"An Agenda for Peaceful Change in Syria" by Hind Kabawat
Hind Kabawat, a lawyer, political activist, and influential member of Damascus' enlightened elite has written "AN AGENDA FOR PEACEFUL CHANGE IN SYRIA." Ms Kabawat has good relations with both the President and members of Syria's civil society. During the last year she organized the visit of an American rabbi and academic to Syria. She arranged for him to travel from Israel to Damascus where he addressed leading members of Syria's religious and political elite at the Asad library. It was a break through of sorts. She followed up with similar gatherings and hopes to continue her work for inter-religious dialog this coming year by organizing similar forums at the University of Damascus.
Hind has turned her elegant Ottoman house in the heart of Damascus' old city into one of the country's leading political salons. She frequently gathers activists and intellectuals in the courtyard to dine and discuss politics. The fragrant orange trees and soothing murmur of the central fountain inspire hope, much as they take edge off of disappointments.
AN AGENDA FOR PEACEFUL CHANGE IN SYRIA
Presentation by Hind Aboud Kabawat
Reunion: Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy
Place: Institute of International Finance, Inc.
October 14, 2006
Section One: The Syrian Problem
When Bashar al-Asad succeeded his father as President of Syria in 2000, there was a great deal of hope among much of the population that dramatic and systemic change might now, finally, transform the Syrian political system.
Bashar was viewed in many quarters as The Great White Hope. Why? Because to many Syrians, the only non-violent way to change Syria’s political culture and political infrastructure was from the top down. Almost by presidential fiat.
The reasoning went something like this: the country was too immature a political society to peacefully and democratically transform itself. And this argument is not without merit. The country has very little experience with representative democracy, or a multi-party system, where political power shifts from one organized group to another, after free open elections. Nor does Syrian society have much, if any, experience with a free press, an independent judiciary, or even a framework of institutions that make a civil society viable.
To compound the predicament of democratic political change in Syria is what might be termed, The Great Paradox. The potential that democratic change—i.e., free and open elections—might, ironically, backfire, resulting in the election of a fundamentalist Muslim theocracy that would systematically dismantle the one constructive legacy of the Baathist regime: a secular society where all the country’s diverse religions co-exist peacefully.
To see what happens when a secular Muslim society unravels, look no further that the sectarian political nightmare that is present-day Iraq. Undermining, or destabilizing, entrenched authoritarian societies in the Middle East can be a potential minefield. Any mis-step could result in serious political collateral damage. Among them, the dissolution of hard-won religious freedoms. The oppression of women. (As a Christian Syrian woman, I am particularly concerned about this last issue. No woman of my acquaintance in the region wants to endure the fate of most of my gender in places like Saudi or Iran.)
So you can see why some worry about the consequences of misguided political and social change in the region. It could too easily result in a worse political environment than the even the present unsatisfactory status quo. That is likely why Bashar’s coming to power ignited much optimism.
Here was a westernized, sophisticated, well-educated personality could possibly reform the system, peacefully, from within. Open the system politically and economically. Transform the country’s relationship with the US and the West. And initially, at least, much was accomplished. Many political prisoners were released. More open political debate was tolerated. The media was able to criticize the regime—somewhat.
But in the last year or so, it has become apparent that the al-Assad government does not have any real instinct for rapid and profound democratic reform. Corruption is still rampant in the Syrian economy. Who you know, or whose cousin you are, rather than the market, determines, too often, how the economy operates, and how contracts are awarded. And then there has been a very troubling reversion to political business, as usual, like the “old days” under Hafez al-Assad.
Let me give you some examples. Recently, a Member of Parliament, Riad Seif, was imprisoned for too aggressively criticizing the government, much as Aref Dalilah was imprissoned. A political debating club, the Attassi Forum, which could have been the basis, or the template, for new political organizations, was shut down after it allowed someone to read a statement from the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. So much for freedom of speech in Bashar’s Syria. Most importantly, however, no agenda has been established for the creation of a truly free press, an independent judiciary, or free elections contested by different political groups.
Add to this, the Syrian government’s numerous blunders in foreign affairs, notably its ill-advised intervention in Lebanese politics, and the result has been increasing political pressure from the international community on Syria. And let’s face it; the Syrian government is feeling the heat. Witness the “so-called” suicide, a few days ago, of the Interior Minister, the man most responsible for Syria’s failed Lebanon policy. Only the politically naïve, or stupid, can ignore the increasingly vocal calls in many Western capitals (Washington, D.C, in particular) for regime change in Syria.
This presents all Syrians, whether they support or oppose the Baathist regime, with a real challenge. How can we prevent interference in our internal affairs? Even those Syrians with a profound contempt for the al-Assad regime will not tolerate political change imposed from outside. (Better the devil we know than the devil we don’t.) Again, look no further than Baghdad to see the consequences of ill-conceived and ham-fisted interference in the delicate balance that is contemporary Arab/Muslim political culture.
In the best of all worlds, the Arab Middle East would be the mirror image of a functioning liberal democracy in the West, but we are not. And wishing it were so, or destroying our countries through counter-productive and savagely destructive wars will not make it so. Our societies are the result of a different historical and political evolution than Western societies. A more open and democratic society is clearly the goal of all thoughtful political actors in the region, but the question remains, how do we get there?
THE SYRIAN SOLUTION
Let me now talk about some potential solutions to the Syrian Problem.
In the US government’s eagerness to impose democracy in the Middle East, it forgets that it tolerated a one-party authoritarian regime, right next door, for over nine decades. Only in its last presidential election, just a few short years ago, did Mexico witness the peaceful transfer of power from the bizarrely named Party of Permanent Revolution to the new political force headed by Vincente Fox.
Mexico evolved over a long period of time into a functioning democracy. Its early dictators make Hafez al-Assad look progressive. Over the years, Mexico did evolve into a sort of “pseudo-democracy,” where the president could only be in power for one term, but the president, no matter who he was, was always from the same party, the PRI. Only now, ninety years or so, after the Mexican Revolution have you witnessed a peaceful transition of power from one political organization to another.
Why do I raise the Mexican issue? Because it demonstrates that some societies, without a history of democratic political culture, may need to take a different road to reach the goal of profound democratic reform. Look what is happening in Egypt, with Hosni Mubarak allowing contested elections for the first time. So what can be done in Syria short of a coup d’etat, or interference from outside?
Well, for starters, Syrians, themselves, must continue to pressure the regime for real change. There are risks clearly. But I truly believe the time when the Baathist government would use an Iron Fist to suppress dissent is past. What I believe the government should do is this. Borrow the one constructive result of the Iraq Fiasco and create a Constitutional Assembly.
Under the auspices of Bashar al-Assad, Syrians should write a new constitution that codifies a Basic Law—one that satisfies all Syria’s diverse communities. If there is a constitution, which has been freely created by all Syrians, not just the Baath party, and guarantees religious freedom, and the separation of Church and State (or Mosque and State, in the Syrian context), then there would likely be less fear that a post-Baath Syria would result in a fundamentalist Muslim theocracy.
Such a constitutional-building process would also help incubate the creation of any number of political groups and associations, which are desperately needed if Syria is to emerge as a truly democratic political society. What Syria desperately needs is more open political discussion about its future—and its fundamental values.
Can the government of Bashar al-Assad be encouraged to open such a debate? I think so. Just last year, the president hosted a conference in Damascus of ex-patriate Syrians from around the world. The tenor of that conference: vocal calls to open up Syrian society to real change. The next step: a similar conference for Syrians who live in Damascus, Allepo, Homs, or Latakia, not London, Toronto, Sydney, or Los Angeles.
Despite his missteps, I believe that Bashar al-Assad can still redeem the promise of his first days in office. Someone must convince him that he should become Syria’s first “Mexican President.” And someone should convince him it is time to invest in his own people, the poor, the hard working, the low and middle class, give them hope, freedom, social justice, more education and open the country for an Economic reform. Hold office for one six-year term. Effect real reform and think of the future of the Syrian People, while he is in power. And leave office knowing that his country will be profoundly transformed by his willingness to exit politics voluntarily and transfer authority to someone who has the freely—won support of the whole society.