In a corner of a university campus in Beirut, long before the Arab Spring and even before Lebanon’s Civil War, student activists would gather together to speak out about the most compelling issues of their time.
“They were the best years of my life,” says Suhail Muasher, a Jordanian who attended the American University of Beirut from the late 1960s through the mid-1970s.
AUB’s Speakers Corner ran from 1969 to 1974 as an impromptu outlet for students to speak openly on a diverse array of subjects, ranging from tuition fees to the Palestinian cause. Three years since its relaunch, it is being embraced by some as a platform for reinvigorating frank speech but criticized by others as a watered down, regulated version of its former self.
“I think [Speakers’ Corner] was good for the campus, not just for Lebanese students. A lot of students came from Arab counties that didn’t have any political freedom,” says Muasher. “When you come from a country with only one newspaper, it’s a highly positive experience.”
Lebanon has long been an oasis for political expression in a region where dissent has largely been suppressed.
Around the time the platform was first introduced, one young Palestinian stood up and said, “Come out and say it ... Come up and say whatever you want to say.” That student, Hanan Ashrawi, later went on to become a politician and a spokesperson for the Palestinian people.
Founded by AUB students after a trip through Europe, Speakers’ Corner was based on the concept of the same name at Hyde Park in London, where passersby stood up and spoke about any topic they liked. The one at AUB, located beside the Milk Bar, a popular student hangout, provided at outlet for letting off steam and venting frustrations.
“People talked about what they believed in – a better life in the [Palestinian refugee] camps, democracy and free speech,” recalls Ibrahim Khoury, who worked as a journalist at the time and who reported at the end of the week on the issues that were discussed.
“You didn’t hear people talking about religion at the time,” he adds.
Today, the Speakers’ Corner is supposed to be held every Wednesday in the same area. Specific topics are chosen for discussion, which first have to be approved by the administration, instead of the impromptu style of the weekly gatherings where anyone could say anything.
However, Hani Hassan, instructor at AUB’s civilization sequence program, who has moderated the speeches five times since 2009, says the event is canceled almost as often as it is held because topics are either not approved or put forward.
Last week, the topic of discussion was the Arab Spring, a phenomenon that some believe actually started in Lebanon with the popular protests in 2005 that led to the withdrawal of Syrian troops that had been stationed in Lebanon for 29 years.
Speaking to The Daily Star before taking the podium, 22-year-old electrical engineering student Anthony Geagea described Speakers’ Corner as “a manifestation of democracy, an opportunity to express your opinions and counter others in an environment without repercussions.”
Tarek, an engineering student from Syria, who declined to identify himself further, says that the ongoing uprising in his home country is “not merely about freedom. In the last year, the behavior of the Assad regime has come to light outside Syria, but we have been being killed for 40 years.”
He adds, “If we stand together, maybe we can make a change.”
But not everyone is on board with AUB’s new Speakers’ Corner platform.
“It’s a watered down version of the Speakers’ Corner. It doesn’t really count because it’s sponsored by the university,” says Makram Rabah, a former AUB student council member and author of “A Campus at War: Student Politics at the American University of Beirut 1967-1975.”
Two years ago, he returned to an inauguration of the revived Speakers’ Corner, but says he was disappointed by the involvement of the university administration in the project.
“The mere fact that there is consensus rule takes away from the spirit. People used to talk about everything,” he says, noting that the original platform was started and backed by students, while it is now done in consultation with the administration.
“Back then, the students forced it. They had more power and legitimacy, and they had a louder voice. Even the administration had to roll with the blows. Today, you can’t step up and talk about electricity,” he says.
Rabah also laments that AUB’s reinstated Speakers’ Corner is open only to students.
“One thing I think is weird is now there’s a podium with an AUB logo, which wasn’t there before,” he says, noting that the university’s original Speakers’ Corner often hosted activists from outside the campus. Notable speakers included Leila Khaled, the prominent Palestinian activist, who was part of the group that hijacked TWA Flight 840 from Rome to Athens in 1969. They diverted the Boeing 707 to Damascus.
Speaking at the original Speaker’s Corner in 1970 Khaled famously declared: “I could speak in English, but since I’m at the American University of Beirut, I’ll speak in Arabic.”
Hani Hassan agrees that the new platform perhaps lacks the spontaneity that the previous one did. But he argues that the regulation of topics helps give the discussions focus, otherwise it could be “all over the place.”
He acknowledges that the conversations are “not as vibrant” but “at least it’s something ... At least we don’t have clashes, and people can voice their disagreements at the podium.”
Talal Nizameddine, associate dean of students at AUB, says a considerable amount of discussion took place before reinstating the Speakers’ Corner, and the regulations were designed not only to prevent clashes, but also to stimulate discussions.
“If there’s something someone wants to talk about, we’ll put it on the agenda for the next week,” he says.
“It’s not that things can’t be said. But I think times have changed.”
He says he sometimes hears old-timers talk about how people would get up and talk about anything, including one man who was notorious for his discussions of philosophy.
“Sadly, I don’t think anyone today would take the time out to listen for philosophy for 20 minutes.”
These days, the original Speakers’ Corner at AUB has become all but a memory, with many students never having heard of it and others not aware that it has been reinstated.
At the start of the event last Wednesday, students were hesitant to come forward, prompting moderator Hani Hassan to exclaim: “Does the Arab Spring not concern you? Step up and speak your mind.”
Standing near the event, Ali Jaber, a 19-year-old biology student, asks, “This is Speakers’ Corner? I’ve been here an hour and I didn’t realize. They should advertise more. Sorry, I need to go. I’ve lost my girlfriend.”
Meanwhile, Muasher, who has just served two years as the president of AUB’s alumni chapter in the Washington DC area, says the original Speakers’ Corner is “something that will stay with me for the rest of my life.”