Can the President Bechara el-Khoury Prize for Democratic Awareness Modify Lebanon’s Educational Landscape and Foster National Unity?

Nélida Nassar   5.20.2016

If there was any doubt that the festival programming and awards season was in full swing in Beirut – earlier today International Baalbeck Festival launched its 60th annual season – this afternoon brings the announcement of the winners for the Bechara el-Khoury Prize for Democratic Awareness. This is the second time the prize has been awarded, and the ceremony was held at the Beirut Bar Association. As the art world grows larger, art can look smaller when compared to a grassroots initiative for democracy awareness and state- building. Several impressions from this radical and serious initiative that reflects positively on the event remain strong.

One of the greatest challenges in post-conflict countries is establishing a constitutional order and democratic governance. An important legal instrument in the formulation of order and governance is a national constitution. Constitution-making and instilling an understanding of democracy would require major efforts in any country, let alone a post-conflict one like Lebanon. They present a myriad of challenges in terms of expertise, resources, and logistical support. What better way to begin such an undertaking than by teaching the country’s youth about democracy and the role of constitution making in building a strong, viable state?

In a country whose codes of conduct and ethics have been dangerously undermined, the purpose of this new award could not be more appropriate: to help rebuild a safe and prosperous nation. For this process to succeed, we must teach the younger generation about the place of culture in creating national unity and begin an honest and vigorous dialogue among the country’s contending factions.

President Bechara el- Khoury, one of the nation’s Founders and its first elected president, sought to nurture democratic institutions and emphasized the importance of prudence in the application of just principles. He advocated a progressive, even idealistic internal and foreign policy but remained pragmatic, seeking the best course in light of particular circumstances. Prudence, he believed, was essential: one must weigh the possible consequences – long- and short-term, harmful and beneficial – of Lebanon’s actions and not act impulsively, not even in pursuit of a just goal. He also fostered the spread of freedom and self-government within the framework of a national pact. It is very fitting that the prize bearing his name, established by his son and grandson, Mr. Michel and Mr. Malek el-Khoury, be one that is awarded for the encouragement of democratic awareness.

Supported by the Lebanese Ministry of the Higher Education and partially financed by the European Union Delegation to the Republic of Lebanon, the contest for the prize was open to students of both private and public secondary schools across the country. It consisted of two parts: a written test, which was passed by 66 students, and then an oral exam that narrowed the field down to the ten winners.

These ten students, eight young women and two young men, will spend an educational, cultural and political full week at the European Community headquarters in Brussels that is celebrating its 66th anniversary. They will have the opportunity to visit its different agencies. This experience should help spark in these youths a desire for state-building to help Lebanon achieve control over its territories, to gain the loyalty of its disparate populations, to create durable, centralized institutions holding a monopoly over the legitimate use of physical force, and to motivate their constant critical thinking. We wish that the recipients of the Bechara el-Khoury Award will take some of the first steps in this inevitably arduous process finding creative and viable solutions.

The winners were presented with a handsome diploma in recognition of their scholarship along with their plane tickets for Brussels. Several speeches were made, interwoven with national songs, joyously sung by the University of the Antonine Choir. It was an inspiring afternoon, giving the audience hope that the winners will enthusiastically assume leadership positions in Lebanon and dedicate themselves to a disciplined attack on our common problems and to the hard work of forging enduring democratic institutions.