Cultural Challenges to Democratic Reform in Syria

Democracy is a demand advanced by many intellectuals and activists in Syria, but is still far from becoming a popular demand. This does not mean, however, that Syrians are content with the current political climate. Syrians are, by and large, unhappy about the rate of growth, and often complain about the monopoly over the economy and politics, by small ruling elite, and the rampant corruption that permeate state institutions.

The Syrian economy failed in the last two decades to catch up with population growth, and corruption in the public sector is rampant, as income growth for public servants fell far short of inflation throughout the eighties and nineties. The economic pressure from within and political pressure from without have encouraged critical voices and led to the emergence of a small but growing opposition.

Discontent with political elites does not, however, immediately translate to a will to political change. Syrian opposition remains elitist, lacking popular support, and opposition leaders have only the will, but not the capacity, to bring about democracy. The Syrian political culture is a major hurdle to democratic change. This is because the two central elements to democratic governance, power sharing and political compromise, continue to be alien to the political culture embraced by the Syrian political elites.

The Post-Colonial Syrian State

Syria has had a short and shaky experimentation with liberal democracy in the fifties right after gaining independence from France. The French colonial rule in Syria succeeded it in dismantling the pre-colonial political structure, and introduced the practice of liberal democracy to Syrian society. The exquisite building that currently houses the Syrian Parliament was built during the French mandate. The parliament was not, though, the most developed institution the French colonialist bequeathed to the Syrian people. Rather, it was the military institution that proved to be most resilient and influential in the post colonial era.

Syrian experienced high political instability between 1948 and 1970, as it went through six military coups, ending with the coup that was led by the late Hafiz Assad in 1970. Since then the Syrian state experienced stabled government. The stability of the Assad government stems from two factors: the introduction of a complex state security apparatus and the support from rural Syrians. But state stability was achieved at the cost of individual freedom, the autonomy of civil society organization, and society’s ability to hold political leadership accountable. Hafiz Assad succeeded in strengthening the power of the presidency by dividing the security function among a multitude of security and military organizations, putting an end to the ability of ambitious military and security officers to seize power. Since security power is divided among autonomous agencies, with their heads reporting directly to the president, no single officer could muster the resources needed to mount a coup. Yet the stability of the Syrian state does not reset fully in its coercive power. It is, rather, derived from the support of its rural constituency.

Three political groups emerged to compete in the post-colonial period: The Muslim Brotherhood, the communist party, and the Baath party. The Muslim Brotherhood promised to revive the past glory of Islam, the Communist Party pledged to bring down the Syrian Bourgeoisie and empower the proletariats. Eventually, the Baath Party, who espoused a nationalist and socialist agenda, was able to capture power through the military, and moved quickly to marginalize the Brotherhood and the Communist Party. The Brotherhood were allied with the urban small-business class, who was worried about the socialist measures introduced by the Baath, while the Communist Party could rely mainly on the support of the Syrian Kurds (and other non-Arab minorities, such as the Sharkas), alienated by the Arab nationalist fervor of the Baath.

The Baath Party could also rely on the support of the feminist movement and religious minorities who found more commonality with the Baatists than with the conservative Brotherhood or the radical communists. The greatest support came, however, from the rural population, which was the beneficiary of the Baath rule. The Baath’s support for, and reliance on, the impoverished rural population were less the result of a reformist vision and moral commitment to justice and equality, and more the outcome of the determination of its leadership, who had a predominately rural background, to undermine the power and influence of the urban centers, and shift the national wealth to the new elites.

However, the desire to get rich fast led many in positions of power and influence to misappropriate state resources, or use political influence to generate immediate wealth. Corruption at the upper echelon of the political leadership soon tickled down to the bureaucracy, putting the Syrian economy and society in jeopardy.

Calls for Reform in Syria

The current interest in reform in Syria stems from Bashar Assad’s inaugural address as the new president of Syria, in 2000, right after the death of his father. The young president outlined a new vision of Syrian politics that emphasized the need for reform and development. Although Bashar Assad’s reform was clearly focused on the bureaucracy and the economy, it was erroneously read by several opposition leaders as an invitation to a sweeping democratic reform.

Countless political groups started an open and vigorous debate that was quickly elevated to loud demands for sweeping changes, and occasionally an open insult of the Baath regimes and its symbols. The new political awakening is often referred to as “Damascus Spring.” The budding opposition boldly demanded a new constitution, free press, and multiparty system. However, it became immediately clear that the reinvigorated opposition had matured little over the last two decades. The opposition demands were drastic and uncompromising. With the exception of Riad Saif’s efforts, there was little practical proposals on the part of the opposition to engage the government or to limit its demands to a level that does not appear threatening to the current Syrian political authorities. The opposition did little to pick up on the anti-corruption campaign started by Bashar Assad prior to assuming the presidency, a campaign that he later abandoned after being sworn in as the new president.

Not only did the opposition misread the intentions of the new president and the direction of the reform he wanted to pursue, but it overestimated its own ability to impact the regime. Apparently, the opposition was riding more on the weave of the renewed international interest in democratic reform in the region and on external pressure, and less on popular support. Indeed, the opposition could garner little support from the population, as most Syrians have grown cynical toward political discourse and action, and would give little weight to the language of progress, freedom, and democracy.

The three opposition forces vying for power lack strong and clear popular support. The Brotherhood has lost credibility as a capable political actor after a bloody and unsuccessful bid in early 1980’s to overthrow the Baath regime by force. The Brotherhood political base inside the country has, further, been devastated as a result of the violent confrontation with the regime, and it is doubtful whether the organization has any support left. The communist party, led by Riad al-Turk, has lost its old vision with the collapse of communism, and is yet to produce a new vision for political and economic reforms. After spending almost three decades in prison, al-Turk is in no mood to compromise, or to engage in a political process with the established power. The liberal democratic forces, represented in the efforts of Riad Saif and the vision of Burhan Ghalioun, is still a budding force comprised of young intellectuals and activists with no evident popular support or political clout.

The opposition’s call for reform is squarely rooted in the moral indignation against rampant corruption, and the lack of political freedom to expose it and put an end to it. The fact that no popular movement has emerged and no loud demands have been made to end corruption makes it difficult to translate a moral position into a political will.

A non-Democratic Political Culture

Corruption in Syria is a chronic problem, touching every facet of the political and social life. Bribery and kick backs are widely practiced, not only by pubic officials, but ordinary citizens who resort to them to sidestep established laws and regulations, and to satisfy the demands of an impoverished bureaucracy whose members require kick backs to perform their duties and fulfill their legal obligations. Bribery ceased to be an abhorrent practice and is even privately accepted by religious authorities as a necessary evil for survival.

The spread of bribery and kick backs in Syria in the eighties and nineties has given the final blow to any remnants of respect for the rule of law in the country. This new reality has complicated the struggle for political and economic reforms. Syrian political culture is today the greatest hurdle in the road to democratic reform. Democracy presupposes key political attitudes and moral commitments, foremost among them are the notion of “the supremacy of law,” “respect for mutual freedom or equal rights,” and “the promotion of common good.” None of these receive any attention by the education system or the political discourse that shape the consciousness of millions of Syrians.

Rather, the education system and the political discourse of both the establishment and opposition tend to promote the notion of the “super-hero” who can reshape society and history through his individual will, the notion of “power” as the measure of all virtues and human worth, and the notion of “glory” and the overriding goal of human endeavor. This unbalanced emphasis on heroism, power, and glory has turned aspiring leaders into adventurers who are consumed with power and fame, and who look with contempt on all endeavors that require the subordination of individual will and interests to a higher will and interests that place the common good over individual glory.

It is this culture of hero-worship and obsession with an illusive glory that makes it difficult for political leaders to compromise and become content with power sharing and political succession. And as long as the notions of law, equal freedom, and common good continue to be alien to the Syrian culture, political change is bound to replace one set of autocrats and dictators with another.

The Way Out: Empowering Civil Society

The question that I want to–”and must–”raise in conclusion is the obvious one: is there a way out of the current political and cultural impasse?

The Syrian opposition espouses a range of ideas that vary from the claim, harbored mainly by Abdul Halim Khaddam, that the regime is led by an inexperienced leadership and is distant to collapse under its own wait, to those who see democracy coming to Syria through the process of regime change, advocated mainly by Farid Ghadry, achieved through US military intervention. Both scenarios arise more from the wishful thinking of their advocates, and less from the informed analysis of the Syrian reality.

Far from being non-deliberative, the Syrian regime has shown a great capacity for measured action, and displayed considerable flexibility and pragmatism. The decision to withdraw from Lebanon and to reinforce boarder patrol on the Iraq boarders when pressured by the US are examples of the regime’s pragmatism. The regime has shown, however, little desire to relax its stronghold on political power, as control over media and political debate remains tight, and the regime continue to resist calls to open up the political space and allow a multiparty system.

Relying, on the other hand, on US intervention, or even pressure, has its own limitations, as the United State’s interest in democratization continues to be a function of US government’s concerns over its own economic and strategic interests, as well as Israel’s security. There is no consensus in Washington over the best course of action with regard to Syria, and the Bush administration’s key demands on the Syrian government relate primarily to Israeli interest, namely ending support for Hezbollah and dismantling the Palestinian resistance organizations in Syria. An increased external pressure and lack of alternative options could force the Syrian government to abandon its support of Israel’s enemies, but is unlikely to lead to real democratic reform.

This leaves us with one viable path to reform, and one that addresses the core obstacles to democracy: working to empower civil society and to gradually expand the margin of freedom for pursuing cultural and political reforms. In other words, the goal of the opposition must shift from regime change to power sharing and to developing a genuine interest in strengthening civil society organizations that provide public services alongside government agencies. The Syrian government has recently recognized its inability to provide public services at the level needed to develop the country, and seems to be willing to cede control over important social functions, including education, finance, and media. The pace of governmental reform in these areas is extremely slow and the implementation of the new laws has been disappointing.

The opposition needs to focus its demand on reforming the bureaucracy and the judiciary, and on requiring a relaxation of state control over both print and electronic media. Similarly, the Syrian government should avoid taking stiff and defensive postures towards critical voices, and should give more latitude to political gatherings and organizations.

Another important, but underutilized leverage for reform comes from the large Syrian expatriate communities. The Syrian government recognizes the importance the Syrian expatriates for the future development of the country, and has established a cabinet position and department to improve relations with them and encourage investments. The usefulness of the Syrian expatriates is not limited, however, to providing investment opportunity, but expatriates can play a crucial role in introducing democratic culture and experience to the Syrian society. Indeed, both the Syrian government and Syrian expatriates have, apart from political considerations and moral obligations, a practical need to promote democracy. Investment requires a robust legal system capable of protecting the long term interests of investors. Democratic practices are essential for maintaining independent judicial system capable of safeguarding individual rights and ensuring the rule of law is supreme.