Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane - The International Conference of Social Sciences 7th edition on “the public sphere and the political dimensions of space”

The International Conference of Social Sciences 7th edition on “the public sphere and the political dimensions of space”

Al Akhawayn School of Humanities and Social Sciences (SHSS) organized, in partnership with the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung Foundation, the 7th edition of the International Conference of Social Sciences, on May 30 to May 31, 2020, on the theme: “The public sphere and the political dimensions of space.” The event was held on the Microsoft Teams' digital platform and is accessible to the general public online.

The organization of this seventh conference is part of the efforts made by the SHSS to broaden the dialogue on the concepts of "public sphere" and "public space" as theoretical and applied frameworks. Several experts from the professional, government, and academic sectors from different disciplines took part in the meeting, which was marked by the intervention of Ms. Mona Fawaz, Researcher, and Professor of Urban Studies and Town Planning at the American University of Beirut.

The debates and free discussions, during the 20 planned sessions, focused on social, economic, political, urban, and cultural issues, and this through the perspectives of the public sphere and the aspects of spatial configurations faced by the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), South Asian as well as sub-Saharan regions.

Among the themes discussed were the role of the public sphere in the democratization process in the MENA region, individual space, and the use of demonstrations vis-à-vis existing power structures, the requirements of new legislation, the demand for social transformations, reforms, the process of forming public opinion, and the role of the Internet in the public or counter-public sphere. The discussions also focused on the assessment of the main social, political, urban, and cultural issues and challenges facing the MENA region.

The conference discussions poured into five different dimensions. Chief among these was the lack of a current and coherent theoretical perspective that can be used to explain the current condition of public space in the MENA region; in part, this was caused by the historical Western legacy of the term and in part, it was caused by developments that took place worldwide since the theories were coined. Second, there was consensus that public space, regardless of the definition used, is rapidly shrinking and being replaced only in part by online public space. Third, there was widespread concern that privatization represents a threat to public space, and that it needs careful consideration and state regulation, especially with regards to public spaces such as beaches, public squares, roads, and other facilities. The existence of this problem in places as diverse as Palestine, Morocco, Lebanon, and India suggests that this a systemic issue. Fourth, the conference noted that information technology can be used both to expand or shrink the public space available to society. There are examples where the internet helped connect decision-makers with citizens, thereby leading to more appropriate outcomes concerning public needs. Fifth, there was widespread consensus that MENA societies should gradually allow the sharing of public space with the marginalized “other,” rather than reserve it for certain sections of society.

The previous edition of this annual conference, organized in partnership with the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung and the Arab Council for Social Sciences, focused on migration in Morocco and elsewhere, and on local dynamics, global and transnational. Both partners continued their tradition with us for this year. The 2020 conference concluded with a round-table discussion about COVID 19 and the response by various states and social actors to the problems posed by it. Given the problems posed by the virus, we noted that the pandemic has effectively, albeit temporarily, shut down public space – a point that represented our sixth and final conclusion.