Throughout North Africa and the Middle East, young people have been at the forefront of revolution and political change. In Morocco, thousands took to the streets last year raising their voices, calling for reforms and demanding to be heard. That demand was in full force at a recent symposium in Rabat, Morocco’s capital.
“I think it is time to have this conversation,” said Yousef El Miadi, a cultural studies student at University of Mohamed V in Rabat, Morocco. “Not from older to younger, but from man-to-man.”
The October 22 symposium, “Youth & Civil Society,” sparked dialogue and debate. One hundred Moroccans and Americans, most of them students, crowded into a meeting room at the University of Mohamed V for the symposium which was sponsored by World Learning, the parent organization of SIT Study Abroad which runs three programs for American students in Rabat including a journalism program in collaboration with Round Earth Media. Moroccan academics and researchers presented their findings on subjects ranging from youth civil service to religious education to the uses of social media in bringing about political change.
“For right or for wrong, your generation is going to inherit a number of really vexing, very challenging critical global issues,” said Adam Weinberg, president and CEO of World Learning, who addressed the gathering.
One of those issues is the struggle for democracy in North Africa and the Middle East. In Morocco the King is still firmly in control of the country and most people appear to support the monarch who is also their religious leader. The February 20th Movement, Morocco’s version of the so-called “Arab Spring,” did lead to constitutional reform and an election that established a moderate Islamist government. But young people did not embrace that election, according to Saloua Zerhani, a law professor at Mohamed V-Souissi.
“The percentage of youth voters in Morocco is very small,” Zerhani told the conference. “Youth feel they have no voice,” she added.
That may be changing, at least for some young people who say their voices raised in protest forced Morocco’s recent constitutional reforms, which guarantee a range of human, political and social rights.
“This older generation …for a long time they have not done anything and the young people they made the change,” said Mahomed Majdoubi, a journalist one year out of university. “We are witnessing it, it has started and it is [a] transition.”
Monzi Oni, an American student from Stanford University, jumped in to point out that protest tends to come in generational waves and previous protests, such as the civil rights movement, laid the framework for future change in the United States. She pointed out that “women did not vote themselves the right to vote.”
“History has shown that protest is the only thing that has made concrete change and I think that we are starting it and it is conversations like this that will inspire people to continue,” she said.
Gavi Keyles, an American student from Northwestern University, thinks the Moroccans’ protests could motivate American young people involved in movements like Occupy Wall Street, which seems to have had relatively little impact.
“We have a lot to learn from the Moroccan youth, in that setbacks aren’t walls, they’re just bumps and we have to get over them,” she said.
The conference came just two weeks before the U.S. election. El Miadi, the Moroccan student, pointed to the U.S. presidential candidates. Claiming there’s little difference between them, he wondered why Americans even bother to vote. With that, the room burst into debate, Moroccan and American students alike turned to one another with visceral reactions, some gasps, some laughter, and some loud declarations of dissent. But everyone was talking.
The moderator said there was time for a final comment, and Kelly Marlett, an American student from the University of Colorado, Denver, spoke up.
“I would like to end with a quote of inspiration,” Marlett said with a laugh, while the other students clapped. Marlett quoted from a scene in the American movie, Coach Carter.
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure,” Marlett began.
Moroccans and Americans – young and old — nodded in agreement as Marlett continued.
“…We are all meant to shine as children do. It’s not just in some of us; it is in everyone. And as we let our own lights shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
The entire room burst into applause.
Karis Hustad and Devdharm Khalsa were students on the Morocco journalism program, a collaboration between Round Earth Media and SIT Study Abroad.