First Arab Liberty Festival signals new promise for region

Arab Liberty Festival 2015

Top left: Jonas Dougnon (Mali); Moctar Kome (Mali); Said Bahla (Morocco); Matt Warner (United States); Adel Dhari (Tunisia); Wissem Zrelli (Tunisia); Kassoum Coulibaly (Mali); Kathy Washburn (United States); Fred McMahon (Canada). Bottom left: Cindy Cerquitella (United States); Patrick Mardini (Lebanon); Khouloud Alkhatib (Lebanon); Manali Shah (India); Ait Kharouach Mustapha (Morocco); Sara Daly, (Tunisia).

Beginning in the end of November, Atlas Network partner Arab Center for Scientific Research and Humane Studies convened the first Arab Liberty Festival in Marrakesh, Morocco. The festival stretched for more than 10 days, drawing participation from countries such as Lebanon, Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Mali, Syria, Oman, and Turkey.

Participants joined a variety of events, including an ideas colloquium, a resource bank, a Google training, an economic freedom report summit, and Atlas Leadership Academy’s Think Tank Start-up Training.

Cindy Cerquitella, director of Atlas Leadership Academy, leads a workshop discussion on donor meetings as Atlas Network board member Kathy Washburn prepares to role-play to give participants extra practice.

The start-up training took place over three days, giving young think tank leaders an intensive crash course in the fundamentals of honing a mission, crafting an effective strategy, and achieving impact — all for advancing the ideas of liberty.

Patrick Mardini, for example, recently founded the Lebanese Institute for Market Studies to reshape the future of his country with free-market policies. Mardini earned a Ph.D. in economics at a university in Paris and worked for several years in finance there. He decided to return to Lebanon to teach finance and to launch his new effort. He believes that he can energize students and like-minded professors to spread the ideas of liberty, with a public policy focus. He described the challenge as part of his winning speech during the Arab Liberty Festival elevator pitch competition:

In Lebanon, the garbage is in the street, and the government forbids us from collecting garbage. We suffer from electricity shortages and the government forbids us from producing electricity. We pay the highest telecom bill in the world and the government forbids companies from entering the sector and selling us telecom services at a low price. This is theft. … The Lebanese Institute for Market Studies aims to restore economic liberties in order to allow anyone to open any business. And we won’t stop until we downsize this sectarian and corrupt government.

Atlas Network Executive Vice President of International Programs Dr. Tom G. Palmer presents prize checks of $1,000 each for the best think tank projects to Patrick Minardi (left) of the Lebanese Institute for Market Studies and Ahmed Abd Elwahab (right) of the Egyptian Center for Public Policy Studies.

Mardini’s approach mirrors the advice given by Atlas Network’s executive vice president, Dr. Tom G. Palmer, during remarks he delivered as one of the festival’s featured speakers.

“The choice is not between idealism and realism,” Palmer said. “We must choose both if we are to succeed. We must pursue our ideals of freedom, justice, peace, and the rule of law, by offering realistic and workable solutions to real problems. History shows that successful reformers are simultaneously idealistic and realistic.”

The Rabat-based Arab Center team including, from left, Dr. Nouh El Harmouzi, Mohamed Tamaldou, Ikram Adnani, Aziz Mechouat, Dr. Moutassim Belghazi, Jamal Aourraz, Rachid Aourraz, Ahlam Qafas, Kathya Berrada, and Souad Adnane.

A former candidate for president of Mali, Kassoum Coulibaly, is working to bring the ideas of liberty to his country as practical solutions that can be quickly implemented. Coulibaly, who has spent his career coaching and training entrepreneurs, applied to attend the training because he is a strong advocate for free markets and wants to expand his institutional work to advance those ideas at home.

“Our participants all demonstrated a real passion for their work,” said Cindy Cerquitella, director of Atlas Leadership Academy. “It’s inspiring to learn about their vision for change in the Arab world. We’re grateful to Dr. El Harmouzi and the entire Arab Center team for tirelessly making connections to build the network here.”

Atlas Network board member Kathy Washburn listens as Moctar Kome, executive director of Audace Libre Afrique in Mali, seeks feedback on his plans for 2016.

The Arab Center was founded in 2013 in Rabat, Morocco, with the dual mission of providing a resource for national policy reform and conducting outreach to galvanize like-minded allies in the region. The inaugural Arab Liberty Festival represents the early fruits of their efforts and signals a promising future for the growth of the network in the Middle East and North Africa.