Hot seat: Haneen Al Tal

20-year-old Haneen Al Tal repports back from US President Barack Obama’s inauguration

Interview, The Knowledge

Tell us why you were invited back to Washington DC for the inauguration.
It was after my participation in the Global Young Leaders Conference (GYLC) in 2006. That in itself was an incredible time because I got to meet the then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. I was selected to return for the University Presidential Inauguration Conference (UPIC) because of the leadership skills I demonstrated.

So, when you were first invited, you didn’t know who was going to win?
No, I didn’t! I really wanted it to be Obama though. On the UPIC website they ran their own poll and I voted for him because he speaks to young people. It’s this focus that actually helped him win. At the previous election, when George Bush won his second term, only 14 per cent of the vote was recorded by young people, while for Obama it was 31 per cent. He mobilised America’s youth like no other candidate.

You were there for a conference as well as to attend the ceremony?
Yes – it was a five-day programme, during which I met Colin Powell – who worked as a part of the Bush administration and now supports Obama, and a number of other high-powered politicians, journalists and strategists. We discussed leadership, the role of the media in politics (especially during campaigns), and how young people can participate in the political process. I also met Al Gore who spoke about the environment and his plans to work with Obama on projects to develop solar energy.

Tell us about the inauguration day.
It was so great. We woke up early and got to the National Mall at around 4am. There were already so many people there – some had even arrived the night before. We were quite far back and it was very cold, but it didn’t matter. It was just exciting to be there.

How long did you have to wait?
The ceremony began at 10.30am. We watched all the dignitaries arrive – people like President George Bush and his father, Bill and Hilary Clinton and Al Gore. We also got to see Muhammad Ali, Beyonce, Jay-Z, P-Diddy, and so many other celebrities. Everybody was there. Then we all witnessed the swearing in of the new president, Barack Hussein Obama.

What did you think of his speech?
It was different to what previous president’s have said. What I really liked is that he addressed all religions – I think his words were ‘Christians, Muslims, Jews, non-believers’. I don’t think the others have said that before. He’s really focusing on his people – fixing the healthcare system, getting US soldiers out of Iraq – which is exactly what the American people want. Other presidents seemed to be more interested in foreign policy issues.

What did you do next?
We watched the parade, which basically depicted Obama’s history to this point – from his childhood to the White House. After all this we went back to the hotel to get ready for the inaugural ball. Unfortunately Obama didn’t make it to us, but we were in the company of so many other important politicians, ambassadors and important dignitaries that it was still amazing.

What did you enjoy most about the day?
The inauguration itself – being there for the historic moment that an African American became US president. After he took his oath, I started to cry because I was just so happy to be there. It’s something that I will always remember.

What do you think you’ll take from this experience?
The importance of good leadership. I want to tell people that they are not just numbers. I want to share everything I’ve learnt. I want others to know that they can become something too. I am also going to be watching Obama very closely. The whole world is depending on him and I am very optimistic.

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