DOHA—Passionate debates among student groups on various issues was a common feature of university life in Arab countries for years. But these spontaneous gatherings have become less common with the decline of student movements and the diminishing of freedom of expression in some Arab countries.
Today, this tradition is being revived with the emergence of formal debate clubs at universities. Educators value these groups as a tool for teaching critical-thinking skills, and students like them because they provide a rare opportunity for free expression and peaceful communication in the structured context of debate competitions.
“I have always felt that I have the capability to express opinions and arguments in a logical manner, and debates were the only available way to express my opinions out loud,” Bouthina, an Omani student and a member of Oman Debates Club, said.
Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates also have debate clubs or regular debate championships at universities.
Students join these clubs for different reasons, but the right to freedom of opinion tops the list.
“The way debate provoked my mind is what attracted me to join the club in the first place,” said Abdulrahman Al Kubaisi, president of the debate club at Qatar University. “In debates, there is nothing taken for granted. You can win a debate whether you oppose or support a certain position, provided that you are able to prove the argument you use.”
Qatar University’s debate club was established in 2008 to host debates in English. In 2011, it added a new section for debates in Arabic.
Qatar is also home to QatarDebate, a center that hosts an international championship for university students every two years. The center provides workshops and various activities to prepare students for debates.
Topics of debates vary from philosophical issues that aim to demonstrate the rhetorical skills of speakers, to current environmental, economic and political topics.
Recent debate championships discussed issues such as the economic boycott of Israel, Qatar’s diplomatic crisis with its Gulf neighbors, Syrian refugees, feminist movements, fast food and its impact on children’s heath, and the 2022 FIFA World Cup, which will be held in Qatar.
Growing Interest in Sudan
In Sudan, student debates are an old tradition. Friendly competitions are usually carried out in English in what are known as “discussion corners.” These informal outdoor gatherings have recently come under pressure as the government clamps down on dissent. (See a related article, “In Sudan, a Tradition of Campus Debate Is Threatened.”) But formal debate clubs have been growing in popularity on campuses.
According to Awab Abdel Hafeez, vice president of Sudan Debate Center, the spread of debate clubs that follow a clear model, train students as debaters, and have coaches and arbitrators, started taking off only recently after students created a Facebook page for the University of Khartoum Debate Club.
The Sudan Debate Center was later established as the first official body for debates in the Arabic language in Sudan, and included students from the University of Khartoum and Ahfad University for Women. The center then launched debate clubs at other universities.
Ayman Zuhair, a student at the University of Khartoum, thinks debate is one of the effective ways to counter student violence. Violent incidents at Sudanese universities have increased over the past few years, and clashes between students from different political or ethnic groups have resulted in serious injuries and even deaths of students.
“In Sudan, we desperately need to foster a culture of debate and conversation,” he said. “It will take time, but I believe replacing violence with words is a clear solution.”
A New Experience in Tunisia
Unlike Sudan, debate clubs at Tunisian universities are a novelty. They only started after the 2011 uprising. Today most universities in Tunisia have more than one debate club. Debates are carried out in Arabic, and to a lesser extent in English and French.
“After the revolution in Tunisia, there were a lot of discussions on several topics and youth were part of these discussions. This was something new to us,” Zahra Naji, a first-year student in medicine at the University of Tunis Al-Manar, said. But she was dissatisfied with the quality of many of these discussions. “I discovered that empty chatter that has no purpose makes these discussions worthless.”
When Naji joined a debate club last year, she immediately liked the experience and found it useful in helping her organize her ideas in a logical pattern.
“I learnt how to talk, how to assess my position, how I can be convinced of the counter position,” she said. “This is very important in discouraging intolerance, especially in light of the tension that characterizes many of the political debates taking place in the country nowadays.”
Muhammad Zain Raza, a former vice president of the debate club at Texas A&M University at Qatar, had a similar experience.
“I think debate had a lot of effect on shaping my personality. It made me more tolerant and flexible in my views,” he said. “Now, I am more receptive to new ideas, even those that go against the beliefs I’ve held for a long time. My communication and public-speaking skills also got exponentially better because of debating.”
A Tool for Critical Thinking
In Egypt, Salemah for Women’s Empowerment, an independent group that advocates for women’s rights and gender equality, co-founded “He and She” debate clubs to develop critical-thinking abilities in gender issues among university students.
Gihan AbouZeid, the group’s founder, said the organization hopes that changing the attitudes of young people may help build a more balanced relationship between women and men and achieve equal rights for both genders in future policies and laws.
“Youth may be more flexible in the adoption of the values of equality, especially after they experienced the  revolution and tasted the hope for change, which at some point was very close,” said AbouZeid.
For AbouZeid, debate also highlighted the shortcomings of traditional teaching approaches that are common in most Arab universities.
“Debates acted as a magnifying glass that revealed the weakness of our education,” she said. “Debates strongly exposed the failure of direct instruction that brought out young people who do not trust their mind and do not respect other opinions.”
But debate could be one way to improve this situation. A paper that investigated debate as a strategy for developing competence in communication and critical thinking found that debate helps students develop skills in researching current issues, preparing logical arguments, actively listening to various perspectives, differentiating between subjective and evidence-based information, asking clear questions, and formulating their own opinions based on evidence.
AbouZeid’s experience with university students in Egypt supports these conclusions.
“We saw that debates were not only effective in the gender issue,” she said, “but on the individual level as well. It helped youth think more deeply and analytically about different topics and improved their critical thinking capabilities.”