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Oct / Nov 2012
Faith in the Future

Writer: Raya Jalabi / Photographer:Thierry van Biesen

To some, Beirut is a random assortment of rooftop bars, bad plastic surgery and arak by the bucket. To others, it’s a shell, a city attempting to rebuild itself after decades of destruction. To many more, it’s just home. And now, thanks to Raghida Dergham, it’s about to take on an old new role.

 

Raghida Dergham sits in her elegant uptown apartment, perfectly coiffed and typing away at her little wooden desk. Chief diplomatic correspondent for Al-Hayat, she is composing her weekly column for the paper. Though born in Lebanon’s capital, Dergham has been based in New York for over thirty years. As a journalist, she has been widely respected and criticised for her somewhat audacious opinions. Now, the longstanding correspondent is about to embark on an altogether different occupation and early next year, she will become the founder and executive chairman of a brand new think tank, the Beirut Institute.

“It’s an indigenous Arab think tank,” Dergham explains. “An independent, non-partisan and creative think tank, an innovative collective for the Arab region and Diaspora.” According to Dergham, the Institute defines itself as secular, modernist and moderate; an almost impossible combination in a region - let alone a city - where sectarian adversity can dictate where you park your car. But she is all about making the impossible, possible.

“When I first thought of the Institute, about three years ago, I was envious for our part of the world,” she said. “We were missing an indigenous think thank by the Arabs, for the Arabs and for the rest of the world. The concept is alien to us.”

Although there is a history of think tanks in the Arab world, seemingly none have had an explicit mandate to be native to the region. The 2011 Global Think Tank Report estimated that there are approximately 20 think tanks currently in operation in the MENA region, but none of them have been founded, funded and fully operated by Arab independents and the most prominent of those that exist is the Lebanon branch of the Carnegie Institute, an American organisation.

There was a time when Beirut was the think tank of the whole Arab world,” Nadim Shehadi, an associate fellow with the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House, an independent think tank based in London, explains. “What was special about that period was that only the buildings were purely Lebanese. Beirut attracted people from all over the region and even from all over the world, from Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Egypt, Libya, the Gulf States. But this period unfortunately ended and Beirut does not really have that role anymore.” As Dergham would have it however, nowhere else in the Arab world plays that role either and so in typical fashion, she is intent on changing this.

The Beirut Institute will officially launch in spring 2013, with an inaugural conference entitled ‘Investing In Transition: A Conversation With The Future’. Never one to miss an opportunity, Dergham has seized upon the revolutionary fervour that has swept the region over the past year and a half and doused the launch with her own brand of revolutionary zeal.

The three-day event aims to bring together 500 of what she terms the “region’s and the world’s most influential leaders, policy experts, thinkers and innovators” for a collective brainstorming session on issues concerning Arab-East-West relations. “Conference participants,” Dergham continues, “will put forward strategic policies addressing challenges and opportunities that will affect the Arab region and its place in the world.”

There’s a plethora of panels and talks, which aim to address everything from women’s issues and national security, to identity building in post-revolutionary countries and even to Arab art. The diversity of the themes to be discussed speaks to the diversity of the Institute’s constituents and interests. As Dergham repeatedly insists, the Institute is concerned with Arab identity in general and her positive outlook indicates that no issue, whether localised or pan-Arab, is too big (or too small) to discuss. In order to satisfy this imperative, she has drawn from different sectors in order to amass an impressive group of individuals who represent the boards of directors and advisors.

“Building the boards was not easy,” she continues. “All of the people on the boards are friends of mine and I had to press them.” They’re an eclectic group, ranging from Saudi Prince Turki Bin Faisal Al Saud, veteran U.N. envoy and former Algerian foreign minister, Lakhdar Brahimi and prominent Tunisian grassroots activist, Amira Yahyawi, which shows just how exciting Dergham’s Rolodex must be.

Despite their disparate origins, they hold a collective excitement for the budding institute. “Beirut is the lung of the Arab of world and Beirut Institute is its oxygen,” H.R.H. Prince Turki has been quoted as saying. As a former politician, Brahimi sees its role in more concrete and current terms. “The demand for change in the Arab World is the same everywhere. People want to take part in the decisions that affect their lives; they want their dignity back and they want an end to corruption.”

The Institute’s diversity does not stop at geography. The think tank will be implementing a “40/40 approach” wherein 40 per cent of its membership will be under the age of 40. Dergham is doggedly passionate about incorporating younger views into her organisation, which explains in part the future-oriented theme of the inaugural conference. “We need a healthier inter-generational relationship. There is a tradition of the elder generation of speaking down to the youth, saying ‘be quiet, you don’t know enough’.”

“Mum realised that the youth knows what it wants more than anyone else,” adds her 22-year-old daughter, Thalia, who serves as the Institute’s Youth Outreach Coordinator. “They’re the future. And that’s why we have to invest in them.”

“I’m a dreamer, what can I say?” Dergham exclaims, when pressed about her vision for her fledgling institution. From an outside perspective, Beirut Institute seems overly ambitious. As the past year has demonstrated, there is an abundance of difficulties plaguing the region, but from foreign policy to issues of nationality and human rights, Beirut Institute wants to tackle it all.

“One of the biggest problems we’ve had is that people in governments from our part of the world acted as though they owned the country. We didn’t have think tanks to act as sounding boards for governments. We didn’t have think tanks to hold people’s feet to the fire. I was sick of hearing people just give up and not seek change. You know, we have to stop this pattern of submission. Stop blaming and complaining.”

Which is exactly what Dergham aims to do with the Institute. It will proffer what she calls a solutions-oriented approach and actionable ideas that will seek to both influence policy-makers and public opinion. This is evidently a tall order, particularly when the Institute is in its foundational phases and still struggling to obtain adequate funding. At present, while it has received many ‘in kind’ donations of services integral to its launch, the Institute is funded primarily by three individuals from the private sector, and is relying upon strategic partners to organise its inaugural conference. “It’s basically been a one-woman journey for the past three years,” Thalia explains. “She’s a journalist who had no reason to transition into a new career and she’s done everything herself.”

“Sometimes, I think, what have you done with your life, Raghida?” Dergham continues. “I reinvented myself with this. I didn’t know much about think tanks and the process has been very challenging.” If the founding lady’s determined optimism sometimes makes outsiders question the ability of such an idealistic think tank to succeed, it may also be the very force that has propelled her this far forward. Her message is also being heard abroad, as evidenced by the Institute’s international partnerships. Several prominent organisations, amongst them the U.N. Security Council and New York’s Foreign Policy Association, will be collaborating on Beirut Institute programming.

“I didn’t need to do this. I’m well known, respected, celebrated. I even lost friends over this, as I tried to push them to get involved and to really believe in it,” she continues. “But then I look around, at everything we’ve accomplished so far and I think, wow!”

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