Introduction:
Genane Maalouf - Vice President, Worldwide Alumni Association of the American University of Beirut


The late Edward Said once wrote, “Raghida Dergham, is a capable Lebanese woman who has represented Al-Hayat in New York for several years. A fine reporter and commentator with an excellent reputation in America, she has brought credit to her profession and her country for several years.”

The Lebanese-born American Citizen, Ms. Dergham started her career in journalism, and has become one of the leading journalists writing about international issues for the Arabic press, as well as analyzing the Arab world for an American audience. 

Raghida Dergham is Columnist and Senior Diplomatic Correspondent for the London-based, leading independent Arabic daily paper “Al Hayat.” She is also a Political Analyst for nearly all the top broadcast and cable news shows to include NBC, MSNBC, CNN, FOX, ABC, CBS, Canada's CBC, Al-Jazeera, BBC and the Arab satellite network LBC, and NPR. She is also a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate Global Viewpoint, the New York Times, Washington
Post, the International Herald Tribune, and Newsweek Magazine.

She has survived death threats and continues to battle the prejudices of being an independent and successful journalist and thinker. She has broken major news stories, such as the Oslo secret talks, covered peace conferences and summits, accompanied the UN former Secretary General Kofi Annan on his tours to the Middle East, conducted exclusive interviews with more than 50 foreign ministers and many U.S. presidents, secretaries of state, and other world leaders.

A former president of the UN Correspondents Association, she addressed the UN General Assembly on the occasion of World Press Freedom Day.

Ms. Dergham is in the State University of New York Hall of Fame as a Distinguished Alumna and has received an Honorary Doctorate of Letters in 2003.

Her breadth of experience is invaluable in understanding the history of the Middle East and its current affaires d’états. An insightful observer and a daring reporter, she writes: “I’m supposed to represent the people who don’t have a voice to ask questions, …that’s my duty.” 

Please join me in welcoming Raghida Dergham

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As this is an AUB event, may I assume that the audience here is either of Lebanese roots or has already gotten the "bug" of Beirut-loving and is already "into" that enigma called Lebanon? Partly for that reason, and with your permission, I will make Lebanon the focus of my address titled "State-Building: Challenges and Opportunities". But the other reason is that I strongly believe that whatever will happen in Lebanon will most certainly impact the whole Arab world- be it in the quest for democracy or in the battle between moderation and violent extremism. So allow me to begin with a personal journey.

This past July I went back to Lebanon after an almost six years absence. There had been unfortunate circumstances that prevented me from returning to my Beirut. Some were related to the era of intimidation of the media using different pretexts and different methods. They included the annulment of my passport and an attempt of a military trial for the "crime" of debating an Israeli in an open forum in defense of Lebanon. Other circumstances were due to the era of assassinations of journalists- when threats were both direct and via "fan" mail- so to speak. Speaking of mail, I also had received some interesting envelopes a few years ago: Letter bombs. Four of them. Had it not been God's blessing- and the incompetence of the UN mail system- those four letters, if opened, would have shredded a few bodies; not only one. They were meant as a warning to Al Hayat and were sent to a few offices in revenge for a mention of Ayman Zawahiri in a colleague's column.

So, from letter bombs.. to threats and promises that I would follow in the footsteps of my assassinated colleagues.. to the annulment of my passport when traveling with UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.. to attempts of a military trial...to repeated patterns of intimidation, it has been- let's say- an explosive career and an exciting ride. But if I were to do it all over again, I would do it exactly the same. Why? Because I am a great believer in the freedom of the press.

Not withstanding the serious shortcomings and the real harm sometimes perpetrated by the media, I believe in the role of responsible media in society- including in State building. I believe in state building no matter the hurdles or the handicaps. This is a challenging task that requires endurance and persistence. It is a choice- but it is a much needed and an urgent choice. I chose to believe in the culture of institution building; not in the ideologies of destruction. I believe in constructive endeavors not in destructive ambitions. I like the pleasure of building; I am fascinated with architecture; I am humbled by the patience of farmers as they prepare the crops for the next season. I like builders. I admire constructing.

So when I went back to Lebanon this summer, I detected an acute sense of eagerness to build. I detected a love for the challenge of building. I had not been back in six years, as I said. I went back after the elections feeling confident; but also concerned. I did not fear assassinations; otherwise I would not have taken along my 19-year-old daughter who launched her CD from Beirut at the Virgin Mega Store with TV Cameras recording the event. I would have been scared to expose her to danger. But in the beginning, I admit: I was concerned. What I was concerned about was harassment; the potential that someone who does not share my views may lose his temper or use rough language to express objection or make a point.

I am happy to report to you that no such thing took place during the one-month period I stayed in Lebanon. 

Once a young man turned to me and said: Sitt Raghida. We respect you but we wish you would listen better to our point of view and endorse it. After a short polite exchange of views, I left him with his friend arguing about which point of view I should be endorsing as they laughed off their differences...or maybe simply got in the habit of endurance of each others' differences. I feel that such an incident would have happened differently- maybe unkindly and even violently- had it not taken place this last summer.  Why? Because this last summer was quite revealing; revealing of the Lebanese and their legacy of resilience. People this last summer wanted a break from it all. They were disappointed but not disengaged. Politicians were changing color, shifting moods and alliances, manipulating each other, setting up traps, doing all the unpleasant and the unflattering work politicians normally do... but many Lebanese did not bother. There was a lot of disappointment- to be sure. Many dinner parties featured the usual preoccupation with the favorite topic- that of politics. But the striking thing was that familiar adamant insistence on the good life; that serious engagement in exploring how to perpetuate the mood not only for the sake of pleasure but also with a sense of civic responsibility. What I sensed in many circles is that interest and intent on the building of a community; the building of a society; the need and readiness for parallel efforts to help the State- not to negate it or undermine it. My heart grew when I heard that some in the private sector put their hands together and sponsored helicopters that would help the State put out fires frequently erupting in the mountains in the hot summer.

I was enormously delighted when a friend in Banking shared with me his plans to engage the private sector in creating and cultivating incentives so that people will turn the rooftops of Beirut into Green- flower gardens and vegetable gardens and pretty green houses. The city would turn so beautiful but as importantly the purpose of the project is to create the joy of partnering in such a project with people who never thought they could. I was enormously elated when I discovered the work of Lebanese designers of furniture, of homes, of clothes, of jewelry, of ideas, of social events, of futuristic projects and aspirations. I was enormously impressed by the pool of talent in Beirut- in design and style; talent in the world of the book, in the appreciation of the word.

Talent in the field of finance and media and of course in services and good food and beautiful parties and the clubs and the beaches and the mountains awake day and night. And then there was this explosion of festivals everywhere- Beittedine, Baalback, Tyre, Jbeil, Batroon. The talent on stage and the talent of living. Oh, the innovation; the inspiration; how enriching and how one feels so very proud. Oh, that impeccable sense of the pleasure of living ... that incredible resilience... that fascinating ability to silence the lack of stability with a display of security...Oh, that taste of fearlessness snatched out of the belly of fright  ...  that different call to Yalla- when picking up pieces. Those, my friends, are most powerful attributes for State building and for a healthy society. 

So obviously, it is quite maddening that Lebanon seems always at an intersection, suspended in sectarian strife and regional power- play. It is immensely puzzling that this country has such superior educational institutions- such as yours the AUB_ whose graduates are the best doctors and best financiers and best innovators and best engineers...and yet, when it comes to nation-building and civic responsibilities, something desperately goes wrong. It is striking indeed. 

I am neither a sociologist nor an anthropologist so I can only express puzzlement and a bit of dismay. I am sure many of you share this feeling. Many of us fail to understand why would a society so rich with talent allow such absurdities in a land so small and so promising?

We may be products of insecurity and fear; we may be haunted by our recent history and scarred by that ugly civil war of not so long ago; we maybe tortured by our self-indulgence and guilty of our indifference; we maybe be drawn instinctively to our so called natural zones; we maybe in denial. All of that should not serve as a pretext or an excuse for begging out of our duties. And it is our duty to think collectively and calmly about practical creative ways to reconfigure the system prevailing in the country.

Now, more than ever before, we can actually share in building the State of Lebanon for the better state of the Arab Region. Many of our politicians are wrong or weak or fickle or self-indulgent or on a mission. We have a clash of projects for the future of this country. In a way, we have to make a choice regardless of what religion or belief any of us has. We have the duty to choose. Politicians have put forward their projects- most of them as clearly as it gets. Each of us needs now to think thoroughly and for the long term.. and choose. We no longer have the luxury of sitting on the bench. The future of the State of Lebanon is in the balance. In fact, such choice goes beyond the future of Lebanon alone to touch the Middle East region at large. Lebanon, as you well know, is the laboratory for Arab thought and direction. Unfortunately, it is also the arena for proxy wars and power struggle for players in Middle East and beyond. Nowadays, there is- let's call it- a scent of Detente in the air. American-Iranian detente; American-Syrian detente; Saudi-Syrian detente; Saudi-Qatari detente; Palestinian-Israeli detente; and the historic Iranian-Israeli detente.

Good news. Let's see how we can get all this to work in favor of State-building in Lebanon.

Talk of "Constructive Engagement" dominates the political scene stretching from Washington to Tehran, from Ankara to Damascus. President Barrack Obama has already won the Noble Peace Prize mainly because of his vision of multilateral diplomacy, dialogue and persuasion. Our business is to put an end to the pattern of sitting idly by at the receiving end awaiting either instructions or the verdict from what we call regional and international decisions and plans. There is a unique opportunity for Lebanon to act differently now. Unique because one component of the international and regional Conversation is quite different in its approach and in its intent: that component is the style and content of the policy of US President Barrack Obama. Be it in the American- Syrian rapprochement or the American-Saudi cooperation on regional and international matters, Lebanon should be savvy, shrewd and confident enough to firmly knock doors in Washington and say: I matter. I am essential to the conversation and I need to be part of it. Unfortunately, such proactive thinking is missing because of the habit of playing second fiddle and settling in the receiving end.

In the American-Iranian detente, in the Iranian-International dialogue, in the discussion of regional arrangements or in the whispers of the Grand Bargain, Lebanon is an element and an arena that should not be left for others alone to decide. It behooves the government of Lebanon to force itself on the conversation. We have able ambassadors doing a fine job, but we need a policy that is proactive and enabling. Unfortunately, even the ability to form a government is crippled now either by players who have their own agenda or by the very nature of the defective democracy in the country. This void makes it all the more urgent and necessary for the civil sector of the society to play a role I believe is essential for the country’s recovery.

We Lebanese- Americans or Arabs living in the United States have a job to do. A job long perfected by other communities who have patiently carved their place on the political map. We need to learn what Iranians call revolutionary patience- as Iraqi President Jalal Talbani told me- and practice the art of impacting and effecting policy. Those at the mid level in government in Washington do not understand the complicated case of Lebanon in its internal dynamics and regional implications. We simply need to simplify it.

We need to deliver a perfectly precise and deliberate message that is: You play behind our backs; you take huge chances in perpetuating the dangers of a divided land of Lebanon. But if you take us seriously into account, you would engage our good will and help in a constructive partnership. Simply put, the endeavor should be this: We want to be part of the constructive engagement. We are an integral component of detente. We matter. This sort of concerted and consistent input would make an invaluable contribution to State- Building in Lebanon. We need to believe in the art of the possible. We can bring down barriers and construct new relations with persistence and clarity of purpose. But we must first care and dare. Nothing is offered on a silver platter. We all have a civic duty and we must change the habit of leaving the task to others.

Those "others" are not phantom creatures. "Others" are exactly the status quo you hate and complain about. "Others" is honestly a statement of our incompetence- if we continue to duck. This is not the case of inability; it is the case of inconsistency and impatience. It is a case of losing sight and not recognizing the value of great accomplishments in such a short period of time. Just look at the millions of Lebanese who took to the street and see what impact that demonstration has had on the State of Lebanon and its relationship with neighbors. Those demonstrations reversed the crippling notion that they would lead to a civil war or to a dissolved army. In fact it was historic that a government was brought down without one casualty at the demonstrations. Politicians wish now to reduce those events in order to serve their own limited and questionable agenda. But history has and will put these demonstrations in their correct perspective and will recognize their impact.

There is now a historic recognition of the independence of Lebanon by Syria and an exchange of Ambassadors between Lebanon and Syria. This, after those demonstrations led to the withdrawal of Syrian forces- peacefully. The list is long and the accomplishments are major indeed. We need to remember them in order to build on them and move forward. Moving forward would have to mean, necessarily, that the State of Lebanon defends and liberates the land of Lebanon. There is no place for two armies and for a Resistance Movement in a functioning state. Resistance, liberation, or negotiation should be the exclusive right of a Sovereign State. Parties or movements who claim the right to resistance undermine the State. One negates the other. It is as simple as that.

Israel should be forced to end its occupation of every inch of Lebanese land. That is the job of the State of Lebanon. Every pretext Israel has or craves must not be provided because the current Israeli government is reckless and eager to escape pressures to make peace with the Palestinians. That escape could be provoked or even planted by Israel to provoke in Lebanon- where Hizbullah's arms and missiles would be the ready excuse for Israeli aggression. We need to be alert and wise. This is the major challenge that threatens the stability of Lebanon and could lead to a disaster. Wisdom and prudence should lead us to make our voices heard loud and clear. We need to be frank and not afraid to speak up. This is not a sectarian issue. This is not about a sectarian strife. This is about the well being of the State of Lebanon. Challenges are numerous indeed. However, opportunities are also abound.

That scent of detente that I referred to earlier could land on local players in Lebanon. This could be an opportunity in the making. If Iran and the United States arrive at a Grand Bargain, Lebanon might benefit and Hizbullah might be ready then to be exclusively a powerful political party. But if the American-Syrian Detente is interpreted by Iran to be an independent step ahead by Damascus leaving Tehran deliberately behind, this might not play out that peacefully in Lebanon. I have always maintained that Hizbullah has only one way out- and that is through becoming a builder in the State of Lebanon and taking its rightful place in the political arena. Neither Israel nor Syria would allow a Hizbullah-run Lebanon not to mention the US and the world. So it is better to take the high moral ground, especially in the times of the Iran/US detente through taking the initiative. Either way, on the long run, there is no room for parallel army in any sovereign state. I would like to bet on the wisdom of all Lebanese players to spare Lebanon another round of consequences to rash and wrong decisions. But I may not be able to bank on it unless we the civil society engage and shape the debate. The Saudi-Syrian detente should not be viewed either as Lebanon's saviour or as Lebanon's demise. This Detente is yet another opportunity for the Lebanese to reverse the old course and to stand up and be counted.

Finally, many associate me with the work at the United Nations, which led to the establishment of the Special Tribunal for the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, and other political assassinations that the investigation proves had connections with the Hariri assassination. So I have this to say: those who question the virtue or the use of the Tribunal, I say, hands off justice; don't get caught putting the stick in the wheel; don't indict the process of justice because this would be a premature abortion of justice.

Let justice take its course.  Those who committed these crimes know what their choice: either to go on liquidating the perpetrators, or live sleepless nights. That is the importance of the Tribunal. Regardless of what disgrace some Lebanese politicians choose now to pile on the tribunal, it is a victory for Lebanon; it is a milestone for the whole Arab world and for the Middle East at large. It is a precedent and a necessary one at that.

Justice is not ala Carte. Look at the Goldstone report about Gaza and the bravery of Judge Goldstone and the likes of Human Rights Watch headed also by a Jewish man- Kenneth Roth. Both spoke out against war crimes- and probably crimes against humanity-   committed by Israel in Gaza. Goldstone made recommendations that would lead the process of accountability from the Human Rights Council to the Security Council to the International Criminal Court, known as the ICC. Only Jordan of all Arab countries joined the ICC. Now, they find themselves pushing forward a report that not only leads to the ICC but that also says that Hamas too committed War Crimes and maybe Crimes against Humanity. Justice.

Arabs dismissed the ICC and HRW when it came to Darfour. Justice should not be discounted. Justice is not for sale. And since we are in Montreal, let me say to Canada's son Daniel Belmare, the prosecutor in the Lebanon Tribunal: We count on you that justice is not discounted for any reason whatsoever. And please understand that your contribution to ending the era of impunity would not only save lives but will also do Canada proud.

So what I want to say to you distinguished alumni of the prestigious AUB is:

Take chances. Look at accomplishments. Dare to take your place. And look at the opportunities available to build the state:

Lebanon is the window to Syria's rehabilitation. It is the window for the Saudi regional role. A weak Iran is a chance for Hizbullah to break ranks A Detente between the US and Iran will have to pass through and be tested in Lebanon.

Now is the time to gather and organize differently with patience, less self-indulgence, civic duty, and a sense of citizenry. That is how we can make it. And you bet we can.

It does not require a revolution. It only takes the will to build. So, let's. Let's pull back our sleeves and assign us the pleasure of taking part in building up the State of Lebanon; this would be the most endearing salute to our beloved Beirut. Beirut-the capital of Arab thought and of innovation.

As a friend of mine wrote in his invitation to an innovation meeting this November in Brummana: Khalas Ba'aa...Other than politics, economy, law and other important matters the conference will discuss, there is this seminar on the agenda called: Sustainable Health and National Happiness.

Yes, National Happiness. I love it!!

Our common denominator is the destination of innovation- Beirut.  Beirut- the city that dares to host change and that endures our weakness. Beirut-the pleasure of a city, the pleasure of a life.

So thank you alumni of The American University of Beirut for the honor and the privilege tonight. 

And thank you Beirut.

 



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