Controversy struck Lebanon’s entrepreneurship community this past week, as prominent young Lebanese entrepreneur Abdallah Absi was expelled from the Global Entrepreneurship Summer School (GESS) for a political comment made two years ago.
The community came to his defense on Facebook as the summer school committee announced that Absi has been excluded from the summer program set to begin this Thursday, because he “openly and actively commented support of an online video of the burning of a flag, even offering a better copy of a flag burning video.”
The video in question, which has now been taken down, was posted on Absi’s Facebook wall when a third party tagged him when he was 17. He confirms that he had commented on the video, “I have a better one;” yet , he says, “I never said that I support the video. I wasn’t in the video, this video isn’t mine, and I never made a video. I just happened to observe something taboo that happened in my country.”
When he applied to the summer school on July 10th, Absi had no idea that the video was still on his wall. By attending the 8-day program, hosted by the Social Entrepreneurship Akademie in Munich, Germany, he explains, “I was hoping to share and brainstorm ideas to solve global challenges, to learn about the entrepreneurial ecosystem in advanced countries, and to meet and network with aspiring entrepreneurs- especially the 35 selected participants- and investors for any future enterprises.”
He was accepted by July 30th. The summer school, which begins on September 20th and draws from the support of entrepreneurship centers at Munich’s four universities, would have been Absi’s first trip to Europe.
Yet on September 7th, Absi received a message from GESS that he would be excluded, saying, “From the perspective of the Global Entrepreneurship Summer School, the action of burning a flag represents violence. Your video of burning a flag therefore strongly contradicts the Summer School’s entrepreneurial values as an organization that explicitly promotes peaceful societal change and is striving to actively discourage any violent actions.”
This same statement was reiterated to Wamda, as well as posted online in its official comment, which notes that “the exclusion is in no way meant to harm or discriminate against anybody personally, their gender, country, nation or religion.”
While the video was taken two years ago, “it was present on his Facebook profile a few weeks ago, at the time of our exclusion. We cannot compromise our core values and thus stand by our decision,” an anonymous GESS representative wrote Wamda.
Like his peers, Absi’s Facebook wall is not devoid of the occasional shared political photo or joke, but his focus is on entrepreneurship and encouraging Lebanese youth to change the world by launching startups, evident in posts about Startup Weekend Beirut and eClub, the organization that he co-founded last fall to promote entrepreneurship-related events for university students, including those at the American University of Beirut (AUB) and the Lebanese American University (LAU). Absi, who can often be seen sporting a Bluetooth headset, emblematic of his constant, energetic connection to the entrepreneurship community, says that at GESS, he wanted to “connect with social entrepreneurship activists that could be of support to eClub.”
“There's always a better and peaceful way to [express] views and ideas through harmless [actions],” he replied to GESS. “I dislike this behavior,” he said, referring to the flag burning. GESS has stood firmly behind its interpretation of his comment.
In a region where protest and change have dominated the climate over the past year and a half, it would be difficult to find a young person who has not expressed some variety of political opinion on their Facebook wall. When asked if the content of an attendee’s Facebook page is taken as an expression of the summer school, GESS Board Member Dr. Bernhard Katzy, a professor at the Leiden Institue of Advanced Computer Science in the Netherlands, replied, “No.”
The action appears to be a move to distance the organization from public political content rather than a motion to actively scrutinize or understand entrepreneurs’ private opinions. When asked if Absi was perceived as politically active, Katzy said, “He is politically active. He is continuing to post political comments on Facebook. We don’t want to be associated with political discussions; we are not a political organization."
Absi has continued to post about the overreaction of GESS, while friends and members of the entrepreneurship community have supported him by sharing his posts, commenting, and posting on the GESS Facebook page.
Katzy emphatically pointed out that the decision “is nothing against Arab countries.” The Global Entrepreneurship Impact Committee, which made the final decision, has no religious or ethnic agenda and has many Muslim members, he said, and the organizing team, which submitted the comment for review has “Muslims, Christians, Jews, and Buddhists” also without skew in national affiliation. The summer school finalists can be seen in its Google Hangout on Air session on September 28th.