Thousands of young people have joined protests against police abuse across Morocco this week. But as Shada Islam explains, behind the headlines many young, gifted Arabs are looking to bring about social and political change that can help the Middle East and North Africa advance.

Helle, Hajer and Hussein are young, articulate and ambitious. They dream big and aim high. They want the best for themselves and for the countries – Tunisia, Libya and Syria – they live in.

You won’t read about them in traditional newspapers. They aren’t making headlines just yet.

But more, much more, than their governments, these young people and millions of others like them hold the key to our future.

Almost 65 per cent of the population in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is under the age of 30.  The choices that Helle and her friends make will determine the fate of their own countries. But they will also have a strong impact on Europe and the world.

I met these “Young Mediterranean Voices” – teachers, journalists, environmentalists, social entrepreneurs, peace and democracy activists – at the MedForum 2016, organised last week in Malta by the Anna Lindh Foundation.

The energy and enthusiasm of more than 500 savvy, young Europeans and Arabs whom the Anna Lindh Foundation had identified as “change-makers” rang through the Valetta conference centre. The talk was of crafting a narrative of hope, dialogue and cooperation that runs counter to the extremist discourse of hate and violence.

‘No-one is born a terrorist’, says one young man. Instead of trying to counter the extremists’ poisonous voices, many underline the need to articulate an inspiring vision of societies where people can live in peace.

Religion is the last thing on their minds. These young people want to fight for better education, jobs, clean government, stability and hope. And forget the stereotypes: the girls – including the small number who wears headscarves – are even more confident than the boys.

The focus on civil society and young people as agents of social change is not new. But there is a consensus on the need to act urgently.

The good news is that the Anna Lindh Foundation is getting the attention and support it deserves. The message of the EU High Representative, Federica Mogherini, to the Forum highlighted Europe’s commitment to engagement with young people.

And there are growing opportunities for young people to make a difference.

United Nations Security Council Resolution 2250, agreed last December, emphasises the crucial role they can play in managing conflicts and establishing peace. And building stronger Euro-Mediterranean bonds is going to be a key priority for Malta, which takes over the EU Council presidency in January 2017.

The conversations in Valetta provided many lessons for policymakers.

First, stop obsessing about religion and start putting money where it really matters: into schools, job creation and investment schemes.

Second, engage with civil society – don’t fear it. MENA governments too often reject the ideas and passion of young people instead of seeking to channel their enthusiasm for change and reform into positive contributions to national policymaking. And while many EU cooperation agreements include an important people-to-people component, these programmes need to be made more crucial and more exciting.

Third, even as it seeks to engage with MENA governments, the EU should invest in the region’s young people. This is essential if the region is to have long-term peace and stability.

Certainly many parts of the Arab world are jolted by conflicts and wars. Violence and economic deprivation are driving many young people to come to Europe.

But the gathering in Malta is proof that Europe’s southern neighbourhood need not be a place of death and destruction. With the right policies, the right people in charge, and sustained support, it can be a region of hope and peace.

Friends of Europe’s ‘Frankly Speaking’ column takes a critical look at key European and global issues.

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IMAGE CREDIT: CC / FLICKR – Anna Lindh Foundation