As the president of the American University of Beirut, I have watched these protests unfold with a mixture of hope and trepidation. The protesters in Beirut, in Tripoli, in Tyre, in Sidon, in Nabatiya—who include a large proportion of our own students, faculty, and staff—must stay united to overcome the poisonous example set by Lebanon’s political leaders. Now in the second week of the protests, ambition and ego are starting to surface in an unfortunate but not unexpected way. Lebanon’s political and security leaders would like to have their battles fought for them by others. They all want someone else to eliminate their competition, allowing them to claim neutrality and good intentions. That is why we need to help steer our students, faculty, and staff away from such traps.
William Shakespeare understood the cynical nature of politicians and the self-destructive tendencies of aspiring heroes. His histories and tragedies positively drip acid with the failed judgment and vaulting ambition of their “tragic heroes,” who are not rescued by their occasional good intent, and with the cynical, self-serving opportunism of their villains. Shakespeare gives the audience a little relief, his own version of deus ex machina, at the end when the villain dies, but his estimation of the cynical manipulator is always higher than that of the naive hero, whom he always plays for a fool. He was, after all, a supplicant to the ultimate player of the power and influence game, the archetypal survivor of plots and of the affairs of men, Elizabeth I, Queen of England.
In Henry IV Part II, when the rebels surrender without bargaining their own personal safety, Shakespeare has John of Lancaster coldly state, “God, and not we, hath safely fought today.” That in a nutshell is what our political and military leaders are counting on. And they have the patience and ruthlessness to wait out any aspiring heroes.
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That is also why we in the few quality institutions of higher education in Lebanon and the Arab world need to provide a counterexample, to sustain hope in our young idealists, who are now striking and occupying city squares to keep their dreams of a better tomorrow alive. We are not part of this uprising, but occupy a middle ground where we must help them complete their studies while they participate in the demonstrations. But we must convince them that the destiny of the well-intentioned citizen-leader need not always be that of the martyr, and that petty and corrupt monsters are not destined for ultimate victory, glory, and success. Irrespective of the outcome of the current protests in Lebanon (or Iraq, Chile, Hong Kong, or elsewhere), this cannot be the ultimate lesson our young people learn.
The American University of Beirut, the oldest and finest institution of higher education in this part of the world, must stand up for many principles in these times, but we must not stray from our essential mission—to equip young women and men of high quality and character with the means to advance themselves in their societies’ futures. It is not the university’s role to provide immediate substitute leaders, but to do what we do best, education. We know that at AUB our students overcome the fear of the Other, through nurturing new friendships in a diverse international community, enriching their knowledge in the humanities, the arts, and the sciences, and providing them with experiential learning opportunities through civic engagement. This consecrates the idea of service to the community as a cocurricular, rather than extracurricular, component of a liberal-arts education.