MidEastYouth's Ahmed Zidan: Who’s shocking who?

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“People are prejudiced because they don’t know anyone from a minority group,” says 25-year-old Egyptian Ahmed Zidan. As editor of the MidEastYouth web forum, he wants to offer all minority groups a platform – from Baha’is and Kurds to gays and migrants.

“Anyone can write for us”, says Ahmed Zidan. The homepage of MidEastYouth leads to a series of sub-sites. “These are aimed at minorities, especially groups who are ignored by mainstream or state media or only reported on negatively.”

Sites on offer include Ahwaa for LGBT young people, Music channel MidEastTunes, Crowdvoice where people can post messages and images of demonstrations and pages for Baha’i rights and migrant rights. There are also temporary sites for specific campaigns. The forum and its s sub-sites have won various prizes, including the Google-sponsored Data Journalism Award.

Pizza or potatoes
MidEastYouth doesn’t shy away from tackling controversial topics but Zidan insists the forum’s makers are not being deliberately provocative: “We want to introduce people to different groups and let them get to know each other. Since when is that provocation? If I love pizza and you love potatoes, why should you be shocked by the sight of me eating pizza? The natural reaction is NOT to be shocked by someone who’s Baha’i or atheist or Christian. People are only shocked by minorities they know nothing about. Ignorance is what makes people hate each other.

Esraa Al-Shafei
MidEastYouth was set up in 2006 by Bahrani activist Esraa Al-Shafei. The original site was only in English. Ahmed Zidan was invited to get involved in 2008, when it was decided to launch an Arabic version.
“I had my own blog where I’d sometimes write about politics or social issues, as well as personal things. For instance, I wrote about court cases against Baha’is in Egypt in 2007. MidEastYouth’s philosophy and the way they work really appealed to me."

Speak up safely
“When we started, there was almost no-one speaking up for the rights of minorities”, says Zidan. One of the reasons for using internet to spread the message was safety. Contributors are encouraged to write for the sites anonymously, especially concerning sensitive topics. “Nobody wants to put themselves in danger”, stresses Zidan. MidEastYouth is also currently promoting initiatives to improve internet security, such as the international campaign ‘Delete Control

Zidan himself also sometimes uses an alias, when writing for the gay site Ahwaa for instance, “although people know where to find me if they want to. It’s not so much to protect myself, but more because I don’t want everything I write to be seen as being in the name of MidEastYouth.”

Uncertain impact
Zidan acknowledges that the internet has its limits but believes in a ripple effect: “By definition we’re limited to an elite who have access to internet and make use of it. And only part of that group will understand and support what we’re doing. Others won’t get it and will even threaten us with death. But those who learn something from us talk about it with their friends and family and so awareness grows.”
He accepts though that it’s impossible to measure the total impact of this sort of cyber-activism. “It’s crazy to think you can.”

The more the merrier
There are now countless regional and international discussion forums on the web, but Zidan doesn’t see them as competition. “The more the better. We’re not in it to make money but to promote freedom of speech for everyone”.

Still, he believes, MidEastYouth is special: “We don’t have any one specific cause. We’re not Kurds, or Baha’i or migrant workers in the Gulf States. But we defend the rights of all these groups, simply because we sympathise with other peoples’ problems”.