[This post has been updated to include videos from the inaugural conference. They are embedded below the introduction.]
Founded in November 2012, the Asfari Institute for Civil Society and Citizenship at the American University of Beirut (AUB) held its inaugural conference, “New Spaces of Civil Society Activism in the Arab World” this month. The conference took place in partnership with the Arab Studies Consortium (Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University and the Arab Studies Institute at George Mason University) and Legal Agenda Beirut. Invited participants, whose backgrounds spanned academia to grassroots movements in the Middle East and North Africa, discussed and debated the broader theme of civil society in a multitude of ways.
[This report was prepared by the Arab Studies Institute`s Samia Errazzouki. Click here for the full schedule and list of participants.]
In the context of ongoing transitional junctures in the Middle East and North Africa, the timeliness of the Asfari Institute’s inaugural conference revealed the urgency of addressing the limitations placed upon civil society in the region, as well as questioning its boundaries. In his opening remarks, AUB provost Ahmad Dallal highlighted an overarching theme, which was how changes in the region, even in countries that did not necessarily experience an uprising, are reformulating politics of inclusion. This reformulation of inclusionary politics, as noted by several conference participants during each panel, comprises a double-edged sword. In an authoritarian context, though a politics of inclusion often hinges on cooptation, it can also be a way for members of civil society to exert agency and participate in setting the agenda.
The boundaries of civil society are fluid as is its composition, and varies depending on context. This is true for the region as well. Civil society in both Bahrain and Palestine, for example, are shaped by its own respective conditions. Factors such as the political landscape, socioeconomic conditions, and external forces, among others, contribute to the multi-faceted nature of civil society. This was evident throughout the conference. Additionally, as participants from across the region shared their experiences and perspectives emerging from either research or participation, it was clear that despite the uprisings that overthrew various governments, the same pervasive forces that sparked widespread dissent remain entrenched in the region. Among these forces are neoliberal institutions that operate beyond the confines of government buildings, which renders the replacement of a former president or ruling party ineffective in changing the dominant political economic order. Keynote speaker Rashid Khalidi argued that the Gulf petromonarchies continue to remain one of the most significant geopolitical challenges facing civil societies in the region.
Given the widely authoritarian context from which civil societies in the Middle East and North Africa emerged, their presence and activities merit analyses through nuanced and multidisciplinary lenses. Conference participants rooted in academia brought together historical, social, political, and anthropological perspectives that offered sound critiques and analyses. Common critiques centered on the “NGO-ization” of civil societies, raising the issue of funding and their sources, at times influencing the positions and activities of civil society groups. More broadly speaking, however, general questions were posed such as: how does one define civil society? What are the constraints of civil society in an authoritarian context? What factors shape the discourse on civil society, but also what discourse do various civil society actors adopt? Meanwhile, those involved with grassroots work and activism on the ground shared their experiences and offered their own visions of what civil society is and the direction its going in light of the ongoing transitions in the region. From countries that continue to experience uprisings, to those that overthrew governments, members of civil society hold a significant position that not only pushes powerful actors in their respective countries to adhere to the path of transition and reform, but also provide an alternative to the dominate(ing) narratives.
For a full summary of the conference, below are sections broken down by panel and keynote address with highlights and general summaries. Throughout the course of the two-day conference, there were four panels (two on each day), with keynote addresses between each panel. The conference concluded with a roundtable of the keynote speakers. Follow this link for the conference’s schedule along with a list of speakers. The Asfari Institute for Civil Society and Citizenship’s Twitter account also features highlights from the conference.
[The tweets that appear below are not direct quotations by the presenter. They are paraphrased in real time and might not always reflect accurately the intention of the speaker. The video that will be released provides the actual words that are paraphrased herein.]