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Arab Youth Flex Freedom Muscles at Egyptian Gathering

By Andrew Bossone

Alexandria, Egypt–This year’s Annual Arab Youth Summit at the Library of Alexandria in Egypt was sure to be different in the wake of the Egyptian revolution.

This was clear from the opening session. Organizers noted it excluded the former Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research, Hani Hilal, who had inaugurated the conference the previous five years.

More importantly, the attendees themselves were more outspoken then they’ve ever been. The comments were often heated and sometimes critical, but almost always expressing a desire for legitimate democratic reform. “We want to go on a better path,” said Zacharia, from Morocco. “We’re not against the system or the kingdom. But we want to change the politicians, the political parties and the people inside the government.”

The Library’s director insists the Library has always been a place of open debate (Library of Alexandria Hosts Youth Summit for Post-Revolution Discussion). “Inside the Library we always agreed that there would be no censorship,” Ismail Serageldin told National Geographic News Watch. “That was one of the early things I insisted on in the Library, that people — as long as they respected each other — as long as there were no ad hominem attacks — as long as people spoke with mutual respect and rationality, all opinions were open.”


Young people queued in lines for the chance to take the microphone and raise their voices for the first time.

Photo by Andrew Bossone

Yet some of the young attendees said people at past conferences certainly were not as candid, either out of fear, or because they had been specifically chosen to attend for their loyalty to their respective regimes. Some of the attendees who still support ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak seemed the most frustrated of anyone at the conference.

The rest, who represented the majority of people at the conference, sounded empowered to raise their voice for the first time.

“We thought we couldn’t do anything,” said Karim El Shanawy, an Egyptian social media advocate. “But today we think we can do something. The idea of democracy to have a conversation with everyone in the world.”


El Shanawy at the podium on the first day of the conference.

Photo by Andrew Bossone

The organizers pushed the attendees to talk about concrete steps forward. Many of the attendees said they wanted the forum to be a platform to communicate ideas and connect with one another. “If we don’t listen to one another we won’t go anywhere,” said Sawal, from Alexandria.

Some of the most inspiring voices came from the youngest in the group. Firas, a 12-year-old from Alexandria, said he did not participate in the 18-day protests in Egypt, but as soon as they were over he descended on the streets to clean up garbage and paint public spaces. He called on his older peers to keep that spirit alive.

And then there was six-and-a-half-year-old Abed El-Rahman Adel, who received a loud ovation for reciting poetry on stage. He recited another poem for me in the video below, with translation from Arabic.


Video by Andrew Bossone

On the second day, attendees broke into workshops about politics, economics and civil society. At one session dedicated to the idea of Arab unity, people didn’t agree on why they should be united, but with the microphone passed to everyone, plurality prevailed. At one point, a young man walked around with a bottle of water and a wine glass, offering it to everyone in the room to quench their thirst.


Attendees of the workshop on Arab unity agreed they needed to stay in touch after the conference.

Photo by Andrew Bossone

Here’s a selection of quotes from what attendees said in the workshop:

“People are going back to their jobs, some people are out of work and people need to eat. They need to work. We’re not in a democracy yet. Everyone has to be heard, but the people in power now are not hearing them.”

“Before the revolution we had one party and we knew it controlled everything, which worked by status and privilege.”

“The danger of the revolution that it doesn’t continue.”

“The revolution was by the people, for the people, and the risk now is that other people who did not make the revolution is controlling the situation. The people must remain in control.”

“The most important thing right now is to fix the economy.”

“People are saying that they are against armed forces running the country, but we need to give them time.”

“People say the first thing is economy then politics. I say the first thing is a culture of freedom.”

“We are one language and one religion, so we should be united as Arabs.”

“Just like in Egypt we had Ahly [soccer club] and Zamalek [soccer club] against one another, we don’t have that any more. So we’re not Egyptian or Libyan we’re just people.”

“There is no thing called the Arab world. North Africa is one thing. The Middle East is another. The Gulf is different. Why are we talking about making a single Arab entity out of different cultures?”

“There are many different languages and different religions. If you went to Malaysia, would you feel the same as everyone else? Look, I’m Egyptian, but I don’t help someone just because that person is Egyptian. According to religion I help someone because they are human, that’s all.”

“We have an Arab League full of 22 dictatorships. If we’re going to have any partnership it should be of free societies.”


Medical student Muhammad Khallaf spent many days protesting in Cairo.

Photo by Andrew Bossone

Muhammad Khallaf, a medical student from Menoufeya, protested for several days in Cairo. While praying, water cannons hit him in the face, and while marching his lungs filled with tear gas. He describeD the stages of emotions he has felt during the revolution:

  • Fear: In the beginning I was afraid of what was happening. I was afraid of blood. I was afraid of a massacre.
  • Anger: I was furious at what the government had done to the protestors with oppression and aggression.
  • Joy: I was happy about our victory over the government forces.
  • Disappointment: In some way I was disappointed when the resident refused to step down.
  • “Over the moon:” When the former president stepped down I was over the moon and I was surprised. I couldn’t believe it. Still now when I wake up, I go, ‘Oh, Mubarak has gone.’
  • Determined: I have faith in the revolution and I’m not afraid. I’m not afraid anymore.

Andrew Bossone is a regular contributor to National Geographic Daily News.

Blog posts by Andrew Bossone.