would clearly show the story of money – at least some of it; where it comes from and where and how it goes:
- Commercial International Bank (CIB), the United Bank (11) (will be sold to a major US investment fund within three months, according to the Central Bank of Egypt’s (CBE) Governor Tarek Amer) (12), Banque du Caire, Telecom Egypt, Talaat Moustafa Group Holding (real estate company), and TV channels such as DMC.
- The first across-the-board conference, which witnessed comprehensive logistical services and a huge attendance, was organized at cost of LE5 million, as reported by “Al-Masryoun” newspaper. We didn’t manage to verify the news, however. One of the conference’s attendees refused to provide us with any information or sources to know exactly how much the conference really cost. (13)
- The Second National Youth Conference cost LE3.5 million, aside from what is spent on securing officials and attendees, which amounts to nearly LE2 million. (14)
- There is no information available on the level of expenditure in the other conferences, however, based on the number of attendees which hardly differed from that of the second conference, we can estimate the cost of the later conferences at LE5 million as an approximate average number (with a total of LE40 million covering the eight editions) since no official information is available.
- Some of the young participants confirmed that the accommodation offered by the youth conferences was distributed among different hotels- mainly private (15) – with different levels. Officials and VIP guests stay at 5-star hotels at a minimum, while the young men and women registered online may sometimes stay at three-star hotels.
- All costs are fully paid by the conference’s organizers, including accommodation, transportation and any other fees or expenses throughout the course of the conference. However, only accommodation costs are covered in the conferences held outside Cairo.
Form and composition of attendees at National Youth Conferences:
Attendees at the National Youth Conferences are divided into three main categories or segments:
- Those who are directly invited by the President’s Office.
- Youth affiliated to specific parties such as: Party coordination (includes 15 parties and political figures), a large group of young people (universities’ Student Union), youths practicing various activities (cultural and sporting), and PLP’s youth members.
- Online applicants.
The following lines describe each category in detail:
– As some sources reported, invitations directly sent by the Office of the President go to certain people/ figures and civil society organizations, such as the National Council for Human Rights, the National Council for Women, etc., Those are treated as part of the delegation of officials from ministers and parliament members and as VIP guests, in terms of accommodation, transportation, etc. The percentage of this category in all conferences may reach 25% on average.
– The largest proportion of attendees, up to about 60%, is occupied by certain institutions maintaining fixed level of attendance in all conferences, including parties’ coordination which involves 15 parties- known for their loyalty to the state- in addition to pro-regime political figures, at time members of other parties, such as the Constitution Party, asserted that they were not even invited to attend the recent conferences in any way, as did most opposition parties. The Presidential Leadership Program (PLP) youth, noteworthy, are responsible for organizing the conference and coordinating its different sessions besides the allocation of roles. As pointed out by a source, those young men are intensively trained on the timing of laughter, applause and interpersonal interactions before the start of each conference. Alongside party members and PLP youth, there are also a significant number of competent and skillful youth in different fields among attendees.
– Applicants who register online hold about 15% of the conferences’ attendees, according to different sources from those who attend youth conferences on a frequent basis. To apply, a registration form has to be filled up online via a website dedicated to youth conferences. You have to submit all personal information, a personal photo, and a copy of your ID. Sources confirmed that all applicants are subject to a full security check, and that none of the applications submitted by any of those who are considered opponents of the regime have been accepted so far.
Programs and sessions… The conference’s most important events/proceedings between repetition and uniqueness:
President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi has outlined his vision of Youth Conferences in the first place saying: “I don’t want two or three months to pass without a youth conference”, (16) which shows his interest in such conferences and their proceedings. This interest was reflected in the change of the conferences’ patterns from being gradually convened to having a periodic and almost static pattern roughly since the Fourth Conference. This pattern highlights the format of dialogues and conversations in the conferences and controls their repeated events and how they are arranged, which can be summarized in the following points:
- From the First Periodical Conference till the Eighth edition, sessions in which officials and ministers address some topics, which are determined and announced beforehand pertaining to either the conditions of the economy or education, are often repeated. These sessions are frequently followed by an interactive session by holding a dialogue between the president and youth. This session is centred on a spontaneous speech delivered by Al-Sisi discussing various topics- will be later explained in detail. Then it is the turn of “Ask the President” session, which was launched since the Third Conference and started to expand until it took over almost the entire conference in its last edition.
- All conferences have a predetermined agenda; as PLP members prepare beforehand the questions sent to the president after collecting them and filtering them out by rejecting those that are not in line with the state affiliations. For example, one participant at a previous conference raised a question- by virtue of his job- about uranium and the reasons behind refraining from extracting it despite its availability, but the question was declined without giving any reasons. He also had a question about the black sand and the extraction of radioactive materials wondering “Why do we waste it? How can we use it? And why it is being wasted by different bodies? However, his proposal was turned down the same way. (17)
- Youth conferences end with recommendations, ranging from 7 to 10 recommendations at each conference. Some are very general (such as those related to renewal of religious discourse) and others are specific and feasible such as those related to the Youth Training Center, which has already been established.
Youth Conferences? Or a media platform for the President!
We can separate between the first four conferences (The First International Conference and the first three editions of the National Conference) and the rest of the conferences took place later on, and this is in terms of the number of sessions, the participation rates of both youths and the state, and the sort of sessions and programs. In other words, unlike the first four ones, the latest five national conferences have followed a different pattern since the expansion of the “Ask the President” session, which can be illustrated in the following points:
– In the First International Youth Conference that took place in 2016: 84 dialogue sessions and workshops were held, and there was a high level of youth interactions. The role of youth was more prominent than that of state officials, and a number of various events and activities had been planned as a result. One of the most important plans of action was the formation of a committee to prepare a list of the young people detained over political cases requesting to include them in pardon lists, a strategy that has been adopted by different political forces for almost two years through the compilation of detainees’ names and cases. As a result, a number of young political detainees- detained over opinion-related cases- have indeed been released. But unfortunately, preparing pardon lists has later turned into a secret or a covert action that none of the opposition members can take part in, and it has become difficult to check the lists before they are adopted. Also, these lists have been used to pardon prisoners involved in criminal (and not political) cases. An example of this was Hisham Talaat Moustafa who had been convicted of inciting murder before he was released in 2017(18). It is worth mentioning that Talaat Moustafa Group is one of the sponsors of the conferences as we mentioned earlier. Another example was Sabri Nakhnoukh who had been convicted of possessing weapons and drugs, and committing bullying acts, before he was pardoned in 2018(19). During the same conference, there were also talks about the Protest Law and the request to reverse it, besides discussions on the NGO law.
– In the First Periodical National Conference: Six dialogue sessions and workshops were held, while the level of interaction decreased by more than 90% comparing to the first comprehensive international conference. About 15 young men and women, out of 29 speakers, delivered their speeches during this conference, i.e. the percentage of youth participation is estimated at 50% compared to the president and officials.
– In the Second National Conference: Seven dialogue sessions were held. The number of sessions, the conference’s format and the panel discussions were almost fixed. The conference encompassed 48 speakers, including 25 young people; i.e. the participation rate of both youths and the state (represented in Sisi and officials) was almost equal.
– In the Third National Conference: Six sessions and 1 workshop were held. There were 34 speakers, including 17 young people, in an apparent constancy in the number of sessions and the proportion of speakers between youth and the state. During this conference, the “Ask the President” initiative was launched for the first time.
– The Fourth Conference was somehow different; as it marks the beginning of transformation in the youth conferences in terms of their format, theirs sessions and the composition of attendees. This conference was participated by a different group of audience than before. Also, it didn’t specify the number of sessions or workshop that would be planned. Both the “Ask the President” session and al-Sisi’s speech stood out from the rest of events, in addition to the strong presence of the state (the president and officials).
– The Fifth Conference witnessed 3 sessions apart from the opening session; the first two sessions served as a dialogue between youth and officials, in addition to “Ask the President” session.
– The Sixth Conference is the last conference that has been covered on the Youth Conferences’ official website, and included 3 sessions other than the opening session, most notably the “Ask the President” session. The most prominent attendees were: Speaker of the House of Representatives Dr. Ali Abdel-Al, Prime Minister Dr. Mostafa Madbouly, Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research Dr. Khaled Abdel Ghaffar, General Mohamed Zaki, Commander-in- Chief of the Armed Forces, Minister of Defense and Military Production, and Engineer Sherif Ismail, the Secretary General of the Presidency of the Republic. This is in addition to a number of ministers and senior statesmen, which shows the almost complete control of the state and officials over the conference.
– From the fourth to the eighth conference, it is possible to emphasize the repetition of the same pattern; as each conference consists of three sessions other than the opening session, while the first and last session serve as an intensive dialogue and discussion between the president and the Egyptian youth, interrupted by a break followed by a dialogue session for young people talking about issues on the political agenda of the state.
The media in Youth Conferences, actor or non-actor (subject or object)?
Since the first announcement of Youth Conference, the various media outlets devote most of their airtime and space for almost a week for a continuous coverage of only three phases at each conference (President Sisi’s statements/President Sisi’s replies/The president’s recommendations during the conference).
There is a substantial similitude and similarities between different media outlets in the way they cover the conference; starting from highlighting certain remarks or statements delivered during the conference until using similar terms or words describing the incident.
However, what distinguishes the Youth Conference from any other event is that the role of media here is not only limited to covering the event, rather participating in the funding of the conference; such as DMC TV channels and the Egyptian Media Group (EMG) affiliated with Eagle Capital For Financial Investment company (S.A.E), headed by former Investment Minister Dalia Khorshid who acquired a large stake in EMG. And according to some press sources, Eagle Capital is a private equity fund owned by the General Intelligence Service (20).
Media coverage of youth conferences is divided into three phases: before the conference, during the conference, and after the conference. Most prominent statements made by al-Sisi (during and after the conference) always top the front page and news headlines in all newspapers and media channels, and even radio channels. Before the airing of the conference, moreover, the media often conveys what is announced regarding the conferences’ sessions or programs. Since the launch of the Sixth National Youth Conference, nonetheless, the Egyptian media with both its news and analytical reports focus its coverage on the “Ask the President” sessions.
Are Youth Conferences successful or not? What criteria can be used to judge?
– Has interactive communication with young people been achieved?
– Do the issues raised in Youth Conferences intersect with the Egyptian youth’s real pressing issues?
The answer to these questions may serve as a criterion for judging whether youth conferences have succeeded or not; since they summarize the conferences’ clearly stated objectives. We will try to clarify this answer in the following points:
First: The identified issues that are discussed at each conference often come in line with the issues raised in the community, and there is always an action plan for the following year being announced during the conference; such as declaring 2016 as the Year of Youth, 2017 as the Year of the Egyptian Woman, 2018 as the Year of People with Special Needs, and 2019 as the Year of Education.
Second: Although there is a correlation between the topics being discussed in the conference and those witnessed by society, they are not a top priority for the youth in particular and don’t express or reflect the youth category as a whole. This becomes apparent when comparing the First Conference, where the voice of the youth was more noticeable and striking, with the subsequent conferences, where the attendees’ participation had been curtailed to a large degree, and the space or chance given to youth to have direct dialogue with the Egyptian state had shrunk and narrowed down. Youth conferences no longer discuss the issues of freedoms, prisons and the anti-freedom laws; such as the Cybercrime Law, the Protest Law, the Terrorism Law, the enactment of a state of emergency, and many other issues. Youth Conferences also did not discuss or provide solutions to other vital issues, such as unemployment, labor market problems, marriage and childcare problems, and various health issues concerning the youth.
Third: Discussions and debates in Youth Conferences have largely turned into a one-sided speech by the president and, at a lower rate, by officials. This was evident either through the spontaneous talks that often serve as a rich material for criticism and sarcasm on social media and on the street, amid loud laughter and applause from the audience and their interaction with the president, or through the planned talks and conversations with officials about the upcoming achievements, plans and government projects, amid frequent applause from the audience.
Fourth: Youth, as we gave an estimated percentage of their participation, make up only a small proportion of the conference’s attendees or audience, and the majority of them have a certain affiliation; for being involved in pro-regime parties or for working in government institutions or state-controlled organizations.
Fifth: As confirmed by one of the young men who had attended the conference before, organizers used to check the questions sent to the president before the conference starts and select those that can be answered by the president after filtering them out, adding that dozens of questions had already been rejected. Another participant confirmed the same point, but she added that the president usually prefers to read himself the rejected questions although he will not answer them (21).
Despite the fact that the group of youth who attend these conferences that bear their name cannot be considered a representative sample of the general population of youth in Egypt, even those who were carefully selected to join such conferences have been given little space for their voice to be heard, and this space is shrinking over time from one conference to another until it has almost disappeared. As a consequence, communicating with the youth, which is the main stated objective of Youth Conferences, has turned into a one-way communication, represented in the messages sent not by the state in general but by the president in particular. Youth conferences, in their present form and state, are nothing but a costly platform used by the president to convey his own messages, maybe because he is not sure that the media, which is fully controlled by the state, can deliver his message in a way that will satisfy or please him. Moreover, officials attending the conference usually play minor roles that would help the president act in a spontaneous way giving his messages an air of irony and humor. Youth, on the other hand, are merely extras or part of a theatrical play props.
In principle, every expansion of the public sphere through which a channel of communication with an important segment of society like the youth can be opened up constitutes, indeed, a positive move. However, throughout the successive rounds/editions of Youth Conferences, this has certainly not been achieved; because they reflect the tendency of the state and its president to impose a tightly unilateral and one-sided discourse, which is no longer reinforced or chanted by multiple voices as is the case in the media, rather by one voice. It is a one-sided discourse and with one voice too. In addition to that, the array of topics discussed in the discourse is among the president’s favorite ones, such as the Fourth Generation Wars, dangers of social media and the Internet in general, besides justifying the harsh economic policies that the majority bear their brunt, through giving repeated talks about the state’s need for money to meet its obligations.
In conclusion, we can certainly say that Youth Conferences didn’t achieve their stated goal of opening a free communication channel with the Egyptian youth. However, given their progression and their fixed pattern, and if possible to judge, it is logical to say that these conferences are achieving an undeclared goal, albeit not hidden at all. This goal is: opening a channel for the President allowing him to deliver his speeches and convey his messages in an informal way and without being restricted by official customs, but in a context of predetermined limits. A clear manifestation of our analysis to the Youth Conferences’ goals and such hidden aim would be the recent and latest conference, which has been arranged and organized unexpectedly and expeditiously, and lasted for only one day, unlike the rest of the conferences. This conference was a reflection of the president’s urgent need to promptly send specific messages in response to some recent accusations that went viral on social media over the past days.
- Official website of Youth Conferences, Sharm El Sheikh 2016 National Youth Conference. Date of publishing: unspecified. Visited on: 14 September 2019 https://egyouth.com/ar/sharm_conference/
- Official website of Youth Conferences, Cairo National Youth Conference. Date of publishing: unspecified. Visited on: 14 September 2019 https://egyouth.com/ar/cairo_conference/
- Official website of Youth Conferences, Aswan National Youth Conference. Date of publishing: unspecified. Visited on: 14 September 2019 https://egyouth.com/ar/aswan_conference/
- Official website of Youth Conferences, Ismailia National Youth Conference. Date of publishing: unspecified. Visited on: 14 September 2019 https://egyouth.com/en/ismaileya_conference/
- National Training website, Alexandria National Youth Conference. Date of publishing: unspecified. Visited on: 14 September 2019 http://bit.ly/2lT281j
- Official website of Youth Conferences, Fifth National Regular Youth Conference. Date of publishing: unspecified. Visited on: 15 September 2019 http://bit.ly/2lWxrIk
- Official website of Youth Conferences, Sixth National Regular Youth Conference, Cairo University July 2018. Date of publishing: unspecified. Visited on: 15 September 2019 http://bit.ly/2kOvA8e
- State Information Service (SIS), Seventh National Youth Conference in the New Administrative Capital (30 – 31 July 2019), published on: 31 July 2019. Visited on: 15 September 2019 http://bit.do/e8MS9
- Mada Masr website, sources about «Youth Conference»: organizational confusion for lack of time, published on 13-9-2019, visited on 14-9-2019 http://bit.ly/2miOhl4
- Al-Watan website, “sources: Youth Conferences funded from outside the state budget”, published on July 26, 2019, visited on: 14-9-2019, https://www.elwatannews.com/news/details/4274866
- Al-Watan website, “sources: Youth Conferences funded from outside the state budget”, published on July 26, 2019, visited on: 15-9-2019, https://www.elwatannews.com/news/details/4274866
- Akhbar Al-Youm website, “Before selling it, 11 information to know about the United Bank”, published on April 29, 2019, visited on 14-9-2019, http://bit.ly/2kLYdDb
- Almesryoon website, “In numbers: Youth Conferences cost LE200 million”, published on February 07, 2017, visited on: 15/9/2019 http://bit.ly/2lRdQ JI
- Ibid. (In the same source)
- A number of young people who attended one or more conferences were contacted through phone calls or e-mails, all of whom requested anonymity.
- YouTube, Newsroom| Sisi: “We are keen to hold the periodic youth conference every two to three months”, published on August 1, 2019 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y-394zRVcYY from 0.50 minutes to the end, visited September 15, 2019 .
- See footnote 12
- “Youm7” website: “Hisham Talaat Moustafa Sabah released the first day of Eid over a pardon”. Published on June 23, 2017, visited on: September 15, 2019. http://bit.do/e8Ncm
- Masrawy website, despite his life sentence: How Nakhnoukh came out of prison with a presidential pardon after 6 years behind bars?” Published on May 16, 2018, http://bit.do/e8Ndz, visited on September 15, 2019.
- Mada Masr website, “Looking into the latest acquisition of Egyptian media companies by general intelligence”, published on December 20, 2017, http://tiny.cc/36vvcz , visited on: September 15, 2019.
- See footnote 12