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Fighting for reform in 22 countries, Stanford fellows get lessons in building democracy

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Andrea Sanhueza from Chile addresses the other fellows as Palestinian Bashar AbuZarour and Astghik Gevorgyan from Armenia look on. They joined 20 other pro-democracy advocates in this year's Draper Hills Summer Fellowship Program.
Photo credit: 
Rod Searcey

The demise of Moammar Gadhafi’s regime gave Abdulhafid Sidoun a second chance at life.

Six days before Sidoun was to be executed for promoting democracy in Libya, rebels toppled the government and emptied the country’s jails of its political prisoners. After more than five months of beatings and abuse on death row, Sidoun was free. Weeks later, Gadhafi was dead, gunned down by the rebels.

Sidoun’s fight to bring democracy and accountability to Libya is far from over. Qadaffi’s 40-year stranglehold starved Libya of political debate and evolution, and Sidoun knew he needed a crash-course in building an open, stable society. He received one this summer at Stanford, joining 23 other pro-democracy advocates from 22 countries in the Draper Hills Summer Fellows Program on Democracy and Development.

“Gadhafi is gone, but we still have a corrupt system we need to clean up,” says Sidoun, a Tripoli-based lawyer who waged a social media campaign to unite Gadhafi opponents. “My country needs me now. I have to work with my friends and colleagues and other lawyers and tell them what I’ve learned.”

Abdulhafid Sidoun was sentenced to death for trying to topple Moammar Gadhafi’s regime.
Photo credit: Rod Searcey

He has chronic back pain from the blows dealt by prison guards. And he winces when he talks about being torn from his family and isolated in a dark cell where he had no idea how – or even whether – the revolt against Gadhafi was unfolding until rebels broke him free.

For three weeks in late July and early August, Sidoun and the other fellows participated in faculty-led sessions on democracy, economic development, global health and hunger, human rights and the new technologies making it easier to organize and inspire reform. They took field trips to San Francisco and Monterey and met with officials at Google, Facebook and the Omidyar Network, a philanthropic investment firm that is contributing to the fellowship program.

And they spent time getting to know each other. Entrepreneurs, lawyers, journalists, politicians and civil society leaders sharing stories of overwhelming repression and the small successes they’ve had in trying to reform governments in places like Chile, China, Serbia and Zimbabwe.

“Everyone here has different stories and cultures, but we all talk about the same corruption,” Sidoun says. “We are learning that our problems are not very different.”

Fighting ignorance, encouraging debate

Now in its eighth year, the Draper Hills program – run by the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law at Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies – has created and grown a worldwide network of up-and-coming leaders.

About 200 fellows from more than 60 countries have passed through the program and are now trying to craft policy and bring about political and economic reform.

“Many governments in Latin America are suffering from very strong political leaders who were elected presidents but think they are little kings or queens who own the country,” says Laura Alonso, a national representative in the Argentine Congress selected as one of this year’s fellows.

“The main problem is that the people who become so powerful distort the rule of law,” she says. “There is a rule of law for their friends and a different rule of law for their enemies. So this is what I want to go home and address – how can we have a rule of law that applies to everyone? My time at Stanford is giving me the perspective I need to go back to the basics of democracy.”

The fellowship program also addresses the overlap of business and government, and has increased its emphasis on the role entrepreneurs play in building democracy.

"We have brought a few entrepreneurs into the group of fellows," says Kathryn Stoner, an expert on Russia who lectured to the fellows about democratic transitions. "It is good for them to know how to get around corrupt practices in government. We also know that a strong middle class is the backbone of democracy. Once people have property, they tend to want to protect it as well as to demand representation for any taxes they pay. Encouraging entrepreneurship then is a good way to pursue both economic and political development worldwide."

While they’re all at Stanford to learn, the fellows are eager to share their newfound knowledge.

Kamal Siddiqi uses his position as a newspaper editor to strengthen democracy in Pakistan.
Photo credit: Rod Searcey

Bassim Assuqair was raised in Yemen by parents who forbade him from working as a teenager so he could devote all his energy to his studies. After earning a degree in English education from Sana’a University, he has worked for various development organizations. But he’s most interested in organizing Yemen’s youth and teaching them about the benefits of living in a country with free elections and the rule of law.

“There is so much ignorance, so much illiteracy in my country,” he says. “The people aren’t bad. They’re simple. They need awareness. I want them to know peace. It’s my task – I am ordering myself – to explain to others what I’m learning here.”

Kamal Siddiqi is another self-styled evangelist of democracy. As editor of The Express Tribune, an English-language daily in Pakistan, Siddiqi uses the newspaper as a check on government power while making the case that “a very bad elected prime minister is still better than a very good dictator.”

As a Draper Hills fellow, Siddiqi picked up technological tips and made connections with Stanford faculty that will help him better monitor crime, corruption and his country’s upcoming elections.

“I want to draw on the strength of the faculty and fellows of CDDRL to write for my newspaper,” he says. “They will play a part in my attempt to introduce some more ideas and issues in the general debate on elections and democracy.”

A chance to reflect

When FSI Director Coit D. Blacker and a core group of FSI’s senior fellows – including CDDRL Director Larry Diamond, Stoner-Weiss, former Stanford President Gerhard Casper and Michael A. McFaul, now Washington’s ambassador to Moscow – created the fellowship program, they wanted to give practitioners a chance to reflect and learn about democratic theory.

"We felt that practitioners from developing countries or countries in political and economic transition often feel isolated in the work that they do and they burn out," says Stoner-Weiss. "There were no such programs for international practitioners when we began eight years ago. We wanted to provide them with a sense of international community and the knowledge that they are not toiling away on their own." 

And the lessons the fellows learn from Stanford faculty can be invaluable. When it comes to building a constitution – something several of the fellows grapple with – Francis Fukuyama says there’s only a certain amount of time for a newly formed government to “get it right.”

FSI's Gerhard Casper waves a copy of the Magna Carta while speaking to the fellows about the rule of law.
Photo credit: Rod Searcey

“If you don’t, your window of opportunity slams shut,” says Fukuyama, a FSI senior fellow who lectured to the group about economic development and governance.

“But you don’t want to invite more problems by not thinking through exactly what kind of government you want," he says. "You need to have a theoretical and academic perspective.”

And the learning goes both ways.

“I’m getting the problems and issues of 22 countries downloaded onto me in a very short period of time,” says Erik Jensen, a law professor and CDDRL faculty member who also helped start the fellowship program.

“The fellows bring important insights and opinions that don’t land on the front page of The New York Times, but are integral to understanding what’s going on in the developing world,” he says. “That’s pretty great to have in one room.”

Courage, risk and magic

After building momentum and attracting a growing number of faculty who wanted to work with the fellows, the program that began in 2005 quickly caught the interest of venture capitalist Bill Draper and philanthropist Ingrid Hills. Their $1.5 million gift gave the program its name in 2007.

Draper’s interest in the program is deeply tied to his background running the United Nations Development Programme between 1986 and 1994.

“There are wonderfully courageous leaders in this world who are willing to take risks,” Draper says. “It’s magical what can happen, and I’ve seen how one person really can make an enormous difference. A lot of people selected for this fellowship program have that opportunity.”

Hills anticipates the fellows will create a network that extends beyond the three weeks they spend together at Stanford. And former fellows plan to connect in Africa later this year to explore how to combat regional corruption and increase government accountability.

“My hope is that the program will give the fellows the knowledge and tools to build an infrastructure in their respective countries based on democratic principles,” Hills said.

Diamond, whose opening day lecture on defining democracy sets the stage for the learning that unfolds over the coming weeks, says the program ultimately invests in people with the potential to expand democracy.

“It gives them skills, ideas and comparative experiences to draw on,” he says. “Some of these people will continue to work in an important and incremental way to advance and defend human rights and the rule of law. Some will go on to have very prominent roles in government and civil society.”

Life sentence

Some of them, like Ethiopia’s Birtukan Midekssa, are already renowned political leaders whose stories underscore the most extreme hardships of building democracy.

Pardoned from the lifelong prison sentence she received for opposing Ethiopia's authoritarian government, Birtukan Midekssa is still fighting for democratic reform.
Photo credit: Rod Searcey

By the second time Midekssa was in prison, her daughter was old enough to ask if her mother was going to come home.

“I’ll be back,” Midekssa told the 3-year-old. But the promise was tenuous. She was serving a life sentence, convicted of trying to overthrow Ethiopia’s constitutional order. Her actual crime was promoting honest democracy in a country run by a government intolerant of dissent and dismissive of civil liberties.

She was first sentenced to life in prison in 2005. Her daughter was 8 months old and Midekssa – then a federal judge – was just elected deputy chair of the Coalition for Unity and Democracy. Her party had won a majority in parliament, but Prime Minister Meles Zenawi cracked down on the rising opposition. Midekssa and about 30,000 others were thrown in jail. Security forces killed nearly 200 demonstrators during rallies that began peacefully.

Midekssa was pardoned 18 months later, but re-arrested in 2008 after being accused of violating the terms of that agreement. She had also recently been elected chair of a new opposition group.

“They had me in solitary confinement and cut off from the entire world,” she says. “Sometimes I felt like the whole world was forgetting about me.”

It had not. When she was pardoned again in 2010, throngs of overjoyed supporters greeted her with shouts, songs and dance when she returned to her neighborhood in Addis Ababa.

But Midekssa was drained. Her party was weakened and her political prospects were uncertain. With few options in Ethiopia, she and her daughter moved to the United States in 2011.

“There was little I could do,” she says. “I wanted to learn more, study more and figure out how to establish democracy and stability.”

Landing a Draper Hills fellowship meant the chance to tap into a deep academic perspective and think about how she might take another pass at building democracy when Ethiopia’s authoritarian system shows some sign of opening up.

“She’s not a revolutionary in favor of violence or radical change,” Diamond says. “If the regime decides it wants to negotiate a process of political reform and put the political system on the foundations of greater legitimacy, she’s one of the first people they’d need to reach out to.”

But until they do, Midekssa will wait patiently. Studying. Retooling. Sharing her experiences. And repeating the promise she made to her daughter years ago:

“I’ll be back.”