Elections season is firmly upon us. Let us be under no doubt that the American University of Beirut stands for democracy, for government of the people, by the people, for the people, and it always has. This stance is buttressed by our unswerving commitment to freedom of speech and thought. And we strive and have always striven to empower the best and brightest, to enable them to be sincere and effective leaders committed to the service and betterment of their societies.
AUB imparts its democratic values through an education in which our most accomplished and revered professors treat students not as empty vessels to be laden with information over three or more years, but as youthful and often innovative companions on a shared journey of learning. It fosters critical thinking and pluralism, exposes students to new and challenging perspectives, guides them to separate fact from fiction, and allows competing ideas to be tested in the laboratory of fearless, peaceful debate.
AUB upholds these values in the clubs, societies, and varsity teams, where teamwork, respect, and fairness are paramount. And AUB celebrates and reinforces these values in annual student elections, which attain standards of transparency, participation, and integrity that many an electoral system in this region and around the world would do well to emulate.
In this pandemic year, as with many disappointments we have shouldered in 2020, the University Student Faculty Committee (USFC) and Student Representative Committee (SRC) elections were not the exhilarating in-person experiences that we have grown used to. This follows the different kind of disappointment we felt in 2019 when, after an exciting and competitive campaign, AUB was compelled to suspend voting on the eve of Election Day, which coincided with the October 17 uprising.
This resulted in the USFC and SRC members elected in 2018 serving for two years, with foresight, engagement, and distinction through the most challenging times. It has been all the more essential therefore, to hold this year's vote and give a mandate to a new cohort of elected student representatives.
There has been a sea change post-October 17, 2019—and consolidated after August 4, 2020—that led clubs associated with establishment political parties to withdraw from the vote this year. And so a slate of fully independent and Secular Club candidates, all proposing ambitious, student-centric agendas, met on the annual
Outlook-sponsored debate on Wednesday, November 11, which was polite but pointed. More than 4,700 full-time students signed up to vote, comprising over 60 percent of full-time students, and on November 13,
Election Day, 93 percent cast their ballots online, or 53 percent of eligible AUB students—a resounding vote of confidence indeed, if you compare that with turnout in student elections across the free world.
The USFC is the primary channel for students to bring issues to the attention of the university via deputies who are mandated to make recommendations to the AUB administration. The committee also commands an annual budget for the purpose of enriching student life and supporting different student events and activities, while its members participate in key administrative committees, search committees for senior university positions, and many other vital functions. During these difficult times it is ever more important to include student voices in our deliberations and we are looking forward to working with the new group of elected student representatives to help us build trust and consensus in our decision making.
Democracy in peril
As the world has focused on the recent US elections, we have been reminded just how important it is for political leaders to stand up for principles that underpin democracy: the rule of law, independence of the judiciary, respecting pluralism, and the peaceful and gracious handover of power after every vote is counted. Failure to abide by such principles, or to articulate them, can deal a damaging blow to democracy, which—even in its most established settings—is never a given and must always be safeguarded by those who participate in democratic systems.
Unfortunately, we live in a world where democratic bastions are being actively undermined and populations are becoming increasingly polarized. AUB trustee and alumna Kim Ghattas captured the essence of this in the cover article in
The Atlantic of November 1, 2020, an article that compares the recent paroxysms of American politics to Lebanon's descent into conflict nearly half a century ago. “If you think the Middle East has always been as it is today, you are mistaken: There lies in the not-so-distant past a more vibrant, diverse, colorful, calm, tolerant Middle East... Those who stood up for freedom of thought and expression, who critiqued the role of religion in politics, were many, and their critics were few. Over time, the numbers didn't necessarily change but the balance of power did, with liberal thinkers cowed by the violence that fanatics were willing to deploy." Ultimately, she writes, “Divisions deepened—within communities, friendships, families. Rage toward the other side grew. The middle ground evaporated, and we entered a new normal."
After watching the growing polarization in America, parallels between the US and the Middle East might not be so far-fetched. We have watched divisions grow both in magnitude and in animosity between secular and religious Americans, urban and rural, black and white, northern and southern, and these schisms are now turbocharging the political divide. Polarization has created separate and competing worlds within the same nation. For example, recent Pew research on attitudes to COVID-19 showed that Democrats made up 76 percent of those who expressed concerns about others not wearing masks, while Republicans made up 92 percent of people expressing skepticism or opposition to masks.
We know well in Lebanon that polarization can develop its own momentum. But we also know there is a way to reach across divides because we see it every day, year in, year out at AUB. Our students, hailing from all corners of this deeply divided country, and from around the world, develop profound and positive contact with one another, implanting empathy and superseding fear of the other, as they listen to one another's life stories and learn about their similarities and their differences. This crucial component of the AUB student experience is why—even as COVID-19 keeps us locked down—we will always remain poised to reopen campus for classes, as soon as it will be safe to do so, a moment that we hope will be expedited by an effective coronavirus vaccine or treatment.
We have made no bones about the scale of the challenges AUB faces in these troubled times, brought about by Lebanon's economic collapse, the COVID-19 pandemic, and latterly the August 4 explosion, and we are still in the grip of crisis with no knowledge of when or how it will end. However, as we equip our great and beloved university to weather these storms, our efforts can be invigorated by the knowledge that AUB plays—and will continue to play—a vital role in modeling and advocating democracy and responsible leadership in Lebanon and beyond. Thank you to all who participated in and worked to deliver the excellent and rare democratic process that took place on Friday. You are playing your part in keeping the AUB beacon burning even through the most difficult times.
Fadlo R. Khuri, MD