*Karim Emile Bitar (KEB) is a Senior Fellow at Institute for International and Strategic Relations, IRIS and Editor at L’ENA hors les murs, Paris, France.
Hivos: How and when did you come to know about Hivos' Knowledge Programme Civil Society in West Asia?
KEB: A few months after the beginning of the Arab revolutions, at a time when academics and policy makers were trying to make sense of the ‘acceleration of history’ that was taking place. I remember stumbling upon the thoughtful policy paper entitled Regional Perspectives on the ‘Dignity Revolutions: How Middle Eastern Activists Perceive Popular Protests. It was an interesting and important text because it analyzed the multidimensional nature of the revolutions, and looked simultaneously at politics, history, economic development problems and at the new media revolution. The paper did not succumb to the then prevalent cyber-utopianism fad, and it clearly stated that-contrary to widely held beliefs in that early phase of the Arab Spring- what was going on was not a Facebook revolution or a Twitter revolution. After analyzing the various dynamics at play, the paper also offered sensible recommendations. But it was only 18 months later that I got to meet the author of that paper, Kawa Hassan, and that I became more familiar with the programme. If I remember correctly, it was in March 2013, when I took part in an interesting conference on the Regional Implications of the Syria Crisis, held at the Casa Arabe in Cordoba. It was actually a workshop organized by Hivos and FRIDE, with the support of the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. There were about 20 academics and policy experts participating from several countries. We were given a series of publications (policy briefs, working papers, etc.) that dealt with a number of sensitive issues (the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Political Islam, Syria, the gender debate in the Arab World…). I remember reading these papers late at night in my hotel room. They were objective and pertinent, free of the usual academic jargon, and they drew from multiple disciplines to make useful recommendations to policy makers.
Hivos: What is your assessment of the impact and relevance of our publications?
KEB: In today’s context, these publications are more important than ever, because it is becoming increasingly difficult to find independent and balanced analysis. What is going on in the Middle East is also a clash of narratives, within a context of intense polarization and politicized media. There is an ongoing battle to shape perceptions of what is happening in the region, and a lot of publications are biased or have a clear political agenda. In the seven or eight Hivos publications that I read, I was always impressed by the fact that they did not try to impose a point of view, but rather managed to remain neutral, while defending the values of pluralism and democracy.
Hivos: Which publication in particular did you use in your work, how and why? Who is the target group?
KEB: In addition to the above mentioned paper by Kawa Hassan, during the past two semesters, I have assigned 3 Hivos publications to the masters students of my International Relations classes at IRIS, and to students of my permanent education evening classes These students hail from all walks of life, and are often mid-career civil servants with an interest in the Middle East. The papers assigned were:
- “Refugees in the MENA Region: What Geopolitical Consequences?” by Barah Mikaïl
- “Engendering Syria’s Transition”, by Kawa Hassan and Boriana Jönsson
- “Foreign-Funding After Tunisia’s Revolution”, by Kristina Kausch
Hivos: What would be your advice for the programme in order to further improve its impact and outreach?
KEB: I was happy to see that some of Hivos’ publications are written in Arabic or translated into Arabic. And vice-versa, a few scholars who wrote in Arabic were able to reach a wider audience that way thanks to Hivos. I think this should be encouraged.
I also think that these papers should be disseminated more proactively on social media. They should also be sent to Western journalists to help them get a balanced perspective on the ever-changing Middle East landscape.
Keep up the good work!
Karim Emile Bitar