Why a youth-led organisation brought 800 young people to Egypt in the midst of its worst political turmoil since the Revolution of 2011.
It started with a dream. The global team of AIESEC had spent weeks discussing the issues the world is facing today, and the type of leadership that the world needs to overcome them. We wanted to make sure our organisation was contributing to changing the world through changing its leadership. The best way to do this was to have the world in one room – young leaders from 124 countries in one place to engage, discuss, connect and create the movement they would lead together.
Over our 65 years of existence, the mission of our organisation had been tried and tested. But we were not prepared for it to be challenged to its core while we were leading it.
The location for AIESEC’s 65th International Congress had been chosen in early 2012, by our 100,000 members of students and recent graduates from across the world. Our different member countries are able to put forward bids to host the conference, and the bids are then voted upon – very similar to the Olympic Games process. The Congress was to take place in Egypt – the cradle of civilisations – and this was decided months after the Revolution of 2011 that changed the face of the country, the Middle East, and the way the rest of the World would approach change. This would be the first time that AIESEC would hold a conference of this size in the Middle East region, a concept that both inspired and excited the entire network.
The 1400 students managing AIESEC in Egypt saw this as an incredible opportunity to showcase their beautiful country and culture but more importantly to host this important conversation about young people’s role in creating a better world. They immediately got to work on organising the biggest AIESEC conference ever in the best place they could think of, Sharm el-Sheikh – the city of Peace.
The demonstrations on the 30th of June in Cairo and the events that followed afterwards changed everything. The country was again in the midst of massive social and political change. Our conversation on the role of youth leadership was more relevant than ever, but our event was on the brink of cancellation. Surrounded by multi-national corporations and countless governments’ advice to enlist a travel ban on Egypt, AIESEC needed to make a decision.
Our organisation was build upon a platform of change. AIESEC came to be after the Second World War, when a group of students decided that the only way to stop history from repeating itself was to ensure cultural understanding in future generations. An internship programme was created so that young people could gain personal and professional experience while discovering a new country and culture. Fast-forward 65 years, and AIESEC is providing over 26,000 young people life changing internship experiences in 124 countries that contribute to their ability to understand the world, their own values and how to take leadership in making change.
The paradox that the crisis in Egypt caused within the organisation was simple – we could either decide to cancel the event due to the leadership crisis the country was facing and the uncertainty it brought managing a large event there or we could to commit to supporting the conversation of how to develop better leaders for Egypt and the World to avoid these situations in the future.
This decision was not an easy one. The entire leadership team of AIESEC International struggled with fully understanding the risks we were undertaking, the true nature of what was happening in Egypt, and the full effects of canceling this conference on the organisation and quite possibly the world. Our first and most important priority was the safety of every single delegate, volunteer and partner that attended our conference. While we may be the executive body of the largest youth-led organisation in the world, we were not experienced enough to make this decision alone.
We invested as much time, energy and money as it took to have the full understanding of the situation. Our President, Rolf Schmachtenberg, even flew to Cairo and Sharm el-Sheikh to gain more perspective on the security issues the country was facing. We soon realised that many of the security concerns of the media and different governments were very specific to certain areas within the country, and not affecting Egypt as a whole. In particular, the location of our conference was unaffected by the situation. After gaining insight, reports and perspectives from our own trips and hired professional risk assessment specialists, we decided that with some diligent to our original plans and some extra security measures, the location of our conference was as safe for our delegates.
With all of this information and support, we decided to take a bold stand and move forward with the congress in Egypt.
While we made this decision, it did not necessarily make going to Egypt much easier for the team or our delegates. With every new event in the media came a phone call from our family and friends, worried about our safety and asking us why risk going to Egypt. Some delegates were even asked to not attend by their parents. Every concern expressed to us made us re-evaluate our decision over again in our minds.
But there is a strong reason why 800 young people made the active decision to continue on this journey to Egypt. For some of them, doubt may never have entered their mind at all and they were looking forward to the trip to Egypt all year. For others, they questioned themselves until the moment they made it home safe and sound. But for one moment, in the closing hours of the conference, every delegate knew exactly why he or she were there.
It was a moment where 100 Egyptian delegates and organisers were asked to stand in the center of the room with 700 of the international delegates circled around them. I was part of the international group, staring inwards at this group of Egyptians who looked exhausted after not sleeping for 10 days because they were working endlessly to organise the conference. This group did not disappoint all week, even when some of the worst events in their country’s history were taking place just a few hours away. Their commitment and purpose in hosting us in their country during this time was unwavering. We all stood in appreciation and support of this inspiring group of Egyptian youth in front of us while joining together as a global community of young people, regardless of which country we were from, political party we support or religion we practice.
As I stood on the outside looking in, I couldn’t help but feel the power that was around me.
Everyone had their own reason for being in that room, but all of our reasons were connected to our belief in AIESEC creating the leaders the world needs for a stronger future together.
Some were there because they had the courage to be bold; often mistaken in young people for naivety. The bold choice to attend International Congress came from the trust in AIESEC in Egypt and an enhanced sense of adventure that is common in AIESEC members.
Some were there because they were informed and engaged in what was happening in Egypt. If you looked beyond what the media was constantly distributing, there were a lack of travel warnings against the Red Sea Resort areas where tourism is a way of life for the citizens who live there.
Some were there because they felt a responsibility to the organisation and to represent their country in the congress.
But all of us were there because of the values we hold and the purpose we carry in bringing young people together from across the world to challenge their mindsets, make meaningful connections across cultural barriers and create smart strategies to develop many more young leaders when we return home.
The power of AIESEC as an organisation is in its ability to provide youth the opportunity to see and experience the world. Because when they are able to experience the world, they can start to understand it; and when they start to understand it, they are able to start changing it.
Now that all 800 delegates have returned home safely, we want to be able to share our experience in Egypt with the world. International Congress 2013 in Egypt was about more than just the location it was held in. It was and has always been the place where young leaders were born, shaped and influenced. It was the place where AIESEC recommitted to delivering leadership development experiences to one million young people by 2015. International Congress was exactly where it needed to be.
We believe the solution is always better leadership and we will continue to do all we can to make sure the next generation of leaders are ready, across the world, to commit to a better future together. This is why we do what we do. This is how we will change the world. What will your impact be?