During the recent Legislative Fellows Program, twelve Egyptian, Libyan and Tunisian delegates visited Colonial Williamsburg, a restored 18th century community that educates visitors about the founding period of America.
The visit prompted dialogue about citizenship and democracy, and how the early history of the United States resonates in North Africa. Thanks to Legacy’s partnership with U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation graciously hosted the fellows as VIPs and treated them to an inside look at the goings-on about town as the nation teetered on the brink of revolution against the British regime. Costumed actors portrayed central characters in the community, including James Madison and Patrick Henry as they work on the Virginia Declaration of Rights, and George Wythe as he prepares to leave for Philadelphia to sign the Declaration of Independence.
Ammad, from Libya, found the issues of slavery and unjust taxation to be the most interesting issues facing the country during the revolutionary era. In fact, he said that prior to this visit he was not familiar at all with the American revolution, and found the trip to be a great learning experience.
The group was fortunate to hear from Colonial Williamsburg foundation president Colin Campbell, and engage in discussion with resident scholars and historians Taylor Stoermer and Jim Horn. These discussions illuminated key issues which were being discussed during the founding era and highlighted inherent tensions between some of the values at the core of the new nation of America.
The visit prompted some important questions about what lessons the fellows, future leaders of their countries, can take from America’s story. Among the issues discussed, the question of how to balance the interests and voices of the majority and minorities was a central question, and one that any democracy must face.
Though time, space, and some details are different, there exist some striking parallels between the experience of Arab Spring countries and the US at the time of the nation’s founding. Despite the deep differences prevalent in the early United States, the country was able to develop a strong and lasting democracy. Conflict and tension, however, have always been part of our governing system. This shared experience provided hope to the fellows that their countries could emerge from the current struggles and establish accountable, representative governments.
It will be inspiring to see how the fellows incorporate the historical and theoretical lessons learned during their time in Colonial Williamsburg into their activities back home. Combined with what they have gained from their fellowship placements in Congressional offices and advocacy organizations, Legacy is hopeful there are many skills which can be translated into positive, effective change in their home countries. Legacy looks forward to partnering with the fellows going forward to support their initiatives and is ready to offer practical assistance.