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.