Selim’s idea is to integrate the marginalized educated and uneducated youths in Lebanon in public life and in participating in building a better Lebanon, through three ways or means. First, to provide these youths with the necessary skills and information on how to be an active and complete citizen. Secondly, to create an enabling environment for such youth by addressing deep rooted problems due to the war, namely factionalism and sectarianism which lead to corruption of power and economics. Third, to spread the awareness among youths and policy makers and NGOs about concepts of transparency, anti-corruption and the rule of law.
What is unique in Selim’s idea and approach is that it uses different and complementary tools, from seminars, workshops, training of trainers and even games. He has managed to engage different social and economics groups due to his entrepreneurial and flexible approaches to the different needs.
In the overall framework, Selim wants to create an environment and culture where there is no tolerance for corruption. To build a generation of youth that is exposed and believes in concepts of transparency, accountability and democratic process so that they can be real citizens in the social and political sense.
Selims’ idea is to integrate all Lebanese youths into “citizenship” institutions regardless of gender, sect, faction or political or economic power. He is reaching this aim through providing “agents of changes and support” with skills, through spreading awareness about concepts of transparency and anti – corruption and through addressing publicly and in a participatory manner the sectarianism and factional attitude that has spread after the war. Selim’s work focuses on the role, rights, and duties of the Lebanese citizen in public life and reactivating the instrumental role of citizens in political life. Selim has created interactive educational programs on the rule of law, citizenship and good governance at the grassroots-level, through the organization he established two years ago, the Sustainable Democracy Center (SDC). The fact that SDC is not politically affiliated to any of the Lebanese political and religious factions and does not promote any political agenda makes it unique and attractive to many people. It constitutes a common platform for people who are concerned with the current estrangement of the majority of Lebanese from the socio-political and public life, and who seek programs through which they can engage in a real national dialogue—otherwise confined to the political elite whose rotation in leadership has become almost non-existent. Selim’s interactive educational approach has included workshops on political and civic education for young professionals, civil society activists and university students, camps on citizenship and environmental education for high school students, an anti-corruption board game for children, and a café that serves as an independent and non-institutionalized forum for discussing critical and controversial topics in Lebanon. Selim believes that dialogue and informal education is the key to reactivate the citizen’s role in political life. His short term goal is to mobilize as many people as possible to act as agents of change in order to bring his idea to fruition. So far, SDC has managed to directly reach more than 700 people through its idea of reactivating the Lebanese Citizen. His long term goal is to achieve greater participation of the citizenry and the renewal of the political elite in Lebanon and across the Arab region: Syria, Egypt, Palestine, Jordan, and Iraq—all of which are facing a strong call for a revision of the existing system.
Although the causes leading Selim to his vocation seems related to local conditions in Lebanon. As per the AHDR 2002, all Arab countries suffer from political freedom deficit and spread of corruption. All will benefit from his approach.
The major problem in the Lebanese socio-political context remains the passiveness and discouragement of the citizen. After the war in Lebanon and due to many sociological factors and violations of rights, the citizen forgot about the DUTIES he/she has towards their state country. Another crucial factor that contributes to such an attitude would be the mistrust between the people and the State. The Lebanese are fed up with the politicians since they witnessed no renewal of the political elite over the last 5 decades and as a result they did not separate between the State and the politicians. The loyalty to the state is feeble since the latter marginalized the citizen and concepts of clientelism, nepotism, personal and confessional interest prevailed over concepts of merit and transparency. The citizen in Lebanon feels disfranchised from the State and hence the loyalty to the tribes, clans, and political-feudal and religious communities surpass the one to the state where the citizen finds no refuge or guarantees of rights.
The problem Selim is focusing on is the role, rights, and duties of the Lebanese citizen in public life. Due to the long lasting civil war in Lebanon, public life ceased to exist and anarchy became the rule. The citizens’ loyalty shifted from the state to their local leaders who were the main actors in the civil war. This civil war produced great levels of corruption, political clientelism, confessional segregation between various communities, and a lack of confidence between the population and the state. In other words, according to Salim, the instrumental established role of the citizen vanished in Lebanon.
This problem affects all the vital sectors of society—political, economic, educational, and social. On the political level, one seldom witnesses any changes in the political elite and the rotation in the elite’s leadership has become almost nonexistent. The concept of the rule of law and good governance has become almost trivial due to the lack of accountability. The widespread corruption has rendered development in Lebanon tenuous at best and has contributed to the drastic economic recession. Both the political and economic corruption has left the public schooling system destitute and hence promoted a private one which the majority of the population cannot afford. The public educational system is extremely weak in terms of the civic education component. At the social level, Lebanese in general and youth in particular feel disconnected from their nation and in despair. As a result, immigration has been increasing exponentially, and those remaining in Lebanon suffer from frustration and despise the present status quo. According to a study conducted by the Lebanese Medical Association in 2003, 60% of youth in Lebanon are on antidepressants. If not addressed, this problem may lead to widening the gap between the people and the state thus sustaining the anarchy in the political life of the citizenry. In Selim’s view, it will definitely pave the way to the collapse of the Lebanese Nation and could irreparably damage the social fabric.
The main factor which led to the current situation is the imbalance in the distribution of power between the Muslim and Christian communities ever since the Lebanese republic was created in 1943. Such an unbalanced formula instigated many national conflicts due to the various loyalties of the Lebanese communities to different regional stakeholders. The religious identity of the Lebanese citizen often prevailed over the national one.
Many initiatives were undertaken in the past in order to address these issues yet they lacked the audacity to uphold an open and honest dialogue among the parties in which they could have expressed their fears and perspectives. These initiatives (mostly conferences) were limited to a specific target group, namely the socio-political elite. The initiatives lacked an interactive educational approach targeting the grassroots, which resulted in the estrangement of this group from the socio-political and public life. It also left independent activists with a feeling of impotence regarding the possibility of introducing change.
At a time when the international community is focusing more than ever on reform in the Middle East, it is correspondingly more important than ever, according to Selim that the impetus for change comes from within the societies in question. From SDC’s experience in Lebanon and evidence from other countries around the world, substantive change must emerge from the local social fabric. Only when change comes from within does it have any chance at sustainability and thus, success. By contrast, externally imposed reform is likely to be cosmetic and without popular legitimacy. Current pressure from Western states for reform in the Arab world, while perhaps necessary to change the dynamics, is seen as hypocritical and is already engendering anti-Western sentiments. Without reaching out to youth, emerging leaders and new organizations, Western governments risk concentrating power in the hands of the old establishment, and corrupt governmental and non-governmental agencies, thus entrenching anew the status quo.
Luckily, pressure for a more open dialogue in the Arab world existed long before the international spotlight was recently turned on them. In other words, these societies were “ripe” for change on their own, prior to the international community’s insistence on the urgency of reform. The conundrum came with the international spotlight, particularly the U.S. insistence, on democracy so that those who had been quietly discussing the need for and working on reform were then accused of being pro-American and promoting an imperialist agenda. They were caught in the middle and then easily dismissed. SDC would like to re-activate the conversations that were already underway in these societies and build capacity for engaging a wider range of participants and for translating conclusions into action. Together with its contacts in the region, SDC will identify both institutional and individual agents of change and support them through a process of discussion, prioritization, and implementation of reform.
People who live under repressive or unrepresentative governance systems are often unaware of their rights as citizens and the political tools available to them as individuals and civil society organizations. They usually feel disempowered and/or disenfranchised. Outsiders can play a valuable role in changing the status-quo by paving the way for empowerment through training new and emerging leaders in: how to discuss the issues facing their society; how to create legitimacy and popular buy-in for their claims; and, how to then translate identified reform needs into actual change. Subsequently, these “agents for change” can further disseminate this knowledge and skills to other actors, inspiring them not only to maintain the societal conversation about common challenges, but also to constantly reevaluate and examine their own assumptions, and accordingly, effect change. While the overall process of change is slow, external actors can help build critical capacity in the short-term for individuals and organizations to realize true and lasting reform themselves.
Again, lack of transparency, corruption and limited freedom of expression is a problem that all Arab countries face. Although a number of NGOs in Egypt are demanding more democracy, none of them is using Selim’s interactive and non- confrontational approach.
Selim established the Sustainable Democracy Center (SDC) as the main vehicle by which he intends to address these problems, through interactive educational programs on the rule of law, citizenship and good governance. Selim started a dialogue program called Hiwarat in 2002, funded by the German Foreign Ministry through their embassy in Beirut, to deal with issues related to identity, coexistence and enhancement of the knowledge of the Other. This country-wide initiative reached more than 250 university students in the span of six months and created the base for Selim’s next project. The dialogue project was launched with Lebanese university students from five prominent universities: Lebanese American University (LAU), Beirut Arab University (BU), Saint Joseph University (USJ), American University of Beirut (AUB) and Lebanese University (UL). Throughout the project, Selim consistently tried to ensure a confessional-balanced representation among the participants attending each of the workshops. The selection process helped them recruit people from various communities and religions in order to diversify the range of views within the workshops. The preference during the early stages of the program, was for students in the humanities and social sciences such as Political Science, Law, International Relations, History, and Sociology. The pilot project aimed at assessing the students’ attitudes towards coexistence in Lebanon and the obstacles to reconciliation. It was an attempt to explore potential solutions, as seen by university youth, to the problems facing coexistence between the various groups in Lebanon. The project attempted to address the early stages of the long process of reconciliation and closure that needs to take place in post-war Lebanon. The short-term goals of the program were to raise youth awareness about the issue of coexistence, train students on the methodology of conducting dialogue, to enhance exchange and networking between university students, and to create a common platform where young people may express themselves and develop a better understanding of the “other.” The long-term goal was to produce a training guide and distribute the training materials to enable students to act as trainers in future activities hence ensuring project continuity. Another long-term goal was to encourage students to conduct similar activities in their own communities and to cooperate with local and international NGOs working on conflict resolution and other related issues. Finally the last long-term goal was to create a Dialogue Club that conducts workshops all over the country addressing the issue of conflict and coexistence, especially with grassroots groups. Hiwarat dialogue program was centered on 6 workshops and a closing session on the following themes: The Other: raison d’etre of diversity or Particularism?, Inter-communal Marriage, Minaret and Bell: Compromise and Consent, Confessional Belonging Beyond Geographical Borders, Conflictual Political Speech, and Human Rights: Universalism versus Particularism. Tailor-made training materials on reconciliation, conflict resolution and Lebanese identity were designed to address these fundamental themes in a concrete way.
Building on the lessons learnt from this initiative, and the feedback and requests of the beneficiaries, Selim designed a program focusing not only on knowing the other but also featuring a political education component aimed at introducing concepts such as human rights, citizenship and good governance. The interactive training materials that Selim developed specifically for this program proved to be extremely useful in bettering the understanding and discussions among the beneficiaries regarding a different approach to political participation in Lebanon. This program was valued by several university political science faculty members as they appreciated the importance of turning the theory into practical exercises for a more in depth understanding of concepts. As an important component of this program to introduce and sustain a movement for change, Selim selected a group of 20 enthusiastic university students who underwent intensive training sessions on human rights, citizenship and good governance. This core team was able to implement the program’s workshops all over the country and still constitutes the major pillar in SDC’s structure. Other than 20 workshops, this program resulted in the creation of a wesite www.hiwaratclub.net with a forum and a newsletter especially dedicated to young university scholars and civil society activists. This initiative was unique since it was written and edited by the core team and some of the 350 beneficiaries of this program who formed the editorial committee for the newsletter.
Considering the fact that the projects Selim has developed to reach his goal are all based on an interactive learning methodology and his major concern is with corruption in Lebanon, he created a board game for children, 12 years of age and above, focusing on fighting corruption and promoting transparency and accountability. A large quantity of this game was donated to vulnerable groups, and the rest can be found on the Lebanese market. The game is funded by an international NGO, and all revenues from selling this game will be reinvested in activities for children. Many educational experts have judged that the game is fun and is a viable and educational tool (you can visit the board game’s website at www.corruptiongame.com for more information).
Selim’s plan to expand SDC’s activities in order to explore new venues with different target groups, high school students, led him to design a new program to teach citizenship through the common shared resource of the environment. Since Selim always believed that youth must be empowered and trusted in order to generate change, he cooperated with SDC’s core team of young volunteers to conduct this program. Once more, the core group underwent another intensive training program that Selim developed with the Institute of World Affairs (IWA) for this purpose, which enabled them to actively participate in the program’s implementation. The program was funded by the Canadian International Agency (CIDA). The methodology adopted in this program was to bring teenagers from all over Lebanon for two five-day camps where they were given the chance to learn about pressing environmental issues and the instrumental role of the citizen in protecting the environment. Tailor-made educational materials were used during the camps with the children. Through the camping experience, they were able to learn about each other’s traditions and way of life, and went beyond the boundaries that were established during the war which have deprived many Lebanese from meeting each other. Another new approach that Selim introduced to the program was the generation of small scaled community projects which youth will design and undertake together in various parts of the country. Through Donors, SDC has managed to secure the needed funds for the implementation of these small-scaled community projects, and has trusted high school students to administer them. This will help empower these youth and prepare them to autonomous leaders in the future.
Believing that dialogue and informal education is the key to change the situation in Lebanon, in March 2004, Selim created what is now known as Bistrocracy (The Bistro of the People), an independent and non-institutionalized forum of discussion. Bistrocracy aims at providing a space for people to meet and converse about critical and controversial topics regarding Lebanon in a relaxed atmosphere in a café. The ultimate objective is to create awareness on behaviors and believes that Lebanese uphold as citizens, but that may oppose the values Lebanese promote in their daily lives. The Bistocracy Dialogue Sessions are facilitated by a moderator, who is usually a member of the core group. The attendees are encouraged to make suggestions for topics they would like to discuss and are invited to act as moderators for topics of their own choice so that their leadership skills are enhanced. Bistrocracy, due to its non-institutionalized nature, reaches the public in general and encompasses people from the liberal professions, political affiliations as well as neutral independent individuals.
Selim’s choice of such an approach is due to his strong belief in the value of interactive fun and informal education, away from established educational institutions. It is considered by many to be a very non-classical/traditional approach and has proven to be appealing to more than 700 beneficiaries in the course of two years. Selim believes that his approach is the only way to empower the citizen and render his/her role essential in building a democracy.
Selim’s short term goal is to mobilize as many people as possible who will later act as agents of change in order to bring his idea to fruition. His long-term goal is the greater participation of the citizenry and the renewal of the political elite. The size of the group’s targeted has varied according to the nature of the program. Selim’s Political and Civic Education Program targeted young professionals, civil society activists and university students. His Citizenship and Environmental Education program targeted junior high, high school students, and school dropouts, and his Anti-corruption board game program targeted children. The groups are located all over the country and mainly reside in remote and deprived areas in addition to the capital city.
For the time being, Selim is trying to spread the idea at the national level by means of outreach workshops and camps, and since he is empowering the core groups of volunteers, he believes that his idea will spread to the whole country. As for the regional and international level, the websites for his programs (www.sdclebanon.org www.hiwaratclub.net www.corruptiongame.com) managed to generate interest in replicating the corruption game in Nigeria and in some Arab countries such as Jordan and Iraq, and an NGO in Ethiopia has adopted the methodology of the environmental project. For Salim, it is only a question of time and resources before embarking on any other initiatives outside Lebanon.
Based on the success of this methodology, Selim would like to expand it within Lebanon and to other countries in the Middle East: Syria, Egypt, Palestine, Jordan, and Iraq. The latter five countries, like Lebanon, are facing a strong call for a revision of the existing systems. Subsequently, working through its contacts and existing partner organizations in the region, SDC will conduct roundtables in each of the six target countries in order to further hone reform projects and to select two in-country partner organizations from each country that will assist in the implementation of projects. These organizations must be independent and non-partisan, politically and financially transparent, and primarily active among youth and emerging leaders in business, media, and advocacy.
Every volunteer joining SDC is a measure of the idea’s success. In 2002, the SDC started with one person and expanded to include more than 10 volunteers in 2005. The SDC started with a micro project of 11964 $ and reached a budget of 170000$ in 2005.
Moreover, SDC does not implement a project on its own. With every initiative of his, he involves other NGOs with who in he shares not only the work but also the budgets. This is done for two reasons. First, it helps us spread the idea all over the country and second it empowers other small scaled NGOs and encourages them to proceed in creating the needed change.
As for its opportunities of duplication in other Arab countries, Selim has been contacted by some Jordanian and Palestinian NGOs who were so interested in duplicating some of our activities. In addition, and as a volunteer, he is helping a Palestinian NGO in Gaza designing their own project which is similar to their Bistrocracy project (The bistro of the people) and we are calling it (Diwaniya li Mouwatiniya).
The goal for Selim is to provide these agents of change with the know –how and the skills that will enable them not only to be “ full” citizens, but be competitive and employable by other NGOs. To date between 15-20 % of the trainees were employed by other NGOs. They are building their capacity as leaders in different positions. His aim is to train 300 volunteers a year, with the aim of reaching 1500 agents of change in 5 years. If 20% of them are employed by NGOs, then he can change the culture of the social sector and make it more citizen based.
For sustainability, he is already selling the anticorruption ( corruption) game as means for income generation. He is also working on amending the civic curriculum at schools and is planning to create a new game on the rights and duties of the citizen vis a vis the environment.
Selim comes from the village of Zgarta in northern Lebanon. His father is a retired plumber and his mother a former schoolteacher who left her job to care for her family. Selim is the second of five siblings, all of whom are quite accomplished. As a child, Selim was creative and entrepreneurial. When his scout troupe wanted to print a calendar but lacked the money to pay for it, Selim took the initiative to create lottery tickets, which he sold to fund the calendar and other activities. He also created an alarm system on his desk to keep away the boys who wanted his lunch.
Like the majority of Lebanese citizens during and after the war, Selim was brought up in a community that had little, if any, interaction with outsiders. His majority-Christian community in North Lebanon was secluded from Muslims, whom they regarded as enemies. As a teenager, he became a boy scout and was actively involved in community service and local development projects.
Two incidents during his years with the boy scouts were particularly influential in the formation of his political awareness. The first incident took place when he was 14. It was Christmas time, and the streets were crowded with people doing last minute shopping. A group of boys decided to try to direct traffic, which was chaotic due to a wartime shortage of police and traffic lights. But their efforts were in vain; most people didn’t heed the boys’ instructions. At one point, an armed member of the local militia got out of his car and slapped Selim’s friend on the face, shouting that he would not take orders from a bunch of kids. Disheartened, Selim returned to complain to his parents, who encouraged him to continue with his community service work, and explained to him that people resist change and that the process of promoting good citizenship would take a long time.
A year later, Selim’s scout troupe hosted a boy from a village that was only 7 kilometers away, but that was separated from Selim’s village by armed roadblocks, random kidnappings, and killings. He realized that the boy was treated badly by his fellow scouts because he was Muslim. Selim recognized this and defended the boy by confronting his superiors, at first verbally, and then by pushing one of them. Selim was dismissed for his behavior, and the Muslim boy was forced to resign and leave the group. This incident left him eager to learn more about religious and cultural diversity. When he asked a teacher at his Catholic school about Muslims, he was told that Christians should have nothing to do with them. This lack of dialogue is part of what convinced Selim to leave the country for Australia in 1989, after the civil war had ended.
Selim earned his university degree in Australia, and the experience of living abroad showed him how citizens in other parts of the world engage in the political process. He moved back home in 1992, by which time the political situation had settled down in Lebanon. Upon his return, he received a scholarship from a nongovernmental organization for his master’s work in interior architecture. That organization, the Rene Mouawad Foundation, also had a human rights and politics education program, for which Selim soon began volunteering. This gave him the opportunity to attend conferences and training seminars, both at the national and international level. It also showed him the need for a different approach political change in a country like Lebanon.
Selim has spent a great deal of time fundraising for his idea with international donors and through local in-kind contributions. He plans to continue this effort in order to sustain SDC’s current programs and generate new ones. In addition to managing and growing his organization, he is currently pursuing a distance-learning master’s degree in conflict management and analysis from Royal Roads University in Canada.