Sowing seeds of freedom in the 'Arab Spring'

Scheme aims to bring 100 PhD students to UK to influence region's leadership. Paul Jump writes

June 30, 2011

Credit: Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters
Answering their call: Young leaders of Arab uprisings want 'Western life'

A British professor and a Finnish Nobel prizewinner have responded to the "Arab Spring" by setting up a PhD scholarship scheme that they hope will instil "freedom of thought" in the next generation of North African leaders.

John Martin, professor of cardiovascular medicine at University College London, and Martti Ahtisaari, former president of Finland and winner of the 2008 Nobel Peace Prize for his work on conflict resolution, hope to raise £15 million to bring 100 doctoral students from Tunisia, Egypt and Libya to UCL and other top UK universities.

The pair originally intended to fund students from sub-Saharan Africa to study at UCL, from which Mr Ahtisaari holds an honorary degree. But their plans quickly evolved in response to the Arab Spring - uprisings that started as protests at the end of last year and have thus far led to the ousting of Tunisia and Egypt's autocratic rulers.

"We thought: 'This is a historical opportunity to bring young people from North Africa to help form the new leadership of those countries,'" Professor Martin said.

The scheme is being directed by a House of Lords working group chaired by Mr Ahtisaari, who will also use what Professor Martin called his "super international connections" to approach state bodies, foundations and philanthropists for funding.

Professor Martin, who is the project's academic lead, said he was talking to other elite UK universities about hosting some of the students, 20 of whom he hopes to see begin their four-year courses in 2012-13, followed by 40 in each of the following two years.

To avoid corruption, most of the candidate selection will take place in the UK, based on standard academic criteria plus "some assessment" of applicants' leadership ability.

There will be no restriction on the topics studied because, in Professor Martin's view, the most important thing was for the students to experience the "freedom of thought" inherent in doctoral work.

Professor Martin is hopeful that Mu'ammer Gaddafi, the ruler of Libya, will be ousted by the time the scheme is launched next summer. If not, eligibility would be restricted to candidates from the parts of the country controlled by the shadow administration based in Benghazi, which is "very enthusiastic" about the scheme.

Once the project is up and running, eligibility may be extended to other Arab countries that throw off autocratic rule, and eventually to sub-Saharan Africa.

Professor Martin said that even if the students did not return to their countries after graduation, they would still influence them "from afar". He also denied that the scheme amounted to the imposition of Western values.

"We (in the West) believe that democracy and academic standards are good and transferable, so we should treat them like fresh drinking water," he said. "The leaders of the Arab uprisings are young people who want Western life, including (its) philosophical principles. The argument that we should let them stew in their own wrong."

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