Beirut Exchange Program

In January 2018, Mariya Ilyas F’18, a Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy alumna from The Fletcher School, participated in the 19th Beirut Exchange Program. Organized by the news website Mideast Wire, the Exchange is an enrichment program consisting of conferences centered in different cities around the Middle East. Mariya availed this opportunity with funding from the Center for Strategic Studies, the Fares Center, the Academic Dean’s Office, and the Tufts Provost’s Office.

Ilyas, who has a keen interest in Middle Eastern politics, remarked, “The Beirut Exchange was an incredibly immersive academic and professional opportunity. Academically, I broadened by perspective on contemporary Middle Eastern politics by participating in engaging debates and discussions. Professionally, as an aspiring diplomat, I gained insight into the complexity of Lebanese politics and its strategic connections to the rest of the region.”

The Exchange brought together a diverse group of 12 professionals whose backgrounds included media, academia, journalism, non-profit organizations, and governmental organizations. Participants attended a series of lectures led by prominent academics, politicians, journalists, analysts and civil society activists from Lebanon and the wider region. Discussions centered around contemporary themes which included, among others, protest movements in Lebanon, the Syrian conflict and its regional implications, Syrian and Palestinian refugee crisis, the United Nations role in Lebanon and the region, and deployment of sectarianism in national politics.

Ilyas focused on international security, international business, and global maritime affairs during her studies at The Fletcher School. “I was particularly interested in asymmetrical warfare such as the July 2006 Lebanon War, arms trade and underground financial networks, as well as maritime sea routes as they relate to regional geopolitics,” said Ilyas. “I was amazed that the program agenda included all this and more. Although days were long and exhausting, I found the discussion topics to be very comprehensive.”

In addition to participating in engaging discussions, Ilyas presented an academic paper titled “The Facebook Revolution: How and Why the Tunisian Uprising Succeeded” which she wrote for a Fletcher course called Civil Resistance: Global Implications of Nonviolent Struggles for Rights and Accountability. In the paper, Mariya argues that Tunisia, the first uprising in the Arab Spring of 2011, achieved democratic outcomes not because of Western intervention but rather modern technology.

Ilyas, an editor at the Harvard Journal for Middle Eastern Politics and Policy, wrote multiple analytical pieces for the online publication before her departure to Lebanon. She said the Exchange gave her new topics to contemplate. “What surprised me the most was the intensity of the anticipation for the May 2018 General Election, which would function under the updated electoral law. Politicians and Lebanese citizens, alike, are sitting at the edge of their seat uncertain about the future of their country.”

The Exchange lasted ten days and included a day trip to Tripoli, an hour north of the capital. The itinerary was filled with meetings and lectures with high-level political figures of all the major parties in Lebanon, as well as UN representatives, scholars and activists.

“There was little time for tourism, but a group of us took advantage of our evenings to explore downtown nightlife, admire the juxtaposition of mosques and churches, and indulge in delicious Lebanese cuisine,” recalled Ilyas. “I fell in love with the creamy hummus, fresh tabbouleh and perfectly seasoned moutabbal, also known as baba ganoush (an eggplant dip mixed with tahini).”

As a Thomas R. Pickering Fellow, Ilyas joined the U.S. Foreign Service after graduating from The Fletcher School. “The Middle East is a fascinating region, with a beautiful history, culture and people,” said Ilyas. “It would be an absolute honor to serve in the region one day as an American diplomat, so that I can be a part of the efforts to strengthen ties between the United States and Middle Eastern countries.”

“I know I will draw from the knowledge and network I gained through the Beirut Exchange Program for years to come,” said Ilyas. “And I am very grateful to Fletcher for supporting me with this learning opportunity.”

Leave a Reply