BEIRUT: Human rights activist Leila Sharaf implored Arab youth to become involved and finish the region’s Arab Spring movement Monday at the American University of Beirut.
Sharaf and AUB president Peter Dorman said the university can provide the foundation youth need to achieve lasting democratic reform in the region.Speaking in Assembly Hall at the celebration of the 145th anniversary of the university’s founding, Sharaf said the democratic revolution in the Arab world is not complete and that more needs to be done to ensure that large democratic gains in Arab states will last.
“You are part of the new generation that can make a difference. You have earned the right to do it. But on the way do not let democracy and human rights fall off the road. We did and we lost,” said Sharaf, an AUB graduate who was the first woman in the Jordanian Senate and is involved with a number of human rights groups.
Beginning in Tunisia at the end of 2010, citizen uprisings with democratic demands have touched nearly every country in the region stretching from Western Africa to west Asia. The movements are often referred to as the Arab Spring.
Sharaf and Dorman’s remarks come as institutions and intellectuals throughout the Middle East search for their role in those popular revolutions and democratization efforts that continue to sweep the region.
Sharaf said the responsibility for moving the revolutions forward is tasked to the youth and that institutions like AUB provide the support to make shouldering that responsibility possible.
“Today there is no power to stop you from realizing your dreams [of] self-fulfillment and national accomplishment,” she said.
“Today the rules of the game have changed and the ball is in your court, especially you the students, the court of the new generations all over our region,” Sharaf added.
Sharaf said previous generations had been active in movements around the region, but democracy was the main victim of a politically unsettled Middle East in past decades and that failure stunted many forms of development in Arab states for years.
“We were unable to reform the basic structure of the highest leadership in our respective countries, the formula of Arab rulers remained the same,” Sharaf said.
Previous generations shouldn’t patronize the current movement of revolutionaries; instead they should encourage them to finish making the changes where they could not, she said.
“But you need to get involved, you cannot stand by the side of the road anymore and watch the parade go by,” Sharaf said.
Introducing Sharaf, Dorman emphasized the role the university has as an institution that can support education and remain relevant to the times.
“We strive to remain relevant to this region and its people and have done so throughout the myriad and substantial changes of the past 145 years, from anti-colonialism, to regime changes, to the Palestinian Nakba and now the citizen-led uprisings collectively known as the Arab Spring,” Dorman said.
Dorman and Sharaf said AUB could help fulfill the goals of the Arab revolutions by providing the educational foundation for freedom minded movements.
Dorman said for that to happen the university has to be in a constant process of questioning and change.
“I believe one answer is that our academic philosophy is based on a strong model of liberal arts education and at the same time we are steadfastly committed to values that are indigenous in this region and that are of great importance to the Middle East today,” the AUB president said.
The annual Founders Day essay competition also focused on the Arab Spring movements and the university’s role in them. Senior Political Science major Aliaa Elzeiny received first place and a $750 prize for her essay on the Egyptian revolution and finding her identity during the country’s unrest. Junior biology major Karim Nasr won second place and $500 for his essay “The Arab Winter.”
The American University of Beirut was founded by Daniel Bliss in 1866 as the Syrian Protestant College. The first student body had 16 students and no regular faculty. The university now has a student body of almost 8,000 and 717 full- and part-time faculty.