“If your ideas could change the world, develop a country, cure a patient or help a child, we need to talk.”
With these words, a YouTube video released on October 21 invites viewers worldwide to attend the World Youth Forum from November 4 – 10, 2017, in the Egyptian resort city of Sharm El Sheikh. The advertisement for the conference repeats the refrain, “We Need to Talk,” concluding with the conference’s hashtag – #WeNeedToTalk. The video certainly started a conversation – but not the one conference organizers had in mind.
Since the video’s release, the hashtag has gained traction amongst Egyptian social media users, reaching a frenzy on Tuesday, October 30. These users repurposed the hashtag to highlight the ways in which the conference’s stated aims contradict reality.
For generations of Egyptians frustrated by ongoing human rights violations, who have seen colleagues, friends and peers imprisoned, and civil society initiatives stifled, the World Youth Forum is both hollow and hypocritical. On its website, the conference promises to engage youth from around the globe, “allowing them to express their views and recommend initiatives to decision makers.” Many Egyptian youths have sought to have these conversations for several years, Timothy Kaldas, a nonresident fellow at The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, told Muftah. Instead, they have ended up in prison, exile, or worse.
Many Egyptian social media users used the #WeNeedtoTalk hashtag to highlight individuals imprisoned for expressing their views by President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi’s government, including Ayman Aly Moussa, 24, an Egyptian student serving a fifteen-year prison sentence, Alaa Al Fatah, an Egyptian blogger, software developer, and political activist, Ahmed Douma, an activist and blogger serving a life sentence, and photojournalist Shawkan, who was arrested while documenting protests in 2013.
Amongst the most jarring parts of the hashtag campaign was an image taken by Mohamed Meteab showing a teenager running from the police, with the superimposed words “we need to talk.” According to The Independent, the student in the photograph was demonstrating in front of the Ministry of Education in Cairo to protest the cancellation of exams.
Recently, the Sisi government’s abysmal track record on human rights was the subject of international attention during a meeting between the Egyptian president and his French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron, on October 24. A day before the two men were scheduled to meet, groups including Human Rights Watch (“HRW”) and Amnesty International expressed their alarm at Sisi’s rights abuses.
At a press conference following his meeting with Macron, Sisi defended himself against criticism of his human rights record. “We are not in Europe, with its intellectual, cultural, civilization and human advancement,” he said, according to Reuters.
Other recent events in Egypt have brought additional international attention to the government’s suppression of human rights. In late September, after audience members at a Cairo concert for the popular Lebanese band, Mashrou’ Leila, waved a rainbow flag, sixty-five Egyptians, including members of LGBTQ community and its allies, were arrested – twenty have already received prison sentences. In response to the arrests, Amnesty International and HRW decried the “anti-LGBT crackdown and intimidation.”
Earlier that same month, a Human Rights Watch report detailed the systematic use of torture in Egypt. The day after the report’s release, the Egyptian government blocked access to HRW’s website, adding it to a list of 424 websites blocked by the state, according to the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression.
According to Kaldas, the World Youth Forum conference is “part of the ongoing effort to burnish the image of Egypt,” against the backdrop of increasing media attention on the government’s human rights abuses. As Kaldas also emphasized, the #WeNeedtoTalk hashtag campaign has helped to reinforce that attention, by “giving life to critical expression.”
“It’s a moment that people are able to vent their frustration and an opportunity to derail an attempt at whitewashing government crimes,” he said.