Muwatin Institute for Democracy and Human Rights at Birzeit University launched its 26th annual conference in cooperation with the Heinrich Böll Foundation - Palestine and Jordan. The conference was launched on Friday September 25th 2020, under the title “When Will the Smile Return to Our World?”, and it was convened through Muwatin's Youtube Channel, with the participation of many researchers and academics from around the world.
In his opening speech, the President of Birzeit University Dr. Abdullatif Abuhijleh welcomed the attendees and commended the solidarity of participants from outside of Palestine. Abuhijleh emphasized the importance of the conference that addresses issues linked to the difficult situations that the world is going through in general and Palestine in particular, renewing our confidence in the ability of science to confront problems. He referred to the important role that Muwatin Institute plays in addressing and debating intellectual issues as well as local, regional and international concerns. He also touched upon the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic crisis on all sectors and on higher education in particular.
The Director of Muwatin Institute for Democracy and Human Rights, Dr. Mudar Kassis, welcomed the participants and attendees of the conference in his opening speech. Kassis indicated that the sentiment of being confident in a future with a smile is an expression of our confidence in liberation from colonialization and overcoming the pandemic. Kassis presented his vision regarding the necessary conditions to achieve these aspirations, which include, among other things, the importance of solidarity between peoples and building alliances based on mutual interests rather than identities. This is in addition to the necessity of practical criticism that does not in its essence distribute tasks to others as well abandoning any negotiations based on the conditions of dominant powers. He also warned in his speech that the small elite benefiting from the current situation in the world will fiercely defend its survival and dominance, leading to a fascist world, and that we have a duty to confront it.
The Indian historian Vijay Prashad, Executive-Director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, and a co-founders of “Progressive Internationalist”, made a keynote address titled “An Agenda for the Global South after COVID-19.” Vijay addressed the economy of countries of the global south following COVID-19 and the need to address the global pandemic by expanding medical solidarity through the development of solutions that optimize the use of its precious resources. According to Prashad, this is to be carried out with the purpose of strengthening education, public medical training, establishing intellectual commons, getting rid of debts, and enacting controls that kerb the encroachment of capital.
In the first session titled “Manifestations of the Crises in the Arab World”, Tunisian Associate Professor at Paris Dauphine University Dr. Héla Yousfi talked about “National Sovereignty for Arab Countries: A Utopia?”. In her paper, she addressed the Arab revolutions and their demands that remain unfulfilled on the ground and how people are still struggling to find political, economic and social solutions. Yousfi points to the return of national sovereignty to the political agenda of Arab countries and the possibility of if the state remaining a subject of analysis in a region suffering from wars and neoliberal transformations.
In her paper “The Unconventional Imperialism Requires an Unconventional Left”, Lebanese writer and researcher Dalal El-Bizri addressed how traditional imperialism has weakened as a result of conflict among its different powers, indicating that the pandemic has exposed the system that had been described as entrepreneurial. El-Bizri pointed out how some leftists subside to Shiite fundamentalism in prioritization of enmity towards traditional imperialism and Zionism, which In her view has lead the abandonment of leftist social and political concerns. El-Birzi raises the question on the nature of a left that is capable of confronting imperialisms that combine traditional and modern forms.
The second day of the conference commenced with a keynote address by Rajesh Tandon from India, the Founder- President of Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA), titled “Reimagining Futures Where All Lives Matter: Participatory Democracy in Post-pandemic Era.” He proposed a re-imagination of a future where everyone lives, pointing to many issues, most notably, the high death rates in the western capitalist regimes, the vulnerability of infrastructure due to the pandemic, especially the health sector, and the authoritarian and centralized electoral democracies. Tandom also presented some solutions to get out of the current crisis with minimal losses.
The second session titled “The Future of Capitalism” was chaired Dr. Lisa Taraki by the director of the PhD programme in Social Sciences at Birzeit University. Dr. Raef Zreik, Scholar and professor of Jurisprudence, presented the session’s first paper titled “Populism and Hannah Arendt.” Zreik compared current populist movements with totalitarian movements from the middle period of the previous century that Arendt described and the resemblance we feel to phenomena we are currently living through with the expansion and domination of populist policies and movements. Zreik raised a question on the possibility of populist conflicts transforming into totalitarian movements. He also examined the nature of the crisis in liberal thought in the past century compared with its current crisis.
Dr. Mustapha Kamel Al-Sayyed, Professor of Political Science at Cairo University, presented the second paper of the session titled “The Crisis of Capitalism under the New World Disorder”. Kamel discussed the main dimensions of the present crisis of the capitalist world, namely the COVID-19 pandemic, recession in the world economy and the deterioration of environmental conditions. He explained his point of view that it will be difficult for the global capitalist system to collapse, which means the continuation of the current crisis, which neo-liberalism has paved the way for.
Dr. Rana Barakat, faculty member at Birzeit University, chaired the third session titled “The Depth of the Crisis.” The first paper, “The Repositioning of Political Corruption in the Current Global System”, was presented by Dr. Basem Ezbidi, faculty member at Birzeit University. Ezbidi outlined the most important structural features of political corruption that accompanied neoliberal transformations in recent decades, analysing its new positioning formulas in the future, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic. He also addressed reflections on the positioning of political corruption and its effects on humanity, both politically and environmentally.
The second paper was presented by the Associate Professor of Law at the University of Windsor in Canada, Dr. Reem Bahdi, entitled “Is International Solidarity Possible across the Redeemable-irredeemable Divide?”. In her paper, she discussed how people have been classified into groups across time and space. She explains how in each instance a group is deemed morally deficient, it has a counterpart, one that faces the same life conditions but whose circumstances are defined as the function of external circumstances rather than inherent trait. Laws were passed to reflect all of this. Bahdi raised the question of the possibility of using law to build the international solidarity we need to get closer to justice and bend the arch of history.
The third session was concluded with a paper presented by Dr. Kwadwo Appiagyei-Atua, Associate Professor in School of Law at the University of Ghana, titled “Forging an African Governance/Human Rights Identity in a Post COVID-19 World Order.” It is feared that a new post-COVID-19 emerging world order may also pass Africa by and cause it to remain on the fringes of this new order. This concern is anchored in the way in which governments, backed by security agencies, have performed in a number of African states during the COVID-19 crisis in seeking to balance individual rights and community interests. Appiagyei-Atua explained that the new laws enacted, the new directives given, and the new measures imposed, will transcend the emergency and become the “new normal”. This tendency will definitely dilute the quality of democracy and respect for human rights and the rule of law.
The third day of the conference continued on Sunday September 27th, 2020 and commenced with the conference’s fourth session under the title “Current Reality and Possibilities of Change”. The session was chaired by the journalist Bettina Marx, Head of the Heinrich Böll Foundation – Palestine and Jordan located in Ramallah. The first paper was presented by Dr. Sami Khatib, postdoctoral researcher at Leuphana University of Lüneburg in Germany, titled “Violence, Capitalism, and the Spectre of Fascism.” In this presentation, he explained that the “exceptional” violence of fascism cannot be understood without analysing the “normal” violence of capitalism as violence is an inherent feature of class-based capitalist society. He relied in his paper on Frantz Fanon’s analysis of the reality of colonial violence. Fanon grasps the spectral omnipresence of colonial violence as an asymmetric and dialectical. Khatib posed the question of how early Frankfurt School’s theory of fascism can help us in understanding today’s situation of neoliberal fascism and autocratic forms of contemporary capitalist domination and sustains capitalist reality in its systemic or “normal” functioning.
The second paper “Civil Resistance and Nonviolence” was presented by Dr. Haytham Manaa, the President of the Scandinvian Institute for Human Rights in Geneva. He explained in his paper the global system that was characterized by the multiplicity of the patterns of violence practiced against those who were placed in the position of "the enemy”, always resorting to violence, be it military or economic. He explained that resorting to violence, whether by the oppressor or the oppressed is devastating to the vulnerable peoples. Manaa raised the question of whether nonviolence and civil resistance can be adopted by civil societies as the common method of struggle against the so-called shortage of “self-immunity” in the periphery and the most vulnerable societies during the slow transformation process in the global system.
Dr. Adam Hanieh, a faculty member in the developmental studies at SOAS, University of London, presented the third and final paper of the session, titled “Gulf Capitalism and the Changing Global Political Economy.” Hanieh discussed the status of countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council, especially following the emergence of oil and associated financial surpluses, as central to the balance between global powers and the functioning of modern capitalism. He also discussed how these features have shaped the development of the state in the Gulf, which is linked to a powerful class of Gulf business conglomerates that have come to dominate all moments of accumulation. Hanieh raised the question what this internationalisation of capital might imply for the Middle East’s place in the shifting dynamics of the world economy. He also noted the high level of dependence of Palestinian capital on the economy the Arab Gulf states.
The faculty member and former director of the Institute of Law at Birzeit University, Dr. Jamil Salem chaired the fifth and final session titled “Features of a Future.” In this session, Gilbert Achkar, Professor of development studies and international relations at SOAS University of London, presented a paper titled “But When Was Our World Smiling.” Achkar addressed the social and political achievements that peaked in the 1960s, a decade that witnessed the rise of national liberation movements, great successes in decolonization, the steadfastness of the Vietnamese people in the face of the American aggression, in addition to the “cultural revolution” in China and other movements. Generally, during that decade, the world witnessed high rates of economic growth and societal development. In the 1960s, the world was indeed smiling, its youth were optimistic and looking towards a bright future, while he noted that the Arab hope was inconvenienced due to the Nakba and the Naksa. Achkar pointed out that the age of COVID-19 comes after forty years of neo-liberalism that witnessed the dismantling of many social achievements acquired in previous decades, the shifting balance of global powers and economic transformations characterized by obscene exploitation and growing inequality. At the end, he raised the question on the possibility of the new generation regaining the ability to smile and hope again.
The second paper in the fifth session, “The Arab World after the Pandemic,” was presented by Dr. George Giacaman, a faculty member at Birzeit University. In his paper, he discussed different opinions and expectation on the shape of the world after the COVID-19 pandemic. He explains how some see that the world will witness a major globalized economic recession, while others argue that this will generate a global conflict between conservative forces seeking to prevent or contain change and mass movements that will rise or re-emerge. Giacaman expressed his that the Arab world will not be detached from this conflict, which began at the end of 2010 in Tunisia and then in Egypt and with other Arab revolutions. He explained that the Arab world will now witness, due to additional impoverishment and destitution, a return to a third stage of uprisings and revolutions in which Arab countries that have led the counter-revolution since 2011 will be aligned.
The closing keynote at the conference was presented by the Professor of law and history at Yale University in the United States, Dr. Samuel Moyn, entitled “The Fall of Welfare and the Rise of Human Rights.” In his paper, he addressed the issue of the rise of neo-liberalism coinciding with the flourishing of human rights discourse, and the decline of socialism on the one hand. On the other hand, the retreat of western countries from welfare regimes and their tendency to substitute human rights in the place of welfare. Moyn pointed out that the promise of human rights will not be fulfilled without the economic and social components of the human rights’ system and without giving equality the primacy in future projects.
Many discussions took place throughout Muwatin’s 26th conference, through which the attendees focused on the conference themes, especially the global changing political economy, the successive crises and the requirements and options available for change, as well as the future of the world and the Arab world specifically post COVID-19.
All sessions are on Youtube. Here is the opening session in English.