2012 Conference Summaries


Keynote Address

Session Title: Keynote Address
Keynote Speaker: Ahmed Benchemsi, Journalist and Stanford Visiting Scholar
Moderator: Rima Berns-McGown

Ahmed Benchemsi's keynote address urged the delegates to understand the Arab world, in particular the challenges its people and the secularist movements confront. He appealed for what he called "secularism from within" to replace the hypocrisy and double-think that defines what people across the Arab world understand themselves to be.

He described how Muslims who live by modern secular values are an under-discussed reality in the Arab world, where people are compelled to mentally divorce how they actually live from how they believe people ought to live.

Across the Arab world - despite laws prohibiting everything from premarital sex to alcohol consumption - a powerful sub-culture practices these activities while suffering from a overwhelming sense of guilt for not living up to the ideals encoded in their laws.

So how does a culture live with these contradictions? Benchemsi answered that it is done through an "insane internal dialogue by which Islam is not the defining paradigm of Arab societies - hypocrisy is."

From Benchemsi’s experience, the best way the Arab world can overcome this schizophrenic internal monologue is by authentically describing the present - he describes this concept as "secularism from within." In other words, they should describe the lives they live, expunge the guilt felt for breaking and disobeying unrealistic rules, and adopt the label of secularism to cultivate the individual freedom that is inextricable from democracy.

 He concluded that secularism from within is really honesty from within. He believes that is what young secular Arabs should begin practicing, for "a society based on lying and cheating is not sustainable in the long term". Honesty is a revolutionary force. If secularists can label and practice honesty, who knows? They might win. (watch video)


The Battle of Ideas: Democracy, Dignity, and Human Rights?

Session Title: The Battle of Ideas: Democracy, Dignity, and Human Rights?


Jens Hanssen
Nour El Kadri
Bessma Momani
Hind Aboud Kabawat
Moderator: Candida Paltiel

 Moderator Candida Paltiel began with an introduction that touched upon some of the wider issues central to the Arab Spring, including the historical context to the revolutions and its expected trajectory.

 Dr. Jens Hanssen introduced the idea of the “third revival” and explained the historical significance of the term by describing the work of Elias Khoury, the Lebanese novelist, playwright, critic, and prominent public intellectual.

 Khoury's thesis centered around the cultural, literary, and intellectual revival that took place in two distinct episodes known as the first and second nahdas, or revivals, during the mid-19th century. Hanssen emphasized the need to re-visit Khoury's work in order to understand and acknowledge the necessity of a "third revival" hand-in-hand with the Arab Spring that would strive towards democracy, doing away with "old language" of out-dated political rhetoric and a desire to overthrow military rule. Such a cultural and intellectual revival based on these three principles would serve as a pivotal component in the emergence of a stable Arab world.

 "Arab culture found itself a captive of the past" said Hanssen, reflecting on Arab intellectual thought in the aftermath of the defeat of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

 Without a heavy dose of pragmatism and realism, argued Nour El Kadri, such a revival wouldn't succeed. He went on to explain that due to the death of "Arab exceptionalism", a revival could very well thrive in a post-Arab Spring era. Furthermore, said El Kadri, the Arab Spring was not, in fact, Arab, but could have easily been called an "American Spring", referring to the influence and interference of foreign entities in the revolutions.

 "There were around us plenty of symbols of what success should be" said Bessma Momani about the urban landscape in Jordan in the 1970s and the growing grievances over mismatched expectations. She pointed out "the elephant in the room", saying that the conspiracy theories revolving around Western intervention in the Arab Spring were simply inadequate in explaining the fervour and passion fuelling the uprisings and the demands of the people. She pointed out that over the last few decades, citizens have grown to resent their regimes, not just because of the lack of transparency and accountability, but primarily because of the gap between what citizens earned and what they believed they "deserved".

 Hind Aboud Kabawat argued that Arab citizens in a post-Arab Spring era must be committed to empowering themselves and their communities as a crucial ingredient towards building a stable future for the region. The main demand of the Syrian people, indeed of all the Arab people, is simple, she said. "We want dignity!" (watch video)


Couchiching Award for Excellence in Public Policy Leadership - Summary of Remarks by David A. Dodge

Speaker: 2012 Recipient - David A. Dodge, OC, FRSC


As a little boy, David sat at his parents’ cottage across the lake from Geneva Park and would tune into the Couchiching Institute’s proceedings over CBC radio. Sixty-five years later and still connected to the Conference, David has been selected as the recipient of the 2012 Award for Excellence in Public Policy and Leadership.


Just as new governments in the Arab world will have to deliver or be held accountable, David believes delivery is also the essence of public policy and administration. He has worked for decades to address the challenges facing Canada in the areas of health policy, fiscal policy, monetary policy, financial policy, and the labour market. He believes that today Canada faces unprecedented structural and long-term challenges in preserving our economic and political union. For example, today’s Canada has six have-not provinces, which represent over two-thirds of the national population, putting the remaining four have- provinces in a difficult position. This is exacerbated by the structure of equalization payments provided for under the Canadian Constitution, with Section 36(2) stipulating the exclusion of natural resources from these equations.

 David believes the solution to these problems requires us to focus less on equality or comparability and more on quality and adequacy of public services, less on federal transfers and redistributions, and more on federal investments that will create more income and build the fiscal capacity of today’s low income provinces. Pursuing policies that generally promote positive provincial convergence and development of competitive manufacturing and service industries ultimately depend on the strength of all provinces, especially populous Ontario. In working through our upcoming challenges, Canada must look beyond the narrow confines of equalization payments and transfers in Section 32, to the broader objectives of Section 36(1).

 In the coming years, both the government and Canadians will collectively have to face these challenges, and as David stated, “it’s going to require the sort of discussion, debate, and compromise that we have here at Couchiching.” (watch video)


The Position of Minorities in the Arab Spring

Speaker: Rami Khouri, Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut


 Rami Khouri started Friday’s early session speaking on the position of minorities in the Arab world, in light of the processes of Arab Spring. He shed light on the bigger picture driving political and social change. Khouri’s central point espoused a very pluralistic vision of minorities, yet he believes what majorities and minorities want from the Arab Spring is the same – to express their grievances, have trust in their institutions, and use the changes brought along with the Arab Spring as a diving board to assert their rights as citizens, not just as minorities in their respective countries.


Khouri began his session highlighting that the issue of minority issues – of women’s rights, religious minorities, and gender, for example – is much too narrow. The real significance of minority issues is of two historic phenomenon, something he notes has never happened before: self-determination and the birth of the modern Arab citizen. Both phenomena in light of the Arab Spring bring forward the process of national self-determination driven by the people for freedom and dignity on the one hand, and with the desire to be citizens and shape the political landscape and the institutions, on the other.

 Khouri takes Egypt’s case in particular to highlight that what the Egyptians are experiencing is the equivalent of the processes of national self-determination that the Western countries have also gone through, the difference being that this has happened in only a span of eighteen months in the Arab world. These processes include not only the legitimization/re-legitimization of democracy and its institutions, but also identity politics and the issues of balance of military and civilian power. Additionally, it is accompanied by the quest for social justice – the single most important driving force in the region – along with economic well-being and a demand for a new social contract. For example, the issue of civil rights, voting rights for women, and communal and individual identities have all together defined the struggles of minority issues. However, Khouri is also cognizant of the added repercussions that the Arab-Israeli conflict have in the Arab world, the remnants of colonialist structures, the continued interference of global powers in the region, and how this has influenced the processes and challenges of the Arab Spring.

 In the end, Khouri questioned how the Arab world can protect the rights of its minorities while asserting the will of the majority. He ended his speech highlighting that the most important phenomenon is that various groups are visible in the public space competing for politics for the first time and, with the birth of the modern Arab citizen, this has ultimately led to the birth of politics itself. In the still early stages of the eighteen months of the Arab Spring in Egypt, the checking and balancing of competing groups such as the military, Islamists, and regular citizens on Tahrir Square has provided the impetus for public debate, on not just minority issues, but a whole range of issues, something that has never been done before. (watch video)


Tweeting and Covering the Revolution

Ali Abunimah
Lillie Paquette
Mohammad Al Abdallah


The "Tweeting and Covering the Revolution" panel tackled the important issue of the role that information communication technology in general, and social media in particular, played in the Arab uprisings. The debate included heated discussions, but by and large, the panel agreed that social media was an accelerator rather than an instigator of the demonstrations that swept throughTunisia,Egypt, and elsewhere.

 Ali Abunimah, co-founder and executive director of the Electronic Intifada, started out by drawing references from the welcome address given by Sharon Stinson, Chief of the Chippewas of Rama First Nation. The right for self-determination of Palestinians and other Arabs in the region is strikingly similar to the same freedoms and rights that First Nation groups inCanadahave been calling for. With regard to referring to the Arab uprisings as “Twitter and Facebook revolutions”, Abunimah warned the audience against being seduced by the power of social media. Internet penetration in theMiddle EastandNorth Africais still very low, and social media is therefore in its infancy. Nonetheless, social media should also be seen in its historical context, as a medium of communication that builds on past ones. Two past media inventions that affected previous revolutions were cassette tapes during the Iranian revolution, and pamphlet printing during the French Revolution.

Filmmaker Lillie Paquette started her presentation by discussing her documentary on the revolution inEgyptentitled “We areEgypt”. The documentary supports Abunimah’s thesis that social media did not trigger the revolutions, but helped to accelerate, publicize, and expand them. Bassem, the main character in the documentary, said that “if it was not for the blackout that President Mubarak imposed, the Egyptian revolution would not have taken place.” The blackout drew the youth out of their homes as they had to investigate the events that could not be covered any longer by the social media. Paquette pointed to the problematic role ofU.S.government funding both government dissidents and the Mubarak regime that was infringing on the same human rights for which the dissidents were calling.

Mohammad Al Abdallah, a Syrian activist and Human Rights and Pro-Democracy researcher, focused onSyriaand the role social media played in expanding the revolution, particularly inSyriawhere he was a blogger. Like Abunimah and Paquette, Al Abdallah argued that social media did not instigate the revolutions, but strongly contended that the media coverage of the Syrian government’s aggressions diminished its support in the international community. He said that the Syrian opposition was “very clever” in using Youtube.com to reveal the shocking crimes of President Assad’s regime. The coverage provided by citizen journalists through mobile phones and satellites provided an alternative to the state-controlled media, and a powerful counter-narrative that became increasingly difficult for the government to ignore. (watch video)


And Afterwards…

Mohammad Fadel, Faculty of Law, University of Toronto
Tyseer Aboulnasr, Egyptian-Canadian Activist and Professor of Engineering
Patrick Martin, The Globe & Mail

Moderator: Adam Redish, Chair, Executive Committee, CIPA

Summary: This session examined the uprisings of the Arab Spring, primarily in the Egyptian context. The panellists stressed the need for practical political action by Egypt’s new government to address urgent economic needs and social disparities. The speakers painted a picture of a turbulent political landscape where the power structures of the old regime remain intact, and the potential of the liberal movement to gain democratic prominence remains undetermined.

For Mohammed Fadel, the root cause of the Arab Spring uprisings is oligarchies, or systems of governance prevalent across Arab states in which autocratic leaders managed to “extract a huge surplus for them and their cronies”. As such, he considers the Egyptian uprising to be first and foremost an anti-oppression movement, but one in which the protestors – which he calls the “The Tahrir Coalition” – possessed diverse interpretations of the uprising and its goals, ranging from removing Hosni Mubarak, to moderate reforms, to social revolution.

Fadel warns that it is “a mistake for Egyptians to think they can make a clean break with the past”. If emergent political powers refuse to engage with the entrenched elites who benefited from the old regime, Egypt will find itself in a political and economic stalemate. Instead, Fadel urges that government focuses on concrete actions to build civil trust and avoid economic collapse. In place of the old oligarchical structures and untenable economic inequalities, Fadel urges Egypt to adopt a social democratic model that emphasizes strong markets and the redistribution of resources.

Based in Cairo for the last year, Tyseer Aboulnasr has experienced firsthand the tumult of Egyptian politics. Aboulnasr credits the voices of young grassroots activists, such as Asmaa Mahfouz, with framing the stakes of the uprising in terms that were accessible to the Egyptian people. Egypt’s secular and liberal forces have fallen short post-uprising because of their failure to link their politics with the desire for essential rights that Aboulnasr posits motivated the uprising – the desire for bread, freedom, dignity, and social justice. The liberal forces have fallen prey to the trap of “allowing the competition to define you” as, according to Aboulnasr, the Muslim Brotherhood’s identification as Islamists has resulted in the popular perception that opposition parties are “secular” or “godless”. If they are to compete with the entrenched elite institutions or the influential Muslim Brotherhood, liberal political parties must communicate their message in language that is accessible to the Egyptian electorate. 

As a journalist on the ground, Patrick Martin saw young, liberal protestors fail to translate their influence into organized political power in the post-uprising period. Martin describes how, in the complex dynamic between protestors, the military and the Muslim Brotherhood, it is the latter that has assumed tenuous authority in post-uprising politics. While the Muslim Brotherhood initially remained aloof from the protests, the stage for their leadership was set when they demonstrated their capacity to organize effectively and protect protestors in Tahrir Square. Nonetheless, Martin identifies the army’s decision not to interfere with the protest as the determining factor for the ousting of Mubarak. Citing the historic failures of seemingly successful movements for democracy and self-determination in Palestine and Algeria, Martin warns of the critical importance of post-uprising preparedness, arguing “if you’re going to start an uprising, you’d better be ready the day after.”

All the panelists agreed that the “afterward” of these revolutions are continuing to unfold in the present. In the case of Egypt, the balance between the persistent power of old regime institutions and the emerging political powers remains in flux. The speakers all acknowledge that steps towards democracy have been taken, but this process is fragile and a return to oligarchy remains possible. (watch video)

Related Reading & Viewing:

Above the State: The Officers' Republic in Egypt, Yezid Sayigh

Asmaa Mahfouz Video Blog

Blog Post by Tyseer Aboulnasr on Couchiching Institute Blog on 21

Links between Egypt and Canada (forthcoming)


And there goes the neighborhood...

Akiva Eldar, Chief Political Columnist and Editorial Writer, Ha’aretz
Paul Heinbecker, Director of the Laurier Centre for Global Relations, Centre for International Governance Innovation Distinguished Fellow, and former Canadian Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations

Nimer Sultany, Human Rights Lawyer and Palestinian Academic
H.E. Yaşar Yakiş, Former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Turkey, and Advisory Board Member, Institute of Cultural Diplomacy
Moderator: Andrew Spears, VP Program, Couchiching Institute


H.E. Yasar Yakis opened the session by outlining the current status of several Arab Spring countries. He noted that the first phase of the Tunisian uprising is going smoothly, but it will take more than one election to determine if a healthy democracy is taking root. Libya is still seeking a process to meaningfully engage the multiple political parties elected to its new government. He pointed to international oil companies as being particularly well positioned to work with tribal chiefs throughout the country to facilitate its transition to democracy. In Egypt, the military is playing an important role, but will have to be wary of becoming too deeply entrenched in its position of power moving forward.

 Yakis described the situation in Syria as moving from bad to worse and expressed his hope that the international community will force relevant parties to arrive at a negotiated resolution sooner rather than later. He highlighted the central position of Syria in the Middle East saying: “No war can be made without Egypt, and no peace can be made without Syria.” In his opinion, “Turkey is reticent to be pushed into Syria [alone] and to send its young men to be killed there for something that belongs to the Syrians to solve.” He acknowledged that Turkey may consider becoming part of a legitimate international coalition to facilitate the protection of civilians. He warned that equipping either side with weapons would likely lead to more and greater chaos. He signaled the need to develop a workable mechanism ready for implementation if the Assad regime falls, although he cautioned against putting all diplomatic eggs in one basket as the situation remains dynamic and unpredictable.

Akiva Eldar shifted the audience’s focus to Arab-Israeli relations by setting the broad geopolitical context in which it exists. He reminded us that the Arab uprisings began in the midst of a race between Iran and the United States for hegemony in the region. Rather than approaching each regional issue in an isolated or narrow framework, he proposed a package deal that would involve enacting the currently ignored Arab Peace Initiative, ending the occupation, and eliminating the drive for weapons of mass destruction, while satisfying the complex political interests in the region. 

Eldar pointed to past and existing challenges in Syria, Iraq, and Bosnia before advocating a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He asserted that Canada, the USA, and the European Union have a role to play in forcing a negotiation process resulting in a one- or two-state solution rather than the one-and-a-half state situation, essentially the current unsatisfactory situation. He relayed a message from a group of young people he met in Tahrir Square last May who told him that if there is a third intifada, it will not be a strictly Palestinian undertaking. With citizens of Arab nations reclaiming their public voices and deals no longer being signed under the table by restrictive regimes, it would more likely involve citizens throughout the Arab region. 

Nimer Sultany focused on “the counter-democratization processes” underway in Israel and Palestine. He foresees two major effects of the Arab Spring on the peace process. First, increased attention on governance will expose non-democratic regimes, such as the Palestinian Authority and Israel, and may subject them to greater external pressures to democratize. Second, he foresees an acceleration of the decline of US and Israeli regional domination, which has been in progress for several years, but has been accelerated by the Arab Spring. For a fair and just peace deal to materialize, he believes the decline of US-Israel domination of the region should be complete. He expressed concern about apartheid conditions impacting Palestinians’ lives, skepticism about the Oslo Peace Agreement, and disappointment in the existing policies of Canada, the USA, and the EU, which he asserts are impeding the peace process.

Paul Heinbecker tackled the question of what the uprisings mean for Canadian foreign policy. In his optimistic judgment “… history is unfolding largely in the right direction.” He reminded us that revolutions of this sort take time and Zhou Enlai’s reported assessment of the progress of the 1789 French Revolution to Henry Kissinger: “It is too soon to tell.” Transitioning from autocracy to a democracy that protects rights and unleashes opportunity does not happen overnight. He called upon the federal government to develop a coherent policy towards the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) countries and advised framing a strategy that “incorporates all the foreign policy instruments – diplomacy, military, trade and investment, civil society, and aid.” Canada’s influence may be modest, but can be constructive if we bring our established expertise to the table and recognize this is not our process to control. “The Arab awakening belongs to the Arab peoples.”  

Of Syria, he noted that it “notoriously presents a more complex and difficult challenge than Libya given its considerable, though not invincible, military capacity.” With respect to Israel and Palestine, he recommended “basing our judgments on international law in order to remain ‘principled and just’, in practice as well as in rhetoric, and to reintroduce fairness to Canadian policy.” Heinbecker warned: “Loyalty to a friend, even a democratic friend, may be a policy; but it is not a principle.” 

Each panelist recognized that the MENA is in the midst of change that will take time to unfold. The conflict in Syria requires immediate attention from the international community. Though opinions differed on how the Arab-Israeli situation should be addressed, it is clear that it is a cornerstone of regional stability and will continue to increase in regional importance as Arab citizens reclaim their public voices. The Arab Spring has created risks and uncertainty, openings, and opportunities. Canada has a role to play in a region that is important to our national and global interests. With the USA engrossed in an election campaign and in the process of ending two other wars, the EU facing financial crises, Iran attempting to assert its regional influence, and competing interests affecting other nations, Canada should lead by example. However modest, we should be principled and committed to long-term relationship-building with our friends and partners in the MENA.
(watch video)




Everything is illuminated (and connected)

Lieutenant-General Charles J.J. Bouchard, OC, CMM, MSC, CD, BA (retired).  Former Commander of 1 Canadian Air Division/Canadian NORAD Region; Deputy Commander of North American Aerospace Command (NORAD); Deputy Commander of Allied Joint Forces Command; and Commander of the NATO military mission in Libya

Ferry de Kerckhove, Fellow, Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute;  former Canadian ambassador to Egypt
Sandra LeBlanc, Vice-chairman and president of the Canadian-Arab Business Council; president of Westdev International
Marvin Romanow, Calgary oil executive
Moderator: Martha Hall Findlay, 2012 Conference Chair


Ferry de Kerckhove provided a fitting start for the panel by illuminating the interconnections between the issues surrounding the Arab Spring and Canada. He explained that the MENA hasn’t been of traditional interest to Canada beyond the sphere of security. However, that could change given the contrast between the relatively peaceful transitions of Tunisia and the unfolding horror of Syria. He pointed to the ongoing Israeli/Palestinian conflict as the main source of instability in the region, an issue towards which Canada should have a more nuanced policy generally. He concluded by calling for a more comprehensive Canadian policy for the region going forward.

Lieutenant-General Charles J.J. Bouchard described the role NATO played in the Libya conflict in a closed-camera presentation.  

Sandra LeBlanc spoke of the business opportunities that may present themselves following the Arab Spring. She has been working in the international energy sector for the past 20 years, managing private and public sector projects. She was the first woman to be invited to work in Saudi Arabia, and her experience and knowledge have been focused on the Middle East. She noted that businesses tend to operate across borders (soft borders) and said this is true of the MENA as well. For Canadians, she advised, there is a need to build relationships and trust to manoeuvre these soft borders to better take advantage of the opportunities presented there. She concluded by emphasizing that the Canadian government is essential for laying the groundwork for industry abroad. 

This sentiment was echoed by Marvin Romanow who spoke of his experiences in Yemen. He highlighted some of the difficulties Canadian companies can have in fitting in culturally, but stressed that willing partners exist for Canadian know-how.   He highlighted the sophistication of buyers in the region and in particular their desire to see strong long-term commitments.  He also stressed the importance of using and developing local resources.  The best example was a 95 per cent increase in domestic employment over his term in Yemen. He mentioned the risks and benefits to working in an environment that could lead to conflict, such as happened in Yemen, but also the need to stay practical in business expectations. He concluded by emphasizing the often-precarious situation companies and local governments can find themselves in by reminding us that "once you stick money in the ground, you are stuck; you can’t just take your toys and go home."
 (watch video)


Lyse Doucet – An Evolving Story

Closing Keynote:

With her characteristic humour and sharply-honed journalistic insight, experienced BBC World Service reporter Lyse Doucet gave a nuanced analysis of the Arab Spring which she described as an "evolving story" over the last two years. The Middle East is, she said, a region that is changing in an unprecedented and unpredictable way. She cautioned the audience about embracing the term 'Arab Spring', noting that the term doesn't necessarily speak to the realities on the ground. Beginning with the now-familiar, painful story of the young Tunisian man, Mohamed Bouazizi, who set himself alight in an act of protest in January 2011, Doucet traced the unique political circumstances in Egypt, Libya, Lebanon, and finished in Syria, a country being torn apart by war and political violence. She spoke of the challenges and opportunities of young democracies as they learn through trial and error. She asked the audience to think critically about the terminology imposed on various factions in the Arab world, terms such as 'Islamist' and 'liberal' that have shifting definitions. The current political realities “demand new ways of thinking and seeing” and Doucet describes a new set of inclusive and accountable politics at play, which underlies this profound shift in thinking in the Arab world. Doucet concluded her talk by suggesting that it is a simplification to think about the Arab Spring as a ‘season’. The politics are about deep-rooted structural change in the region and provide an opportunity for a new generation to redefine their countries. Doucet reminded the audience that the Arab peoples "only want what we want – democratic, inclusive, accountable government. And peace. Simple spectacular, splendid peace". (watch video)



2016 Summer Conference

The Canada Project

Identity, Citizenship, and Nationhood in a Changing World

August 5-7, 2016
The YMCA Geneva Park Conference Centre, Orillia, ON

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Couchiching Connects
April 2017
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