Saturday, March 12, 2005

Is Syria Ready for Democracy?

Democracy in Syria

Democratic and free elections were recently held by the engineers’ syndicate of Syria. “Guess what?” my Christian friend asked me. “Not one Christian was voted into the national board of directors,” he said raising his eyebrows as high as they would go and throwing out his arm in a gesture of horror. “Even worse,” he added, “in Aleppo, where there are 2,000 Christian engineers out of a total of 15,000 – that is 14% - guess how many Christians were elected to the regional board? He paused for effect. “Zero!” To drive home his point, he added, “In not one of the governorates was a Christian elected to the regional board. It was a scandal and everyone complained to the government. But it was done, and they cannot undo the elections.”

“We cannot have democracy like that,” he insisted

I said, “So you need a ‘ta’ifi’ or sectarian system like in Lebanon?” My question was half teasing because everyone knows how forbidden it is here to even mention the word ‘ta’ifi’ or to discuss sectarian differences openly. Syria has always prided itself on being based on “national” as opposed to “sectarian” principles. Syrians look down on the Lebanese for being trapped in their sectarian apportionments and mentality – a system and way of thinking that Syrians believe was at the root of the fifteen year civil war that tore the country apart and the continuing inability of the Lebanese to develop a strong and effective central government.

The conversation quickly turned to the much anticipated meeting of the Regional Baath Party Conference. My friend asked. “Can you imagine if they had the same sort of elections for the Regional Command Council? It would be entirely Sunni.” He laughed. Everyone knows that the Alawites would rather lose their oldest child than let such a thing happen.

I asked him how many minorities served on the Regional Command. He said there are 21 members of the Command and almost half are minorities. He then began to count them. “There are two Christians, one Melkite and one `Ashouri (Asyrian – Aramean); there is one Alawite, one Ismaili, and one Druze.” Then he stopped and was unable to name more than those five. I asked if there wasn’t a Greek Orthodox. “No,” he said. “The Greek Orthodox always have either a Governor or a Minister. Now there is a Governor of Idlib, I believe.”

We could have gone on playing the sectarian game all evening. It is clear that at every level of government in Syria, as at every level of the army, sectarian apportionment of office has been very carefully worked out over the years. Any change to the balance and traditional divisions causes great concern and discontent from those communities that have been hurt or short-changed.

“So what is the answer,” I asked my friend? He shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know,” he confessed. “But it is clear that George Bush doesn’t have the answer for us. We must solve it ourselves,” he added. Everyone here is taking sides in the battle of ideas begun with the invasion of Iraq. Most Syrians are sticking by their president.

One Syrian who takes a different view on democracy is Ammar Abdul Hamid, the head of al-Tharwa Project who just returned from 6 months at the Brookings institute.

“What are we so frightened of?” he demanded the other evening, when the question was raised at the dinner table. “Democracy can work here. We just need to have a little faith and abandon our fears.”

When I asked how Syria would combat the distrust between sects, he asked:

Why do you think the Sunni majority would be against the minorities? Sunnis are only 70% of the country. But of the Sunnis, only 60% are Arab. Ten per cent of Syrians are Kurds. They would side with the religious minorities to gain minority rights. Anyway, why would anyone imagine that Sunnis would vote as a block? They would have to make deals. They are divided like everyone else; there are Hawranis, tribal Sunnis from the Jazira, and everyone knows that the Aleppines are always competing with the Damascenes. The Sunnis are not a bloc. The Aleppines would make common cause with the minorities in order to balance out the Damascenes. We are seeing this in Iraq. The Shiites are 60%, but they have to make deals with the Kurds in order to rule effectively. Why is everyone so frightened of the majority? There is no majority here. We should give it a try. It will work. You will see. It is better than living in distrust and fear. Why should we accept dictatorship?
His optimism was refreshing, but my Alawite family members were not so readily convinced. My mother and sister-in-law, charmed by having dinner with the son of Mona Wasif and smitten by the handsome and eloquent Ammar, looked down at their plates. Finally my sister shook her head. “You ask us to take a very big risk. And if things do not happen as you say, it could be a big disaster. Look at Iraq,” she advised, using Ammar’s same example for her counter-argument. “Look at the Lebanese. They are more developed than we are and still they killed each other for fifteen years. I am not ready to take this risk.” I think Bashar has the interests of the country at heart. He is trying. We Syrians don’t trust the Americans. Our society is not like theirs and what do they really understand of our history and traditions.”

Then she added: “Look, I can go out drinking with my friends after work as a single woman. We can stay out to 11:00 or 12:00 at night in Bab Touma or the old city and when I come back, I go take a Taxi on my own. If the driver looks at me funny, as if to say I shouldn’t be out and should dress differently, I can tell him to go to hell. We are free to do what we want here. It is not like Iran. I don’t want the Mullahs to tell us what to do and how to dress.” We were back to the religion question and the realistic fear that any change of regime would bring greater influence from the Mullahs.

Later, as we were cleaning up and after Ammar had gone home, my sister tried to explain. “Our country is very young. We have only had an independent government for 60 years. This is not America, where you have been dealing with such questions for 400 years. We are making progress. We are working for our country and doing what we can to help it. I think we will find our way. Bashar is much different from his father. Already we are much freer. Yes, we take one stop forward and one step back, but we can’t be rushed and must find our own way.

The democracy question is on everyone’s mind now.


At 3/12/2005 04:52:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Josh,

We have to remember that all this fright from Sunnis is attributed to the damned Islamic Brotherhood movement. We have to remember that when we had a free parliament we had people voting from every sect and ideology. In fact we had parties which included members of every sect.
We have to also remember that there is no such thing has having democracy working from the first free elections. Currently the people elect 30% of their People's Assembly with free elections (even though nominating yourself for to such body requires the approval of the Baath). While most electors lack any democratic experience and knowing that these candidates will have no effect on their lives if elected, they don’t believe today in democracy very much. Many are very happy to receive a sandwich in exchange for their vote. At such appraisal of the democratic process, it is unrealistic to assume these people will make the right choice when we have free elections. Another reason for making the wrong choice is the absence of parties. Since we have no parties except the Baath and the remaining mirage-parties, we will need time to have one newly established party (after the government allow such establishment) or another gain popularity as a good party.
So to all the people who are counter democracy I say that democracy is an experience to start and refine with time. We will not get it right the first time and should not assume so. However, if we don’t start then the price will be heftier with time. People under dictatorship develop their sectarian tendencies more. Being oppressed in equality with every other sect (including the Alawis I might ass), sect members tend to assume that there is a systematic plot to exclude this particular sect members from public life (ask any Alawy with Iskenderoun origin and they will tell you there is a plot to keep them largely from public life). Such feelings are not allowed to surface and acted upon in a peaceful way and rather kept oppressed. When free elections come, these oppressed feelings will surface again and help make the wrong choice. Iraq can only help support my case (especially when this point was exploited with by the "coalition").
The question is whether there is an alternative. I have to say that Democracy is a much lesser evil than the current dictatorship (some might argues falsely that Bashar is a good dictator to which I say he is a dictator nevertheless). The bright point is that democracy will self correct itself with time where dictatorship is bound to take the wrong turn at one point or another.

At 3/12/2005 08:15:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

When there was democratic elections in Syria ,a christian of lebanese origin was elected 2 times prime minister of Syria.
This relative conviviality was proved when the Muslim Brotherhood were associated with Christians in the same electoral lists in Hama and Aleppo.Paradoxically it was the totalitarian regimes who reduced the christian influence in Syria.

At 3/12/2005 09:58:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi josh
Do you have any comments about the 2 demonstrations that clashed in damascus a couple of days ago? it was said that some baathist students started beating the opposition protesters with Syrian flags!!
Also if you get out of elite circles in Syria, do you tend to see deep discontent or hatred for the regime, or do you think that they are loyal to the regime?

At 3/12/2005 10:33:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You mean Mona Wasef the famous Syrian actress???

At 3/12/2005 10:59:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Exactly,Ammar Abdul hamid ,is the son of Mona Wasef.

At 3/12/2005 01:40:00 PM, Anonymous sottovoce said...

Hey, who was the Christian of Lebanese origin who was elected twice in Syria; and when was that?

At 3/12/2005 02:09:00 PM, Blogger Joshua Landis said...

Faris al-Khoury was his name. He was Prime Minister in 1944 and 1954. Here are parts of his biography written by Sami Moubayed:

Faris al-Khury was born in the town of Hasbayya in what is today modern Lebanon. He studied law at the American University of Beirut (AUB) and began his career by teaching at AUB.
In 1908, Khury nominated himself for the Christian seat in the Ottoman Parliament and also served as a translator for the British Consulate in Damascus.

In 1916, Khury joined the Arab underground and pledged support for the Arab Revolt, launched from Mecca by Sharif Husayn. His connections with Husayn, the prime nationalist of his era, resulted in his arrest and trial by a military tribunal in Aley. In 1918, the Ottoman Empire was dissolved and Khury allied himself with King Faysal I, the new ruler of Syria. In the interlude between the departure of the Turks and the arrival of the Arab Army (September 26 to October 1), he created a preliminary government with a group of notables in Damascus, headed by Prince Sa’id al-Jaza’iri.
Khury then became Minister of Finance in the first post-Ottoman cabinet of Prime Minister Rida Pasha al-Rikabi. His post was renewed by Prime Minister Hashim al-Atasi in May 1920. He held this post until Faysal was dethroned and the French Mandate was proclaimed in July 1920. Khury laid the groundwork for the Syrian Ministry of Finance, created its infrastructure, distributed its administrative duties, formulated its laws, and handpicked its staff. In 1923, he helped found Damascus University and along with a group of veteran educators, translated its entire curriculum from Ottoman Turkish into Arabic.

In July 1925, Khury and Shahbandar worked with Sultan al-Atrash in the Arab Mountain, organizing an armed uprising against the French. They supplied the Druze fighters with protection and recruited volunteers to take part in combat. The revolt, however, was crushed in 1926, inflicting heavy losses on Syria as a whole and affecting Faris al-Khury tremendously. Khury then decided to confront the French through diplomatic and abandon the idea of armed resistance. The revolt, he pointed out, heroic as it was, had cost the lives of six thousand Syrians and resulted in the uprooting of another one thousand. Independence, therefore, could not be achieved by armed resistance alone, but rather, by diplomatic means as well.

In April 1926, Khury became Minister of Education. In July 1926, however, the French dismissed him from office and arrested him on the charges of being in contact with the rebel leaders while holding office under the mandate regime. He was deported to a remote region in north Syria.

In 1928, Khury helped found the National Bloc, a leading nationalist movement, with its President, Hashim al-Atasi. It was a party that aimed at ending the mandate through diplomatic means rather than armed resistance. He laid out the Bloc’s constitution and served as dean of its permanent office in Damascus. In 1928, he also served as a member on the Constitutional Assembly that drafted the first republican constitution for Syria. In 1932, he became a member of Parliament, running on a National Bloc ticket. His election was repeated in 1936, 1943, and 1947.

In 1935, Khury helped launch a sixty-day strike throughout Syria protesting France’s refusal to address Syrian independence in a “serious manner.” The French responded by dismissing him from his teaching post at Damascus University. The strike dislocated the economy of Syria and led to the death of hundreds of civilians in Damascus, Aleppo, Homs and Hama. It embarased the French in the international community and forced them to recognize the Bloc leaders as the legitimate representatives of the Syrian people, inviting them for independence talks in Paris.

In March 1936, Khury was part of a Bloc delegation that journeyed to Paris and conducted six-month talks with Prime Minister Leon Blum. The Bloc leaders succeeded in formulating a treaty that guaranteed independence over a twenty-five-year period, in exchange for military, economic, and political privileges for France in Syria. The Bloc leaders also promised to support France in the Middle East if another deadly war were to break out in Europe. They returned to Syria in September 1936 and were voted into Parliament with an overwhelming majority. Atasi became President of the Republic and Khury became Speaker of Parliament on December 21, 1936. When Atasi left office in July 1939, so did Khury, who reverted to his earlier post as an instructor at Damascus University.
In August 1943, Faris al-Khury rose to prominence once again when the National Bloc leader Shukri al-Quwatli was elected President of the Republic. He became Speaker of Parliament from August 17, 1943 to October 16, 1944.

Quwatli asked him to form a government in November 1944. He created a cabinet filled with National Bloc members. The new Prime Minister journeyed to San Francisco in April 1945 to attend the founding conference of the United Nations. He was charged with marketing Syria’s cause before world statesmen and meeting with US President Harry Truman for the purpose of pressuring France to evacuate from Syria. He brought along a team of young diplomats, all in their late twenties who were AUB graduates like himself, and remained in the USA for six months. The conference was Syria’s first venture into the international community as a to-be-independent state of its own, and Khury’s visit was the first of its kind by a senior Syrian official to the USA.

In September 1945, he once again became Speaker of Parliament and held this post until March 1949.
When the Quwatli regime was overthrown in March 1949, Syria’s new ruler General Husni al-Za’im arrested all members of the Quwatli administration but refrained from harming Khury, in respect for his elevated standing in political circles and his career as a senior statesman since Ottoman times. Za’im approached the veteran Khury and asked him to form a new cabinet that would administer state affairs with the officers. Khury declined and said, “If I assume government office under your leadership, the first task I would do is to clamp you in chains because your regime is un-constitutional. May God forgive you, you have opened a door on Syria that history will have a difficult time in closing.” In reference, Khury was speaking of the trend of military coup d’etats that rocked Syria in future years and totaled fifteen in the years 1949-1982. He retired from political activity during the four month era of Husni al-Za’im and the military regime of General Adib al-Shishakli (1951-1954).

When General Shishakli was overthrown in February 1954, civilian rule was restored to Syria and President Hashim al-Atasi asked Faris al-Khury to form a government on October 29, 1954. He returned to power at a critical stage where Syria was being pressured to join the Baghdad Pact, an Anglo-American axis aimed at blocking Soviet influence in the Arab world. It was also designed to curb the influence of President Gamal Abd al-Nasser of Egypt, who was vehemently pro-USSR. The Syrian public was in favor of Nasser while Khury preferred to join the Baghdad Pact, but he refused to do so for fear of losing popular support at home.

He went to Cairo and met with Nasser to discuss the Baghdad Pact. He argued with the Egyptian leader and claimed that Nasser was not a spokesman for the entire Arab world but only a spokesman for Egypt. Nasser could turn down the offer to join the Baghdad Pact, if he so wished, but he had no right to criticize or pressure pro-Western regimes like Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria to adhere to his pro-USSR policy. His open clash with the Egyptian leader led to the eruption of marches and strikes in Damascus, called for by the socialist Baath Party, asking for his downfall.
Khury was forced to step down due to the pressure of pro-Nasser sentiment throughout Syria on February 13, 1955. During his final years, he stood by and watched Syria drift into Egypt’s orbit, unable to stop it. He was opposed to union in 1958, and was politically finished when Nasser became president of Syria in 1958. He later recalled the ill-fated union and said, “It was done in a minute, in a foolish minute.”

At 3/12/2005 04:00:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi josh,
I want to ask you the same questions that a previous commentator asked: Do you have any comments about the two demonstrations that clashed in Damascus a couple of days ago? It is the Baathist students who beating the opposition protesters with Syrian flags! Also, if you get out of elite circles in Syria, do you tend to see deep discontent or hatred for the regime, or do you think that they are loyal to the regime? I know friends in Syria who used to tell us whenever we get together that they don’t like the Syrian Regime but they rather live than to be killed!

Back to your article about democracy in Syria, I believe that whenever a minority is ruling a country and oppressing its people the minority is always afraid of democracy because they (minority) know that they will lose power and will be paid back for their oppression!

In the US, whenever there is a change in the White House, the winning party cleans out all Departments from the other party loyalists! But it is done in a civilized way, no killing and no jailing! I think it is accepable and even expected! Even when a new CEO of a company takes over, he/she likes to have around him/her
people that he/she can trust and rely on! The executives who were forced or unforced to resign are not killed or out in jail!

Regarding Lebanon, if it is not the outsiders (Syria, Israel, Iraq, Palestinians, and others) the civil war will not happen and last in Lebanon for about 15 years! Keep in mind that Syria was supplying both parties with guns and sometimes with men to fight on this side or the other!!! And yes, shifting to the other side is not a problem!
I hope that Syria will be free so it will not oppress its people and the the Lebanese people too!


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