On Nov. 16, NCS welcomed Lorne Craner, president of the International Republican Institute, and Shari Bryan, vice president of the National Democratic Institute, as guest speakers for this year’s International Lecture. In addition, Craner and Bryan brought their own guest speakers, Aya Chebbi and Dina Sadek, two young women who have been involved in the recent democratic revolutions in their home countries of Tunisia and Egypt, respectively. Both of them are in the US as part of a fellowship program.
Craner, father of Isabelle ’15, began by discussing the ways the US has historically served as an example of democracy. He said that the movement toward more democratic government in the Middle East, South America, and Africa has been “very homegrown and organic,” because people want better lives for themselves and, more importantly, for their children. They want dignity, justice, and respect as human beings. And though the changes may take years or even a generation to settle, they will come, he said. Americans need to be patient, a trait not historically associated with our country, he added.
Bryan, whose organization frequently works closely with Craner’s, said that the aim of these institutes is not to force “American ideals” on other nationalities; instead, they seek to help other countries make the transition to democratic government. They assist in preparing to hold elections, educating political parties, working with legislatures, and teaching civil societies effective ways to work with government, including the use of 21st century technology in the political and electoral processes. In addition, Bryan’s institute works to get women and young people involved and engaged with government and the political process.
Chebbi, who directs the Tunisian National Organization for Children and is a member of Global Changemakers and Junior Chamber International, shared her experience of the Tunisian revolution, which began in 2010 and reached a peaceful and successful outcome earlier this year. She told the story of Mohamed Bouazizi, a 19-year-old man who self-immolated in an act of protest against the regime. Bouazizi is only one of many who had been persecuted, tortured, jailed, or exiled for their political beliefs, Chebbi said. She said that the youth of Tunisia decided that even though they didn’t have elections, they had the power to take to the streets and protest against the government led by then-president Ben Ali. Using Facebook and Twitter to stay organized, protesters successfully waged a campaign to oust the regime they felt neglected and abused them.
Chebbi said that the most important things she learned from the revolution were the importance of sacrifice and getting involved. She said she’d seen people sacrifice in order to secure rights for others, and people who were suffering open themselves up and share what little they had with others. “Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile,” Chebbi said. “Revolution is a big change, but you can make small changes every day and have an impact on your community.”
Sadek said that the revolution in Tunisia inspired Egyptians to stage their own protests in 2011. One of the major issues, according to her, was that those who were employed in Egypt were not paid enough to support basic human rights. Young people were saying that they couldn’t live this way, as their parents had, and she said she heard older generations apologize because they had not risen up to demand better treatment. Sadek, who was a translator for the Sunday Telegraph and reported for the Telegraph and Agence France-Presse during the revolution, said that Egyptians suffered from great oppression and censorship and did not have the freedom to express themselves. She now works for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and contributes to EMAJ Magazine, which is run by young journalists from the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe.
Though the Egyptians were unhappy, she said, they never expected to stage a revolution. Now that they have, Sadek said they are looking toward holding an election. This will be the first of many steps, Sadek said, but she is hopeful about the future. “We’re taking baby steps toward democracy,” she said.
The young women ended by saying that while revolutions are unique to each country and people, standing up for your rights is universal. They stressed that the peaceful means of protesting are what is most important.