BEIRUT: Lina Khatib, who will be arriving in Beirut next week to start her new post as the Carnegie Middle East Center’s new director, says she will work to actively engage the youth and grassroots organizations in Lebanon and the region.
“I want to focus on ways in which new voices can be supported,” Khatib told The Daily Star by telephone from Stanford University, where she has been the co-founding head of the Program on Arab Reform and Democracy for the past four years.
“I’d like the Carnegie Center to be regarded as a hub for fresh policy ideas, open to new ideas across the region. I want to work with the team in Beirut to open up a space for public engagement.”
Khatib, who was born and raised in Lebanon until she left for university, has spent her entire professional career abroad. She started studying Islamist movements in the wake of the September 11, 2011, attacks on New York and Washington before moving on to international relations and, most recently, reform and democracy in the Arab world. She is now looking forward to starting her new post in the region, where she can engage with local actors – particularly the youth – whose street protests were instrumental in bringing down repressive regimes, but whose voices she believes are not being heard as they should.
“New political voices are emerging, but they face many challenges and a long journey,” Khatib said, expressing cautious optimism about the potential for young people to make an impact in today’s political climate, where they face an uphill battle.
“The region is mostly composed of young people. But now they’re part of the democratic transitions, which are driven by the old guards, remnants of loyalists and members of the regimes, who remain in power despite their leaders being deposed. The new voices need to be supported,” she said.
Another challenge to the engagement of young people, she notes, comes from their own lack of experience and their mistrust of any sort of hierarchy.
“The authoritarian milieu didn’t leave adequate space for other voices, which are still lacking experience.”
“The youth of the region, because of decades of dictatorial leadership, have an aversion to hierarchy. They’re at a disadvantage today when they want to organize themselves in organizations with hierarchies,” she said.
She believes that Carnegie is well placed to offer a center for dialogue for different actors, not just policy makers, but also community organizers.
“We will continue organizing events,” she said. However, “At the same time, we will have public engagement through public events with a wide variety of grassroots organizations producing policy-oriented research grounded in reality from first-hand analysis of the dynamics of the region, addressing real needs on the ground.”
As Khatib returns to her native country, the political stalemate weighs heavily on her. But she expressed hope that even intractable Lebanese politics can be resolved through dialogue.
“Everyone wants the Lebanese elections to happen. Carnegie would be a good place to hold dialogue of different political actors,” she suggested. “We’ll need to engage with different political actors and engage in dialogue.”
It was the human dimension of Middle East politics that drew her to her field and eventually back to Lebanon, where so many of the events and movements she has researched are taking place.
“I want to get out there and get my hands dirty,” she said. “The biggest attraction [of coming to Lebanon] is engaging with players on the ground.”
When asked whether she will miss her adopted home in California, Khatib had a ready answer: “I prefer Beirut. It’s one of the most dynamic cities in the world. It never sleeps. Everything happens in Beirut. It’s really exciting.”