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Advocacy Program Trains Pro-Democracy Activists from Middle East, North Africa

It's said that change comes from within, and that idea is at the heart of the Freedom House New Generation of Advocates Program. The professional training and exchange program supports young civil society activists who are working for democracy, human rights and peaceful political change in the Middle East and North Africa.

As part of its non-profit, non-partisan mission to support the expansion of freedom and democracy around the world, Freedom House has been bringing young Middle Eastern reformers to the United States and Central and Eastern Europe on fellowships. The New Generation of Advocates Program is supported by funds from the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Daniel Calingaert, deputy director of programs at Freedom House, explains that the training is designed to strengthen the advocacy and networking skills of its participants - currently, a group of 17 young Egyptian activists.

"It is a very diverse group, people with different outlooks, from different backgrounds, including human rights activists, lawyers, women's rights activists, journalists, bloggers," Calingaert says. "But what they all share is a hope for a better future in Egypt and a strong interest in promoting reform."

The 17 Egyptian fellows are spending five weeks working with their American counterparts to hone their skills as social and political reformers.

May Kosba is a senior program specialist at the Youth and Development Institute, a non-governmental organization in Egypt that works with that country's young activists.

Now she's getting some training herself at Youth Service America, an organization in Washington, D.C. that's similar to the Egyptian institute. Kosba says it's important to focus on young people and give young Egyptians hope for a better future.

"There is a lot of youth who are unemployed, who need to see a better future, and I believe as an Egyptian who strives for a better life that we deserve a lot better," she says. "So whatever I learned in this training, now I have a clear idea of what I need to do, in how to approach the youth, how to speak with them and how to be more accepting of their diversity. We have advocacy training on how to speak to people, how to analyze the problems and the needs and put them together and see how to get the message across."

Using simple, direct language to get the message across is a lesson Egyptian fellow Ola Fahmy is learning. A political analyst with the recently organized Reform and Development Party in Egypt, Fahmy is spending her fellowship at the Buckeye Institute for Public Policy Solutions in Columbus, Ohio. She's picked up several important tools for encouraging young people to get actively involved in their nation's political life.

"How to talk to people with simple language. Actually, we use more complicated language - like 'reform' and 'ideologies' - and how to replace those expressions with more simple words to reach people and how to mobilize people to work with you, how to change your mechanism from needs-based approach to rights-based approach."

According to Freedom House, civil society organizations in the Middle East and North Africa often lack clear agendas or realistic action plans for reform. They tend to focus on ideological manifestos and conferences, rather than on concrete plans for action.

That's an assessment shared by Maged Sorour, executive director of One World Foundation for Development and Civil Society Care.

"Most of us did not receive international training. We are activists by nature, so it is important when we come to such training and receive and get new techniques on what they do in American society. It is important to gain this knowledge and to practice it again in our society."

Sorour is acquiring new advocacy techniques through his fellowship at the Carter Center's Human Rights Program in Atlanta, Georgia.

To support the emergence of a new generation of democracy advocates in the Middle East and North Africa, the Freedom House program also provides its fellows with mentors - including lawmakers in the United States and Europe, former ambassadors, academics and journalists. Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, is one of the mentors. He told the young Egyptian activists that Washington has been trying to nudge Egypt in a more participatory direction, to give its people a stronger voice in their own lives.

"We have been trying to do this for more than half a century, and quite frankly, we are not there, and you know what? We are not going to get there. You are going to get there," Alterman says. "We can help. We can inspire. We can give you some ideas. But the action, the real drive, has to come from you. It will come from you. People have seen it coming from you, and that is what changes the world."

Exiled Egyptian democracy activist Saad Eldin Ibrahim, now a visiting professor at Harvard University, praises the Freedom House New Generation of Advocates Program, which is funded by the U.S. government's Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) and the U.S. Agency for International Development. Ibrahim says providing young leaders with practical, hands-on advocacy experience in a mature civil society is a powerfully effective way to promote democracy - and protect freedom in the world.