President Obama and the Real Potential for Change

On June 4th U.S. President Barack Obama will address the Muslim World in a speech from the grounds of Cairo University. The U.S. administration’s choice of venue for Egypt as the location for a long awaited speech on Muslim-western relations has been celebrated by Egyptians as an opportunity to receive the world’s attention for their country, including its problems, for a day. The spotlights of the international press will most probably cover the general fanfare surrounding Obama’s visit that day. What most likely will receive some attention as well are the demonstrations that syndicates, students, and political opposition have declared they will hold that day. When Thursday June 4th comes to an end, however, so will the short-lived interest of the international community in opportunities for social change in Egypt and the Arab world.

Obama’s speech this Thursday is bound to be full of promises of change; change in US-Muslim relations, but also a change in the future of the Arab region. The wry thing is, is that the very movements that have the most potential to realize these promises of change, are receiving the least press coverage. They are those movements for social change that are taking place in the Arab region right now. They consist of civil society leaders, activists, organizations and associations that are committed to tackle systemic issues that their societies face using home-grown and innovative ways. Regardless of which of the twenty-two Arab states you look at, there are movements underway to address pressing social issue. In Egypt, for example, Ehaab Abdou is mobilizing disaffected young professionals to positively contribute to their country. Ehaab established ‘Nahdet el Mahrousa’ to engage young social entrepreneurs in Egypt and abroad and to push them to be responsible for creating the change they themselves hope for. Hisham el Rouby is another example of a committed leader that is giving youth a strong taste of civic engagement and social responsibility. Through his Youth Association for Development, Hisham is popularizing the concept of volunteer-service, an idea that has already led to the establishment of youth volunteer centers in Yemen, Egypt, Syria, the United Arab Emirates and Tunisia since 2003. In Lebanon, Selim Mawad is creating a cadre of “agents of change” by providing young people with the skills  and knowledge necessary to teach their communities about the need for transparency and accountability in government. His country-fellow, Wael Hmaidan, is inspiring youth to become engaged in realizing social change by identifying and promoting ‘local heroes’. In the occupied Palestinian territories, Abdelfattah Abusrour is introducing Palestinian children in refugee camps to a non-violent form of channeling their frustration and anger by promoting a ‘Beautiful Resistance’ that uses arts and theatre.

Who are these civil society leaders, other than inspiring individuals? They are but some of Ashoka’s Fellows and the base of social entrepreneurs in the Arab world that are harnessing the talent and power of young people. These citizen leaders are showing the Arab youth that “Yes We Can” is not just a slogan that was popularized in the current U.S. President’s election campaign. It’s an unquestionable fact for young people in the Arab region. On this occasion here at Ashoka we are reminded of what is represented by the Ashoka Fellows, the social entrepreneurs of the Arab world, and the thousands of people they affect. They are the potential for a society controlled by the citizenry rather than a citizenry controlled by society. They are the hope for a better future free of injustice and fear. They are “Yes We Can.” They are the Changemakers.

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