The Social Contract Center (SCC) attempted to engage Egyptian youth to face societal challenges in the city of Zakazik, by creating Omaar, a group of youth leaders who were given opportunities for civic education training and community dialogue.
Problems and Purpose
Leading up to the 2011 revolution, Egypt faced immense challenges related to poverty and inequality. High rates of youth unemployment, few educational opportunities, and a general sense of mistrust between citizens and the state resulted in low levels of community engagement, especially among youth. Like many in Egypt, youth in the city of Zakazik suffered from the fear of arrest without cause, frustration at the lack of employment opportunities, and limited access to healthy food.
From within this context, the Social Contract Center (SCC) focused on training and supporting groups of youth to engage in their communities to overcome some of these challenges. The SCC’s initiatives in Zakazik led to the formation of Omaar, a group of youth leaders who wanted to take responsibility in helping their community, as they too suffered from these concerns. The youth were convinced that community participation would help them achieve these goals more effectively.
Background History and Context
Following a decade of economic reforms, the Egyptian government faced a dire situation in the early 2000s, in which large segments of the population were affected by poverty and inequality. Despite government attempts at reducing poverty, increasing levels of inequality led the people of Egypt to act on their discontent in the 2011 revolution.
This period saw a drastic increase in the number of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Egypt, growing from 16,600 in 2011 to 46,700 by the end of 2015 (Kandeel, 2015, p. 69) . This rise in NGO activity was indicative of citizens’ desire to participate in the development of a new social order in Egypt. Having largely led the changes that occurred during the revolution in January 2011, youth in particular had a heightened sense of their ability to effect change and of their own value in society.
It was in this context that the Social Contract Center (SCC) made use of a growing space in civil society to engage both state and civil society actors in forging new relationships built on mutual accountability. Engaging youth was central to this process.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
The Social Contract Center
The Social Contract Center (SCC) was established in 2007 as a joint initiative between the Information and Decision Support Center (IDSC) at the Egyptian Cabinet and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) (SCC, 2015). It operates with support from the Italian Cooperation Corporation and the Government of Japan.
At the time, the SCC sought to identify and monitor poverty reduction efforts, work towards the Millennium Development Goals, and build national consensus on the concept of a social contract and its implications. It also focused on rebuilding trust between government and citizens and contributing to efforts seeking to better enable civil society to participate in decision-making.
The SCC worked at strengthening the state's ability to respond to the needs of citizens through the principles of good governance, supporting state-led efforts to reduce poverty. At the same time, it aimed to empower women, youth, and civil society actors. These capacity-strengthening efforts sought to build effective partners in decision-making processes and community service. As part of this agenda, the SCC provided training to over 3,500 university students throughout Egypt between 2007 and 2014 (SCC, 2015).
Omaar emerged as a result of SCC training in the city of Zakazik, located in Sharquia Governorate, as a grassroots youth group aiming to address issues facing other children and youth in their community. Their overall purpose was to help young people and children live a happy life in their community. As an informal group, they were funded only through their own fundraising campaigns and personal resources according to individual financial capabilities. In the initial stages, other associations also provided resources such as meeting halls free of charge, and members acted on a voluntary basis. Funds required for additional activities were collected from families and friends as well as from local business owners and wealthier community members in Zakazik.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
The Social Contract Center
In March 2011, the SCC implemented a series of training sessions with Sharqia University students in Zakazik. Approximately 300 youth completed the training in groups of up to 30 participants. Participants were selected so that each cohort had a gender balance and diversity in geographic backgrounds and interest. To be eligible, participants had to be enrolled in a public university and to have never attended SCC training. Some universities conducted selection interviews with youth to ensure criteria were met. Preference was given to youth who had no prior participation in similar training.
For its youth training, Omaar selected participants who were between 9 and 16 years of age. They advertised the opportunity to the entire community of Zakazik, welcoming the participation of all interested children and youth.
Methods and Tools Used
The SCC used civic education in their youth training to foster learning around key concept and skills that are foundational for civic engagement. These included:
- Exploring different understandings and styles of community leadership;
- Practicing teamwork;
- Setting goals;
- Understanding the stages of community growth and development;
- Learning and practicing effective communication; and
- Developing effective negotiation skills.
To instill these qualities in young Egyptians, SCC training used a rights-based development lens and focused on governance, citizenship, and developing abilities for democratic engagement with each other. Youth were introduced to the concept of the social contract and explored their own roles in enhancing it. The sessions used participatory techniques such as open discussions to draw and build on the experiences of youth and to enable different points of view to emerge around community issues in the post-revolution period.
From the civic education training held in Zakazik, a group of youth formed Omaar (meaning “construction”) to continue using civic education to mobilize more children, youth and families around these and other community issues.
As part of their civic education efforts, Omaar also used participatory discussions as well as group work, creative expression (e.g., drawing), storytelling, films, games, music, brainstorming sessions using cards, and debates. They ensured a diversity of activities, methods and age-appropriate techniques to engage in children and youth in dialogue.
Community gatherings and meetings
Omaar mobilized the public by hosting community events (e.g., celebrations), holding meetings and lobbying influential and wealthy community members. They also brought families together for follow-up discussion based on the learning and actions agreed upon in the training sessions. As with their training, dialogue was at the center of these activities aimed at mobilizing people to act together.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
With the Social Contract Center
The 5-day training program that the SCC led with youth in Zakazik was entitled Youth Capacity Building for a Deeper Understanding of their Communities and for Enhancing their Participation. It aimed at building knowledge around the concept of a “social contract,” as well as to develop skills in communicating, delivering presentations, working in teams, and exercising leadership.
Following the training, 30 participants established an initiative called Omaar. Because the SCC training did not explicitly include the development of action plans for community initiatives, this was indicative of a heightened sense of agency and strong desire for community engagement among these particular youth. The fact that these youth initiated the community action was also perceived as a transfer of capacity by the SCC facilitators, who had maintained contact with the young men and women in Zakazik.
Omaar included a cross-section of participants from all the groups trained by the SCC in Zakazik. They met regularly to identify what they could provide for the community and were intentional about having rotating meeting locations: these were held at Community Development Associations (CDAs), at private residences and academies and at clubs. By remaining independent and refusing to formally join existing associations, Omaar remained focused on its own vision of helping their community—especially children and youth—by fostering relationships and providing skills, knowledge, and resources.
Internally, Omaar members shared responsibilities between individual members and established clear roles: leader, assistant, secretary, and treasurer. Responsibilities were assigned to small sub-groups, each tasked with preparing training materials, contacting additional trainers for support, leading the training itself, and liaising with the media.
Omaar and the community
Omaar initially targeted groups of 50 children (aged 9 to 13) or youth (aged 14 to 16) for skills-building workshops on topics such as time management, creative thinking, group work, leadership, and setting a personal vision. They led a free, two-day training themed “Geel waaied” (Hopeful Generation) with an additional 200 children (divided in six groups) and eventually went on to train over 500 children and youth in total.
Parents were engaged during closing celebrations and thereby exposed to their children’s hopes and aspirations. As a result, many families were also mobilized to engage with Omaar and contributed to the group’s work by assisting in recruiting neighbors’ and friends’ children to participate in subsequent training.
As part of their initiative, Omaar also involved children and youth through several issue-specific gatherings and meetings. There, key community problems were identified and potential solutions were discussed, including the resources and capabilities available to address the problems. Decisions were made collectively and the children appreciated the youth trainers because they gave them a chance to talk, play, and engage directly in the community.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
The creation of Omaar is itself a direct result of the SCC’s work in Zakazik. Motivated youth had the support required to self-organize and apply many of the skills and knowledge gained through the civic education program.
Once active, Omaar sought to support children in their pursuit of a good and happy life. They were now equipped to analyze their community and identified a gap they would strive to fill: there were no opportunities for children in Sharquia governorate for this kind of capacity building and engagement. The school curriculum and learning activities, for instance, did not provide any of the skills necessary for collective engagement. Omaar then set out to work with children to develop these through the civic education program.
Beyond addressing this gap, Omaar’s initiatives brought about a change in the relationships children maintained with their families, as children became better communicators and gained in confidence. During end-of-training evaluations and other community celebrations, parents also recognized their children’s increased self-reliance, organizational abilities, and time-management skills.
Another set of outcomes related to the children and youth’s increased sense of agency, as they began engaging with different groups in their community and offering various kinds of support through collective volunteer efforts. These included:
- supporting youth to engage in a variety of community outreach activities;
- visiting local orphanages and distributing gifts paid for through Omaar’s own funding efforts;
- supporting non-able brides (i.e., girls who were financially unable to prepare for marriage) to buy supplies for marriage, such as household appliances;
- preparing and distributing food packs during Ramadan at the community feast;
- donating monthly salaries to needy families; and
- visiting cancer patients in the hospital.
The total number of individuals reached through their activities is estimated at over 500.
Altogether, Omaar’s engagement with children and youth in Zakazik through civic education and training, as well as ongoing support in community engagement, contributed to:
- creating a space for children to learn from their peers;
- creating opportunities for youth and children to work together on projects that benefitted the community;
- instilling the concept of citizenship and citizen engagement in hundreds of youth and children;
- prompting a change in adults’ and parents’ perspectives of youth and children, who were now seen as active, contributing members of society;
- strengthening linkages between generations; and
- providing charitable services and channeling community resources to some of its least privileged members.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
The creation and accomplishments of Omaar—as well as the outcomes from the SCC’s training program—provide an example of how Egyptian youth were inspired and mobilized through civic education at a key moment in the country’s recent history. Several lessons can be drawn from this experience.
Informality and non-partisanship as assets
The informal structure of Omaar and its non-alignment with official organizations in Zakazik gave them flexibility to direct their energy towards their own priorities and community issues. It also enabled a broad spectrum of participation from community members, rather than being associated to one specific religious or political affiliation. This created invaluable opportunities for children and youth to practice respect for people with different experiences and backgrounds from their own.
Integrated needs assessment and reflection for learning
To mobilize citizens, civic education programs are effective when they start from participants’ learning needs. At the outset, the SCC identified participants’ training needs and tailored the methodologies used to these. For Omaar, members conducted interviews with prospective participants prior to the training as a needs assessment exercise. This enabled them to identify suitable training methodologies and to focus on relevant topics and skills.
Reflection on past experiences and learning is also important for success. With this in mind, Omaar sought to build reflection into the training, including for evaluation purposes.
Mentoring and ongoing relationships as part of civic education
The SCC participated in Omaar’s meetings, observed, and supported their training halls, sessions, and provided continuous feedback to enrich the training. The relationship between the youth of Omaar and the SCC trainers are ongoing. This support encouraged Omaar to keep moving forward, who knew they were not alone should they need guidance and mentorship in their initiatives. This type of follow-up and ongoing support encourages further learning among participants and greater engagement by trainees as they move to apply their learning into civic actions.
Collective problem solving at a crucial time
Children and youth know many of the solutions to the problems they face. It is important to value the perspectives of groups affected by a problem in coming up with solutions. Working as a team, Omaar and the children they mobilized gained a sense of achievement, not only as a result of participating—often for the first time—in collective problem-solving actions, but also in recognizing the tangible impacts of these efforts on other people in the community.
Engaging children and youth in a new social contract
Considering the political and social climate at the time, whereby people had greater enthusiasm to work together and participate in social actions, Omaar’s initiatives provided a key opportunity for children and youth to participate in new ways in an evolving social contract. In this period of social openness and collaboration, a new image of Egyptian society was being articulated. Omaar’s actions were demonstrating the key role these children and youth can play in this social contract, as well as the knowledge, skills, and abilities they have to do so.
Alongside the accomplishments, Omaar faced challenges when they started because they were unable to influence any public decision around any of the issues they were engaging in with participants. While their work did not target policy or political engagement directly, their influence on the children, youth, and community members involved addressed in part how the poverty and inequality affected a number of individuals and groups in Zakazik.
To minimize challenges related to financial management, funds were kept in possession of Omaar, and meetings were held after each activity to review the transactions and disbursements carried out. The team coordinated around this aspect in an effort to promote trust and transparency.
A related challenge for the SCC was balancing the significant time and support they were offering Omaar during this period with the other commitments and training they were offering across Egypt. To overcome this challenge, SCC facilitators used multiple channels to communicate with Omaar, including by telephone and through Facebook, which facilitated contact at a distance.
Civic education can be an effective entry point in mobilizing groups to participate in their communities and in fulfilling their responsibilities as part of a society’s social contract. The SCC mobilized a group of youth in Zakazik, who were in turn able to organize and engage hundreds of children, youth, and families in civic education and community action. Omaar is an example of the determination of Egyptian youth to engage in community life and exercise their civic responsibilities in the post-revolution period. With ongoing support and mentoring, Omaar applied knowledge and skills learned through civic education to achieve change in and around Zakazik. The actions spurred by Omaar represent steps towards a new social contract in Egypt, as articulated and supported by the SCC, and contribute to addressing some of the challenges that have faced Egyptian society since before the 2011 revolution.
Kandeel , A. (Ed.) (2015). Transformation of the Arab NGOs 2000–2015 (2nd ed.). Egypt: The Arab Network for NGOs.
The Social Contract Center. (2015). The Social Contract Center: A decent life for every citizen. Retrieved from http://www.socialcontract.gov.eg/English/About-Us
Wikipedia. (2011). Egyptian revolution of Egypt 2011. (2011). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Egyptian_revolution_of_2011
SCC website: http://www.socialcontract.gov.eg/English/About-Us
 Translated by author.
*This case was produced and submitted by a graduate of the Coady International Institute at St. Francis Xavier University with the support of J. Landry & R. Garbary.