Selim Mawad integrates marginalized Arab youth into public life by educating them about transparency, accountability and democracy in government. Through his informal, interactive educational programs, he is empowering Lebanon’s next generation to become active citizens who engage in dialogue across political divides.
The New Idea
Selim's work focuses on educating the young people of Lebanon about the rights and duties of the citizen in politics and empowering them to become full participants in public life. He has created a series of interactive, informal educational programs on the rule of law, citizenship, and good governance. His idea is to integrate Lebanese youth into public institutions regardless of their gender, sect, faction, political affiliation, or economic status, and to foster understanding and reconciliation between those groups. The Sustainable Democracy Center (SDC), which Selim established two years ago, uses a wide variety of tools—from seminars and workshops to games and camps—to raise awareness of transparency and corruption in government and to promote dialogue between opposing groups. The short-term goal of Selim’s work is to create a cadre of what he calls "agents of change.” He provides these young people with the skills and knowledge they need to spread his ideas about transparency and accountability in government to their communities. The problems Selim is addressing aren’t unique to Lebanon. Therefore, his long-term goal is to promote political involvement among citizens across the Arab region, where many countries suffer from high levels of corruption and a lack of political freedom.
The citizens of Lebanon, like those of other Arab countries, are generally disengaged from the political process. In a region where nepotism and corruption often prevail over transparency, democracy, and human rights, there is a deep mistrust between the people and their government. This disenfranchisement tends to increase people’s loyalty to tribes, clans, and religious communities. In Lebanon, Muslim and Christian communities have been in conflict since 1943, and Lebanese citizens often feel a stronger religious identity than national one. Faith in government and loyalty to country are rare because the state does so little to inspire faith and loyalty. In Lebanon, turnovers in political leadership have been few and far between. Widespread corruption contributes to a lack of development, which in turn has led to economic recession. The public education system is weak, especially in the area of civics. This contributes to widespread despair among the country’s youth. Selim fears that their disenfranchisement could irreparably damage Lebanon’s social fabric and lead to the collapse of the state.At a time when the international community is focused on reform in the Middle East, Selim feels it is more important than ever for that change to come from within Middle Eastern societies themselves. Current pressure from Western states for reform in the Arab world, while perhaps necessary to change the dynamics in the region, 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, the demand for more open dialogue in the Arab world existed long before the international spotlight turned on the region. Middle Eastern societies were ripe for change on their own, prior to the international community’s insistence on urgent reform. That insistence has had the paradoxical effect of creating a backlash against the very people who had been quietly discussing and working toward change, people who are now accused of being pro-American and promoting an imperialist agenda. SDC’s aim is to revitalize the conversations that were already underway in Lebanon and around the Arab world.
People who live under repressive or unrepresentative governments such as Lebanon’s are often unaware of their rights as citizens and the political tools available to them. Selim feels that groups such as his can play a valuable role by training new and emerging leaders who can discuss the pressing issues facing their society and create legitimacy and popular buy-in for their initiatives. These “agents of change” can further disseminate their knowledge and skills to others, inspiring them not only to continue the discussion of common challenges, but also to constantly reevaluate their own assumptions.Selim established the SDC in 2005 as a way to provide interactive educational programs on the rule of law, citizenship, and good governance. He laid the groundwork for the SDC with a national initiative called Hiwarat (meaning ‘dialogue’), which addresses issues related to identity, coexistence, and knowledge of other communities. Hiwarat reached more than 250 students from five prominent universities. He was careful to recruit participants from various communities and religions in order to maintain diversity within the workshops. Selim regards this as one step in the long process of reconciliation and closure so sorely needed in post-war Lebanon. The short-term goals of the workshops are to raise young people’s awareness about the issue of coexistence, to train students to create dialogue, to enhance networking opportunities between university students, and to provide a platform where young people may express themselves and develop a better understanding of other communities. His long-term goal is to encourage students to conduct similar activities in their own communities and to cooperate with local and international citizen organizations (COs) working on conflict resolution and other related issues. In order to sustain this dialogue, 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. In addition to the workshops, the team created a website, which includes an online forum and a newsletter dedicated to young university scholars and civil society activists. SDC's core team of young volunteers has also been conducting environmental camps that bring teenagers from all over Lebanon together for two five-day sessions to learn about pressing environmental issues. The camps have the additional benefit of giving campers the opportunity to learn about one another's traditions and ways of life, something that never would have happened during the war. This has lead to a series of small-scale community projects, which youth design and undertake together across Lebanon. Believing that dialogue and informal education are keys to successfully changing the situation in Lebanon, in 2004 Selim created a program known as Bistrocracy, or Bistro of the People. Bistrocracy provides a space for people to meet and converse about controversial issues in Lebanon in the relaxed atmosphere of a café. Members of SDC’s core group of volunteers facilitate Bistrocracy sessions. They encourage attendees to suggest topics they would like to discuss and invite them to act as moderators in order for them to enhance their leadership skills. Over the last two years, more than 700 people from a variety of backgrounds have participated in these interactive, fun, and educational forums. To reach another vital target group, Selim created a board game for teenagers, called the Corruption Game, which focuses on fighting corruption and promoting transparency and accountability. The game is funded by an international citizen organization, and all revenues from its sale will be reinvested in SDC. Selim is currently planning a new game dealing with the rights and duties of the citizen with respect to the environment. Selim's short-term goal is to mobilize 300 young people a year to serve as agents of change. He believes that their training will enable them not only to be full citizens, but to become leaders within other citizen organizations. To date, 15 to 20 percent of his trainees have gone on to jobs with other non-governmental organizations, where they are building their capacity as entrepreneurs. He hopes this cadre of well-trained, citizenship-minded workers will help change the culture of Lebanon’s social sector and make it more grassroots. Selim sees many opportunities to duplicate his work in other Arab countries and beyond. The websites for his programs (www.sdclebanon.org, www.hiwaratclub.net, and www.corruptiongame.com) have generated interest from other Arab countries and from as far away as Ethiopia and Nigeria. Selim is currently expanding his Bistrocracy initiative within Lebanon and to the neighboring countries of Syria, Egypt, Palestine, Jordan, and Iraq. Together with its contacts in the region, SDC identifies both institutional and individual agents of change and supports them through the process of discussing, prioritizing, and implementing reform.
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.