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AUB’s Challenge:
Three Recent Snapshots of Youth
in the Arab World

By President John Waterbury


The Arab world is never easy to read. I have been at it for over forty years, and I am only marginally closer to grasping the dynamics of these societies today than I was in 1960. There are many signs for hope, but also many for helplessness if not hopelessness. As an educator I will always see the glass half full, not half empty.

Snapshot One: Iraq after the collapse of the regime:
Among so many others, there was the scene of mainly male youth on a rampage of pillage and looting in Basra, Baghdad, and elsewhere, a scene more reminiscent of Bucharest than of Prague, more reminiscent of Watts than of Berlin. We could see, and have seen, similar scenes with similar actors throughout the Arab world and elsewhere; often smirking young men on a kind of “wilding.” They are the result of demographics, the job market, and dictatorship stripped of any pretence of ideological legitimacy. These are young men, badly educated if at all, unemployed or fictitiously employed, and brutalized by years of dictatorship that provide them no public role and no sense of responsibility. Most of the people in the streets were born well after Saddam hijacked Iraq. They know only the Baathi way of life.

We would be mistaken to think that such young men are confined to the Arab world. Probably every society has a smattering of them, but they are a significant presence in the many societies whose regimes can provide neither careers, freedom, or aspirations. In Algeria in the late 1980s and early 1990s they were dubbed the “haitistes,” those who lean up against walls. They are the debris of self-proclaimed revolutionary experiments that lost their steam and direction, and had nothing left but repression and fear to keep the lid on.

There is not much dialog with these young people, not because of civilizational or cultural differences, but because failed governments, failed economic policies, and the suppression of civil society have left them no voice.

Snapshot Two: Egypt, ‘Id al-Adha
Recently I was in Egypt at the time of ‘Id al Adha (February 2003). The Egyptian pound had been allowed to devalue by about 30
percent, yet in Cairo and Luxor, I saw thousands of young Egyptians (and older Egyptians) doing what they always do on these occasions; out strolling along the Nile, laughing, singing, eating, flirting, joking. The yearning for normalcy, relaxation, and fun was palpable. Egypt, like all other Arab societies, has a high rate of unemployment among the educated (in most Arab societies there is an inverse relation between level of education and employment), and Egypt has its share of “haitistes.” But the overwhelming body language of the scenes I saw was one of a still-robust social fabric. Young men and women mixed freely during these happy days, and enjoyed the simple mundane pleasures that have always been the Egyptian staple: falucca rides on the Nile, singing and dancing to the beat of drum and lilt of flute. Dare I say that Osama Bin Laden is not their piper?

Snapshot Three: Chirac in Algeria
A few weeks later, Jacques Chirac visited Algeria, a country riven by horrific violence since the early 1990s. The streets of Algiers were full of Algerians cheering the president of the country that had dominated them for 132 years and against which they had fought a bloody war for eight years. A new generation of “haitistes” applauded Chirac and chanted “Visa, visa.” In the final analysis, the young, like their elders, seek gainful employment, an income that will allow them to marry, and the dignity without which their role as empowered citizens will be bereft of substance. Their welcome of Chirac was an implicit recognition that they cannot find in Algeria what they hope awaits them in France—if only they are allowed in.
These images are often lost to us as the cameras focus on other snapshots of fist-shaking Pakistanis or Palestinians, fire-breathing mullahs, or proud widows of suicide bombers. Those people are real too, no doubt, but there is a vast swath of Arab society that seeks a better life in ways that are readily understandable and fully acceptable to Europeans and Americans.

I was recently in Washington, DC, making my annual trip to the “Hill” to try to leverage funding for Lebanon, and hence for AUB, out of congressional appropriations committees. A focus this year was on the Middle East Peace Initiative, under the jurisdiction of the Department of State, with funding on the order of $145 million and perhaps again as much coming through the special funding for Iraq. One of the main target areas of MEPI, as it is known, is education. AUB has been arguing that funding from MEPI should go to support scholarships for students from the Middle East and the Muslim world to attend the three American-style educational institutions in the region registered and chartered in the United States: AUB, AUC, and LAU.

 



 

We believe that these institutions have a critical role to play at this point in time, when dialog between the United States and these societies has broken down, to educate the leadership of the region in all fields. We believe that our unique emphasis on general education, choice and flexibility in structuring programs of study, academic freedom and responsible criticism, student government, academic integrity, and critical thinking are sorely needed throughout the region. Our distinguished alumni, today as in the past, are the greatest testimony to the value of our education.

I am hopeful that Congress and the US executive branch will come to share our conviction that our long and extraordinarily successful history in educating the region’s leaders in all fields positions us today to play a significant role not only in educating new generations of leaders, but in helping other institutions to provide the kind of quality education that has been notably lacking. We can reach only a fraction of the youth mentioned above, but we can reach some of them, and all our graduates are the kind of people who will, if given the chance, provide structure and integrity to their
professions, and, in a larger sense, to their societies.

This century will be unkind to societies that do not develop the full potential of their human resources, both male and female. The Arab Human Development Report, published a year ago, documented the under-performance of the Arab world in this respect. The problem goes beyond updating curricula, promoting scientific research, and adapting training to the needs of the market. It encompasses the need to educate citizens engaged in lifelong learning, people equipped to solve problems, to think critically and analytically,
people anchored in a broad knowledge of our intellectual history.

A few years ago, a group of eminent international scholars examined the challenges to higher education in the developing world.
In their study (The Task Force on Higher Education and Society: co-chairs, Mamphela Ramphele and Henry Rosovsky: Higher Education in Developing Countries: Peril and Promise, The World Bank, 2000), the authors devote an entire chapter to the need for general education (or what in the US is often called “liberal arts” education). They emphasize that such education is no luxury, but rather a necessity for survival in this age. It is an education that
provides both a framework for a rich and varied adult life and a set of habits and skills well adapted to a changing and demanding job market. Referring to a successful experiment in Bangladesh, the study reported:
“...employers initially told BRAC that they sought programs with a strong technical focus, for example in biology, technology, management, and computer science. They wanted graduates who were “ready to go”. However, on further probing, it emerged that local employers’ interests were in fact centered on obtaining a stream of graduates who could demonstrate a strong array of analytic skills and a solid grounding in writing, communications, and presentation skills, in addition to their technical expertise. Their concern—in common with many, if not most modern employers who are considering graduates as employees—was to seek out workers with a good ability to analyse and think through complexity, a useful level of English language skills, and a well-rounded ability to think independently and take initiative” (p. 85).

Arab and Middle Eastern societies are strong: the family is still paramount and all social activity is girded by powerful moral codes. Arab and Middle Eastern political systems and economies are weak. They waste human talent or drive it away. AUB has the challenge to provide the human talent that can contribute to the transformation of these worn political systems and economies and to the building of viable institutions for the 21st century. I believe we are up to the task.