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Students Press for Reform in the Mideast

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 region."

More Freedoms

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 foreseeable future.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.