In the Middle East, young people are an increasingly powerful
demographic force. Roughly two-thirds of all people in the region are
under the age of 30.
Two U.S. organizations recently invited Middle Eastern and American
university students to participate in three conferences in the Mideast
to discuss ways to bolster democratic reforms in the Arab World. Delegates also shared their recommendations with policymakers
here in Washington.
The Project on Middle East Democracy, or POMED, fosters dialogue
among young Americans and Middle Easterners by examining how U.S.
foreign policy influences political reform and democratization in the
Mideast. Earlier this year, POMED, with help from Americans for Informed
Democracy -- a non-governmental organization that encourages young
Americans to address global challenges -- brought together about 150
Middle Eastern and American young people in Morocco, Egypt and Jordan.
They developed recommendations on how the United States can help promote
political, social and economic reform in the region.
The groups elected six representatives to travel to Washington and talk
with lawmakers. These delegates shared their recommendations with
members of Congress and policymakers at the U.S. State Department and
the U.S. Agency for International Development as well as the foreign
policy advisors of the two major U.S. presidential candidates --
Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama.
English teacher Emily Crawford, an American delegate from the Jordan
conference, says, "I have been overwhelmed by how receptive everyone has been here.
People took notes, they listened to us and they asked great questions.
I really feel like we are getting our message across."
An American Opportunity
The group recommends more U.S. investment in the Middle Eastern to
promote political, economic and social reforms.
According to Dina Elshinnawi [the daughter of VOA reporter Mohamed
Elshinnawi], an American representative at the Cairo conference and a
graduate student at The London School of Economics and Political
Science, the youth leaders meetings in Washington come at a critical
time -- as Americans focus on electing a new president in November.
"I think regardless of whether democracy promotion is at the top of
their lists, I think it is going to be important for them to realize
that it cannot be the same approach that has been used in the past and
that has failed," says Elshinnawi. "There should be an emphasis on supporting institutions
and structures already existent in the Arab countries instead of trying
to introduce strictly the American way of doing things."
In their meetings with the foreign policy staffs of presidential
hopefuls Barack Obama and John McCain, the six delegates stressed that
the United States should not ignore popular calls for democracy in the
Mideast by supporting stable, but unelected and authoritarian governments.
Mohamed Sabbah, an Egyptian representative from the Cairo conference
who recently earned a Master of Arts degree from Cairo University, asked advisers of both presidential campaigns to have their candidates
take a fresh look at U.S.-Mideast relations.
"I think for the coming [i.e., soon to be elected] President of the
United States, he should look at the Middle East region and the Arab
world more as a partner than a region of interest for the United States," says Sabbah. "And he should focus in the first place on the Arab-Israeli conflict
and the Iraqi case. They are key steps and key issues to stabilize the
For Erika Spaet, a U.S. representative from the Rabat conference and a
journalism and politics student at Ithaca College in New York, the
United States can promote democracy in the Middle East by supporting
freedom of expression and a free press.
"I'm very interested in how journalism and the media and a free press
can make an impact on the voices of young people and old people alike
all over the world and really open up dialogue between the people who
are making policies and the people that those policies affect," says Spaet. She advised U.S. officials to support independent Arab media, to train
Arab journalists in the U.S. and to urge Arab governments to allow
freedom of expression -- especially on the Internet.
International studies graduate student Sara Ait El-Moudden, a Moroccan
delegate from the Rabat conference, says she will debrief her
fellow students in Morocco on what she considers to be a very positive
American response to the aspirations of Arab youth.
"I am definitely very optimistic," she says. "I am among the youth in Morocco who
are pushing for having more say for the grass roots -- having more say
for political parties, for youth involvement, for women's empowerment.
All these constitute a real democracy in the country."
Stephen McInerney, Director of Advocacy for the Project on Middle East
Democracy that helped organize the youth leader delegation, says,
"The voices of these participants in our conferences will be heard here
in Washington. Then our organization, POMED, will follow up after they
return to the Middle East. We will follow up with these policymakers to
kind of help continue the advocacy efforts, so that their
recommendations are not forgotten."
POMED and Americans for Informed Democracy have conducted U.S.-Middle
East youth leadership exchanges since 2002. And judging by the
response, organizers say they plan to continue the program for the
story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports