Address by the President of the European Council Herman Van Rompuy to the Young People’s event at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in cooperation with the Anna Lindh Foundation

Alexandria, 15-1-2013 — / — Let me thank both the Bibliotheca Alexandrina and the Anna Lindh Foundation for organising this round table. Thank you as well to all of you who have joined us. It is a real pleasure to meet you all and I would like to express my joy to be in Alexandria today.

This city – and its Library – hold a very special place in the history of our civilization on the two shores of the Mediterranean. At one point the largest city in the world, known for its diversity and vibrancy and as respected seat of learning, Alexandria played a leading role in the quest for knowledge and wisdom.

Over the centuries, culture, curiosity and dialogue have represented powerful tools to promote human progress and a better understanding between people.

Two and a half thousand years has not changed this. More than ever Alexandria continues to promote dialogue in a period when our societies are going through enormous social and economic challenges.

The Anna Lindh Foundation follows this tradition and shares the same objective in promoting the dialogue between cultures. Next to my office in Brussels there is a room dedicated to Anna Lindh, a talented, energetic woman, who became involved in the political life of her country, Sweden, at a very young age. I feel here today a sense of familiarity!

I know your ambition for the Library is for it to serve as the window of the world on Egypt, and the window of Egypt on the rest of the world.

I strongly believe that, in many ways, this is also a role that the young people of Egypt can play, for their country and for the world. How could it be any other way in a country where two citizens out of three are under the age of 30?

Just as young people everywhere, Egypt’s youth have embraced new ways of exchanging with the world. And as a wave of change swept through the Arab world in recent years, you have found yourselves at the centre of the global attention.

The events of what we call the “Arab Spring” brought your region’s youth back to the political scene, where it should have always belonged. How many young activists, bloggers and artists were at the forefront of this wave!

Yet now that the time has come to build upon this change, to turn it into something lasting, many of these young activists have found it hard to have their voices heard, and to gain meaningful political representation.

Worryingly too, many young people are still finding it extremely hard to find work. Egypt is far from alone in facing this problem: across the Arab region, a staggering 50 million jobs are needed by 2020 to fully absorb young people coming into the labour market. Such a dramatic situation is a social time-bomb. We in Europe know all too well the damage high youth unemployment can cause to a society. For a country, youth is the most precious asset, the motor of success, the key to the future.

If women and men are not given the opportunity to work and to take part in the political process, disillusionment and frustration will spread, and risk weakening an emerging and still fragile democracy in Egypt and in the Arab world.

To me, it is clear that political institutions must work closely with civil society
organisations and, in particular, with the younger generation to promote inclusive growth, social justice and democracy. This process needs to be open to all. A society which prevents its youth from taking on their role and responsibilities, will face difficulties.

The EU is investing in Egyptian civil society, and specifically in young people. Let me praise here the activities of the Anna Lindh Foundation that will start implementing its brand new “Citizens for Dialogue Programme” in 2013, to promote dialogue and exchange between civil society organisations.

Education is also at the centre of the work of the European Union, and I hope student exchange programmes like Euromed Youth and Erasmus will continue to thrive and help the Egyptian students.

From the start, the European Union was on the side of those calling throughout your country for democracy, freedom of speech, and the respect for human rights. Nearly two years later, Egypt is engaged in a political, social and economic transition.

And over the last few months, events in your country have again captivated international attention. At times, the democratisation process has been called into doubt. Now the Constitution has been adopted in a referendum and the organisation of elections is underway.

Over the past two days, I have met with President Morsi and with many political, religious and economic interlocutors. My main message, which I also want to say to you, is that the European Union continues to support democratic change in Egypt; that it is important to restore a climate of trust, and of faith in this process of democratisation. The main responsibility lies with the government of course, yet opposition parties also have a duty to help build consensus, genuinely.

The next legislative elections will be a test. There must be transparency and there must be fairness: without dialogue, inclusiveness and the respect for the rights and views of others, a country cannot be truly democratic.

Re-establishing political trust is also essential to bring back confidence to the economy. No doubt, economically Egypt is suffering from structural problems that must be addressed. But it is also true that the situation has been made worse by political uncertainty. Progress must go together on both fronts – political and economic – knowing that they will reinforce each other.

The European Union itself is emerging from a financial crisis. To overcome these problems, Europeans are making structural reforms and demanding efforts, even if they are painful and unpopular. We cannot and we don’t want give lessons to anyone, and every country has its own specific situation. But what we do know is that structural problems don’t go away by magic, and that the sooner they are addressed, the earlier economies can recover, and better face up to international financial markets.

Naturally, the last two years have created immense hopes and expectations, especially among you – the new generations, who in a young country like Egypt, represent the majority of the people.

Lasting change takes time, and deep transformations were never going to happen in one day. Efforts take time before they yield results, there have always been set-backs. The path to democracy and economic development has never been easy. In Europe itself many countries reached or returned to democracy through a long – and sometime painful – process. And because deep changes imply structural, political and economic reforms, such changes also imply sustained individual engagement and collective wisdom.

I am not here to preach the virtue of patience, although patience sometimes is a powerful ally; but on the contrary, to encourage you – through dialogue – to remain vigilant and committed to the political transition despite the time it takes and the effort it requires. Frustration and disillusionment mustn’t take over hope. The future belongs to you. The EU is on your side.



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