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A Profile of The Asfari Institute for Civil Society & Citizenship

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In a conversation with Status host and Jadaliyya editor Kylie Broderick, Dr. Dina El Khawaga speaks to 20 years of the Asfari Institute for Civil Society & Citizenship's initatives in the Middle East and North Africa. "[...] Usually we talk about civil society as a victim, and we want to do the contrary. We want always to underline the fact that there are a lot of success stories that we forget to tell about civil society and civil initiatives," says Dr. El Khawaga.

For more content from the Asfari Institute for Civil Society & Citizenship, visit their Status Hour partner page here.

More on Active Arab Voices, an initiative of the AICSC:

"Active Arab Voices" (AAV) is The Asfari Institute's window into its knowledge production and civil society engagement. AAV blog is a platform for making the activities of the Asfari Institute more accessible to a broader public  of concerned citizens and activists in the Arab region and beyond. It provides grounded analysis, working papers, as well information about events at the Asfari Institute, such as public lectures, panel discussions, book launches, and research workshops.

For more information, visit

Interview Transcript

KB: Dr. Dina Al- Khawaga, can you please introduce yourself for our audience?

DA: Ok. My name is Dina Al-Khawaga and I am a political scientist by training, focused on political sociology and social movements. I am, now the Director of the Asfari Institute for Civil Society and Active Citizenship based at the American University In Beirut where I’m trying to build a multi-focal institution that deals not only with civil society as NGOs, but that deals with civil society as civil action. Therefore, we have divided since I came, the institution in three different programs. The first one, that I’m taking care of, which is the Civil Society Law and Governance that deals with the use of law in contentious politics and the use of governance indicators in contentious politics by the social movements and by the states and vice versa. And the second program is dealing with the Syrian displacement and diversity and informality and we are focusing in this program that is managed by Dr. Saleh on the diversity of experiences of Syrians because we see in the literature that we tend to talk about Syrians in terms of numbers and waves and we lose the human factors in it. And we wanted to focus on the Syrian experience in Lebanon. We wanted to make the case of how Syrians are different according to where they are coming from, what kind of social environment are they coming from, what they are going through in Lebanon here, and the kind of mediation and exploitation they face in the Lebanese exodus that they live in. The third program is our newest one. It is one year old. And it deals with culture as resistance and it is managed by Dr. Hassam Abass. And in this program we tried to focus on cultural producers, individuals, and networks, on institutions of cultural production, be it formally structured or informally structured, be it civil or state regulated, and on what we call intergenerational expressions where we try to focus on unifying experiences or socialization experiences in some countries. For now we are working on, exclusively on Egypt, Yemen, and Tunisia and next year he will add three other countries and beside that, the support will work on the Asfari prize. The Asfari Cultural prize will give a small prize for a group or a person. Every year in a field, a subfield in culture and this year it will be short novels. Maybe next year it will be Graffiti or festival or popular songs or cooking or singing in exile. We want to engage with this part of civil society that no one engages with really. So as you see, we are far from the human rights focus and far from the NGO focus and we are trying really to construct a new object that we can call the Civic Actions.

KB: Yeah. I’d like to ask more about the Asfari Institute, but could you also tell us about how your own intellectual journey, both as a scholar and institution builder, connects with this mission. How did it bring you here? Your own journey to the Asfari Institute.   

DA: It’s a coincidence I must say. I am, as I said, a tenured professor of Political Science and Public Administration in Cairo University. I have always worked beside my teaching in think-tanks like the Dasidej, which is the ?? but in Egypt then I moved to the Ford Foundation where I built the first portfolio dealing with higher education and higher education policy and dealing with the idea of justice. How we can deal with justice when we produce policies regarding higher education in the Arab World. For seven years I have built what we can call the critical mass engaged in policy production and policy debates about higher education and the social justice question regarding the MENA region. Not only in Egypt. And then I moved to become the Director of the Arab Regional Office of the Open Society Foundation and it was the year of the revolutions and it was very hectic and for fourteen months I managed to work with more than 400 grantees coming from all sides of the war including ASI and Jadaliyya as well... in Syria, or women initiative in Yemen, or small shelters for the Yarmuk? People of Morocco. It was really the best of time, the worst of time. And after that I decided not to become a donor. I felt like I had some skills that are not used enough, which is mentoring a new generation of people to start their own networks and their own institutions. So I moved to something called the Arab Reform Initiative. It is a think-tank based in Paris. And there I managed a new program called the Social Mobilization Program. In the Social Mobilization Program there has been funded by both Carnegie Corporation of New York and OSF, Open Society Foundations. We have trained, me and five other mentors, up to 90 young scholars from the region for democratic transition, army civilian relationship, social movements, and new social movements, gender and gender equality and gender empowerment, and last but not least, the question of a Constitution and democratic transition as lived in the Arab Countries. When the program has left I applied to this job, and I found and they found that I’m well suited and well equipped to reshuffle this organization into a program driven institution that is offering or providing a new definition of what we call civil society in the Arab world. And that is working on reaching the academic questions to the activist concerns and vice versa on a daily bases and involving the regional level and not only the Lebanese or the Syrian one. Maybe I should tell you that since I came I’ve tryed to transform this organization from a very vertical institution which has a Director and Associate Director, Research Assistant, Junior Research Assistant into many programs, institutions, each one with its own team. And with a small core funding until they raise funds to hire more people and to build parallel programs, sister programs. Now we have three programs but maybe in five years time we will have more. We will have up to five programs that will be self funded and where the Asfari Institute will provide work space or part of the salary ect… I have tried as well to address the question of sustainability. It is the biggest question for many institutions in the region. So when I cam on board, I decided that we don’t have to wait until an endowment is built for the Asfari Institute to guarantee sustainability, but that will use the grants to pay part of our salary to build the endowment by ourselves and not through big wealth. And we managed to convince our main donor that he will be matching what we will raise over the coming five years. To have the sustainability, because you need by the end of the day to pay rent, to pay at least 3-4 salary to continue. And this is the real legacy that anyone can leave. So this is my benchmark of success. How to build financially a system that is a sustainable model and programmatically, to cover different ways of civil actions that are not studied enough in the region. When it comes to women, when it comes to students, when it comes to new generation and labor unions, professional syndicates, when it comes to cause lawyering, when it comes to strategic litigation, when it comes to digital online activists. All these forms that need to be addressed as new forms of collective action in the region.

KB: So you have a long history working in this field, clearly. Do you find that being housed at AUB and having access to a large body of students constantly has changed, challenged, or benefitted your mission? Is it a good avenue for events that you could address civil society as it grows up essentially?

DA: It is a process that is still in the making. We are working on building a minor with the Political Science and Public Administration Department. A minor that would be called Civil Society and Social Activism. Once we start this we will be able to reach more students and to mainstream these values and this idea of citizen education instead of civic education that was the trace of the post independent state. Now our main relationship with students are based on our internships. Now we have like seven to eight Interns each semester and sone GA’s as well, Graduate Assistants, Research Assistants as well. And we are very proud that we are very cosmopolitan. We have two young Syrians, one Saudi, one from Belgium, one American, and one Egyptian, and that’s it for now. And turnover is high. And they speak highly about their experience here because we ask them to pay the game and to be young researchers and to publish even to make interviews by themselves. To make some kind of surveys on who is publishing online in the Arab region or what are the forms of activism in a second, poorer city like Tripoli and the possibility of writing this as their first publication. And we believe in this kind of liberating/learning experience at AUB. Of course we will be able to make more, wider impact once we have the minor, but for now we count on our interns. Beirut is very free city and AUB is a safe environment. And having a safe environment to reflect and to convene and to debate is something that is becoming rare in the region after the fall or collapse of the Arab Spring.

KB: Other than financial, what do you think your biggest obstacle here is to the institute?

DA: I think I would say the stigma. The stigma of the Civil Society as a concept and as a framework. And  either level the stigma is stronger here than in other places. For many Lebanese, civil society means just Western driven vision or form of politically computation or being funded by the West and breaking the possibility of wider social revolution. And usually, where I’m coming from, you have to be concerned by the state restrictions or constraints. You have to face legal harassment, but you don’t have to do this with the stigma of your peers as well. And I would say that the pieces of civil society and that world are very diverse and the way civil society has been configurated, I think experiences is totally different from the way that civil society has been building on Egypt. That way it has been built around Labor Unions in Tunisia or about, you know, middle classes and in Morocco. And we need to understand this diversity in order to break this stigma. And we need the third way of dealing with public good and dealing with accountability, transparency, without especially accused of being Western or Western-like.

KB: So with events that you throw, who are you mostly targeting? Who do you want to bring in most of all to those kinds of events and situations and talks and lectures?

DA: A multiplicity of stakeholders. I think that in each event the benchmark of success is to have a diverse pool of audience. By that when we made a meeting, for example, on the crisis between Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, my main concern was to have people from Saudi Arabia, political leaders from Lebanon, who were trying to avoid the question of is the Prime Minister kidnapped or not. And students who are journalists and scholars. Work on the regional question and didn’t produce yet something on the new region profile of Saudi Arabia. So it was a huge success for me because it involved al these kinds of players in the same venue for 3-4 hours. It was a good debate. And usually the diversity is what comes most for us.

KB: Are their any subjects or topics that were off-limits in your events or in your programs?

DA: No. This year we talked about, in public events, about constitutional writing in Syria, about reconstruction in Syria, about the social mobilization in Egypt after 2/12/ 2013. About civil-military relationship and civil monitoring of military budget in Egypt and Turkey. On the Saudi Attacks and regional ambitions, on digital activists, on building a common news room for all online Arab journal activists on the international level. And the last thing was about how to study activism. How to study activism to map and analyze it. So I think we are quite diverse and without the taboos. And we must be very grateful to the AUB administration because we are really very autonomous.

KB: Given the current funding situation, which never happens to any of us, but given it, what would be your ultimate vision for your place amongst the social fabric. As a conversation facilitator or would you be generating?

DA: We will be disseminating knowledge through mapping and analysis. Because people do not map, do to see what’s around. So disseminating knowledge about what we mean by civic actions and by civil actions and not only by civil society as it is as a pre-ready concept and to value these collective actions taken by used, by women, by workers, by minorities, by neighborhoods, and by grassroots. And to convert it into a dignified object of research in social sciences which is still very marginary, especially among Arab scholars. The second thing is to provide training materials for those that are starting to work within collective actions. To become a hub that is providing services, literature, some skills building. The third thing is to offer this platform where people can come and talk. And just remind internal and external observers that other narratives are still not heard in the region, about the region, and by the social actors in the region. And I think these three overlapping objectives are division in the ideal world.

KB: Who do you find your most solvent partners are? Who are your best partners?

DA: It depends. Sometimes there are sister organizations like ASI or Hassan Farris Institute for Public Policy or Carnegie Beirut. Sometimes it’s with the NGO’s who are working on oral history and documenting oral history and are experiencing it so our role is to collaborate with them to scale up this approach of building up alternative narratives. Sometimes there are new forms of activism like cause lawyering or online journalism that are escaping the increasing constraints in the Arab world and trying to build, to raise awareness through new mediums and new ways. So I would say these three types of people are our natural partners. And of course scholars.Sometimes it is difficult to get scholars really interested in working on collective action and leaving their comfort zones like labor unions, or political parties, or the corrupt state.

KB: And to become activists.

DA: And to become interested in really working imparently with activists on the ground and see what does it take to build new enterprise of social entities and overlapping ties to society, to religion, to society, to ethnicity ect… We want really to all the time to be in master-frames of mind. So the sectarian state in Lebanon, or the military state in Egypt, or conflict zone in Syria. We don’t see actors and they do not matter. I think the main objective of Asfari is to continue to raise the voice of these actors and what they are doing to see how far we went over the last 20 years in overcoming what we can call the post independent state with its social contracts. And that there is a new era that is still in the making. But if we don’t follow these social actors in their small enterprises, we will never see how new contracts will be written in the coming decades.

KB: It sounds like to accomplish this mission you have to have a strong network of grass roots activists or maybe just intellectuals. Where do you find these people? Is it your own organic connections? Is it a networking, or are there any other ways that they contact you?

DA: They contact us, we contact them and usually, there is a dire need for people like us who are scholars, and who can provide space and provide as well mentorship and guidance. So be it mostly Lebanese and Syrian, because we are based in Beirut, or be it with Tunisian, and Moroccan, and Yemeni, and Egyptian, they come to us as well as we go to them, but we have this genuine interest in studying and in understanding each enterprise like legal agenda in Lebanon, like megaphone who are kids of 22-25 years old who are monitoring the elections for their own sake. And we value these initiatives, and we believe as a team that usually we talk about civil society as a victim. And we want to do the culture. We want always to underline the fact that there are a lot of success stories that we forget to tell about civil society and civil initiatives.

KB: Is there anything else you would like to share for our local, regional, or international audience about the work you do directly, or indirectly?

DA: I think we have to just be proud of our new program called Social Activism Arab Observatory that is combining four components. The first one is the first online social activism library where we are trying, over five years, to have five hundred people, activists, giving their testimonials about the way they get involved in social movements. And this would be publicly available for anyone to make a PHD or an MA in that. Or to start from this and go to talk to people from all the Arab world on the way they engage with social activists. In the second fold of this Observatory is what we call the ASAP. ASAP is the Arab Social Activist Program. It’s a two-week training on concept and skills on twenty to thirty Arab young leader with previous experience in activism where they reflect on their activism and they write case studies. And with them we write what we call the trending. So the case studies with the trending are annual social activism report. And this is the way we are building research object and put it out in the region. And the fourth thing is the minor or the MA that we are initiating right now with AUB to get it done. And with these four components we will have this first observatory that is pushing for social activism as way of studying collective action in the region without stigma, without revolution as well or revolutionary movement. This is something that I wanted you to keep an eye on in the coming months and years.

KB: I’m interested in your trending reports. Where do you collect this data from? Is it just qualitative data from your members on the ground, or your partners on the ground, or is it more social media driven? Or is it, you know, data driven?

DA: It will be based mostly on the stories that the 20-30 trainees will bring to the table. And we will help them to have this collaborative discussion to rewrite, in a better way, better case studies and based on that we will decide what are the major trends in the region each year. Maybe it’s the end of the NGOs, or maybe its choosing for example movements, maybe the disengagement, maybe the non-politics as a political solution. We want to go into base trending this year. On the 20-30 active people, but don’t forget that this is our first year and we have already got 125 essay written by 125 Arab young.

KB: That’s amazing.

DA: Yes, and it’s our first year so we were impressed by the scale of need for this kind of concepts and skills and windger? with other. Because Yemini activists are so isolated from the Egyptian and the Tunisian and this kind of despair and fatigue is overwhelming and by coming here and staying at the dorm for three weeks and having like 18 trainers and lecturers, they have a kind of boost on how to reflect on the last year. How to become more powerful in dealing with their peers and keeping their work despite the barriers and restrictions and the stigma. Sometimes high-risk activism.

KB: Do you find that certain locals are more interested in participating? Do you have a higher volume of people coming from certain places?

DA: Yes of course. In a number of contexts or national contexts where you have political restrictions more than others the need is higher. We saw that because we got another education from Yemen, Tunisia, and Egypt, and nothing from Lebanon for example.

KB: Wow that’s surprising especially because that’s where you’re based.

DA: Yes, exactly. We all got from Lebanon was the Syrians based in Lebanon which means a lot as well.

KB: Where can we go to find out more about you?

DA: On our Active Arab Voices, it’s a blog that we maintain with our Youtube channel having all our pubic events, and our public book launch, and other interviews that can be found on

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