On the WYF and the sudden disappearance of the McArabia

To be completely honest, I wasn’t really keeping up with the World Youth Forum this year. After following last year’s #WeNeedToTalk melancholia, I decided that I was better off focusing on more pressing matters, like perfecting my recipe for coconut curry chicken and attending to my deteriorating state of mind in the aftermath of McDonalds pulling the McArabia from their menu. It wasn’t until I stumbled upon a video of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi demanding that the government slim down students’ physiques that I realized there was nowhere to run. As a girl who loves her food, hates exercise and has decided temporarily to refrain from political commentary after a series of unfortunate national events, I felt simultaneously threatened and offended — like a polar bear awakened from her winter-time hibernation. In the name of Egyptian youth who were quite satisfied with their current states of gluttony, I decided that I had to get to the bottom of what on God’s green Earth was happening at the 2018 World Youth Forum. Who are these youth, where were they shuttled from, and most importantly, was Sisi behind the disappearance of the McArabia after all?

The World Youth Forum, which took place last week in Sharm el-Sheikh, marketed itself as a progressive platform, where youth from all over the world could flock to discuss serious matters of world peace, equality and diversity. The forum’s official song, “From Everywhere,” proudly features token foreigners and shamelessly boasts that “different we may seem to be, but that is good,” — unless, of course, you like potatoes. The attack on young people did not stop at demanding that we slim down, but extended to shaming us for prioritizing potatoes over Egypt’s otherwise booming economy. In one of Sisi’s many iconic statements at the forum, he asked whether the youth want to “run after potatoes or build Egypt.” Why do I need to pick between my unwavering love for potatoes, in all their shapes and sizes, and my desperate wishes for Egypt to prosper? Why divide Egyptian youth on such controversial, hot-button topics on social media polls?

I do have to say though, it is not totally unreasonable of the president to ask why Egyptian youth are increasingly overweight, with Egypt ranking consistently low in global healthcare assessments. But to blame young people solely for being malnourished, overweight, underweight, sedentary, or anything but “sculpted” Olympic athletes — ahem, please. Does he really expect me to make a conscious effort to buy my lunch not from junk food outlet number one, or junk food outlet number two, but to buy the pesticide-smothered salad from junk food outlet number three instead? Truth be told, I tried, and I can already feel the unhealthy fat in my body being replaced by healthypesticide wholesomeness. After this big powerful change in my lifestyle, I can imagine myself teleporting to Sharm el-Sheikh to join forum youth who will innovate away obesity, poverty, sectarianism and much more through the indomitable power of dialogue in four short days — the recommended annual intake of youth participation to avoid any genuine or realistic attempt at change.

In true World Youth Forum fashion, critical questions should be swept under the rug altogether, or at the very least be reduced, dumbed down, depoliticized and sanitized in ways that leave them redundant and void of all relevance to reality. Is the goal to mold Egyptian youth into depoliticized, globalized and productive individuals/machines that will volunteer as tributes for Egypt by the time they hit 30 years of age? If the answer is no, then why hold the WYF in the first place? Follow in the footsteps of Nike’s first hijabi brand ambassador Manal Rostom, as she gushes over the President’s physical fitness and proudly adds that, despite immensely respecting him, she has, in fact, no political views (although she has since removed the first online post she made). Why engage with the government’s politics when you can take a selfie with the president as he rides a bike in Egypt’s one and only bike lane instead? (Tip: do not try this at home if you want to arrive in one piece.)

In another serious attempt at championing groundbreaking innovation, the World Youth Forum witnessed one of the most ambitious attempts to reimagine Arab, Middle Eastern and “African” geographies into one. Aswan was named ‘the new capital for African youth,’ and, despite spiteful claims by geographers and academics that Africa is actually not a country, the forum insisted on thinking outside the box and breaking all outdated epistemological conventions known to man.

As shameful as this sounds, I find myself bound by the shackles of traditional thinking and unable to keep up with the forum’s unprecedented leap into the future, alongside other famous and pioneering groups, like the Flat Earth Society and the Westboro Baptist Church. Aside from my usual coping mechanisms, which often involve a mixture of denial, humor and anger in times of disbelief, I am unable to relate to these tolerant, entrepreneurial and innovative young people, and unable to fit into the government-sanctioned mold of model youth.

I look back at the 2017 World Youth Forum when, apparently, “we needed to talk,” and find that the topics raised in this forum were certainly nothing that I wanted to engage with. Yes, I do sometimes feel like there are streets I can’t cross, clothes I can’t wear and opinions I am too afraid to express. And yes, I feel discriminated against and sometimes wonder if I will be forced to leave my country. But these forums are not made for me, or youth like me. They are made for youth whose consciousness of change remains safely confined within mainstream political, social and moral norms; change that poses no threat to the status quo. It’s almost as though these forums are not interested in change at all, but in projecting an image of progress, tolerance (never acceptance!) and diversity — one that is a complete foil to reality and that eventually conceals social and structural violence against Egyptian youth (though definitely not the youth picked with a fine-tooth comb to “start a conversation” at the World Youth Forum).

It’s wonderfully convenient that the spewing of a few abstract slogans is enough to wipe their smeared image clean, without holding them to any tangible change. I wonder about Egypt’s religious or LGBTQ minorities — does the forum’s version of tolerance and diversity make room for them as well, or is the right to live granted only to those who accept their designated position in the state imaginations of the ideal citizen? Are the lives of anyone but the heterosexual, upper-middle class male members of the species going suddenly to blossom if they “talk” or engage in “dialogue”?

I find it quite insulting to project this ideal model of docile, young citizens, at the expense of concealing others like myself, who are cornered by social and political forces that actively work against our imagined notions of “diversity, innovation and creativity.” Who are these youth, why were they chosen and who do they represent? Certainly not me. I do not want to look like a “sculpted” athlete; I do not want to be part of an experimental clinical trial, where bikes join lorries on highways; I do not want to eat the pesticide-smothered salad from junk food outlet number three and I do not want to revolutionize human understandings of geography. At this point,  I just want my McArabia back, and it’d better come with extra Big Tasty sauce.

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Farida Hussein