"Illegal but Working: Civil society in Syria," by Glada Lahn
Middle East analyst in London Glada Lahn just returned from Damascus, where she spoke to many civil society leaders. She wrote this assessment for "The World Today".
Illegal but Working: Civil society in Syria
By Glada Lahn
A version of this article was published in The World Today, Chatham House (Royal Institute of International Affairs), London April 2006 Vol 62, No. 4
The opposition crop up a lot in conversations with Syrians. This would have been unthinkable six years ago. But in a state that has remained under Ba'ath party rule and in the grip of one of the most pervasive intelligence services in the world for over 40 years, it is not opposition in the way that we know it. Rather, the term is applied to a disparate group of government critics and nascent NGOs who are making the best of the breathing space that opened up and then contracted following the death of Hafez al-Assad in 2000. There is a big question mark over how this movement - loosely termed 'civil society' - can best progress in an unpredictable poliscape. There is a pattern in the region: regimes have been efficient in disabling liberal and secular opposition, while the Islamic parties gained ground quietly through the mosques. All eyes are on the electoral success of Hamas in Palestine and the Islamic Brotherhood in Egypt. Is it too late for Syria to shape up?
Former member of parliament and businessman turned opposition leader, Riad Seif, was released from a 5-year prison term in mid-January. He was at the heart of what became known as 'the Damascus Spring' - a watershed moment in the early days of Bashar Al-Assad's reign which briefly bloomed with political debates, publications and petitions amongst urban liberals. The regime soon clamped down on critics who 'went too far' and the back-tracking has generated cynicism.
Around the beginning of 2005, opposition figures stopped using the word 'islah' - indicating reform under the present government, opting instead for 'taghyeer' - change of the system. Seif and his colleagues have adopted this rhetoric and set about challenging the one-party system. Political parties are banned, except for the Ba'ath and a coalition it dominates, in spite of repeated promises to legalise them. The Liberal Party they want to establish is ambitious. It calls for a multi-party democratic system and seeks a membership with over 50% under the age of 40. When asked how they plan to publicise their manifesto, they admit it won’t be easy. "We will use modern technology …and hope the international media will pay us more attention" said Seif.
Considering that groups with a political orientation cannot advertise, publish articles in the domestic press, speak to students or the army and face arrest for holding a meeting of more than five people, they are from attracting a mass following. The men and women of the Damascus Spring are referred to as ‘musaqqifiin’ (intellectuals) with high ideals but no connection to the common people. Commenting on Seif and friends, the director of the government-aligned Centre for Strategic Studies said "they speak only for themselves". The question is, can they speak to anyone but themselves? Seif and his fellow ex-prisoners told me they had tried to arrange a small press conference upon their release but 200 policemen turned up to stop it, one of whom knocked Seif to the ground.
Even economist Ayman Abdelnour, a prominent Ba'ath Party member who runs the Kullanaa Shurakaa - All4Syria - project to lobby for change in a less provocative way, has had his website blocked. “You could hold an election tomorrow with all the free and fair monitoring you like,” said Abdelnour “and the opposition would not [stand a fair chance] because they would not have been able to run a campaign”. Nevertheless, he believes a 'silent majority' may simply vote for any party that is not the regime.
A MORE MODEST AGENDA
Meanwhile, fearing a second clampdown, a small raft of rights and governance initiatives is navigating a less conspicuous route.
Dr. Radwan Ziadeh, a softly-spoken young man, is director of one of the unauthorised human rights organisations. He used to work for the Human Rights Association in Syria (HRAS) but decided to set up his own centre for human rights research - avoiding the political overtones that he believes disadvantage others. I met Ziadeh in the Havana Café, a renowned meeting place for coup plotters in the 1940s and 50s and where the Ba'ath Party was allegedly founded. The faded smokey décor still lends a conspiratorial air but there are no young revolutionaries here. As we leave, Ziadeh greets three middle-aged men at a window table, two of whom were imprisoned for over 20 years for their opinions.Ziadeh published a collection of essays on civil society in Syria last October. This is banned in Syria but he has been able to travel abroad to promote it. At the time, Ziadeh was both excited and nervous about the forthcoming visit of Arab regional representative to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Faraj Fneish. He had written a report on human rights in Syria to be presented at a meeting in which government officials would be present. It covered three topics: the relationship between home-grown and international organisations, the position of human rights organisations and the case of political prisoners. All are sensitive, particularly the last. But, in the end - and with some editing - it went ahead.
There is more freedom than there was six years ago but no one quite knows where the new boundaries lie. The lighter government image, satellite television and the alternatives available in a more open market encourage civil society to grow. At the same time, it is restricted - sometimes to the point of strangulation - by emergency laws and the difficulty of obtaining funding. If, like most, an organisation is illegal, nationals will not want to jeopardise their reputations by donating money. On the other hand, if a group accepts money from abroad, the charge of treachery will smear both the organisers and their cause. To Ziadeh, creating links with similar NGOs globally is key to empowering Syrian civil society. He was cautiously optimistic about the significance of January's visit of an Amnesty delegation - the first in nine years - and believes that capacity building and networking are the way forward for organisations such as his own.
Bashar's apologists say that, compromised by the nature of the regime he inherited and his own inexperience, the president has found it impossible to carry out the reforms originally hoped for. He continues to emphasise liberalising economy rather than polity. This is not without impact. The influx of new money is striking. Syria now has two mobile phone networks, internet cafes have sprung up even in the narrow alleyways of the old city and there are foreign banks with ATMs. However, the gap between rich and poor is widening. Ask about the newfound wealth and people are quick to point out that it is concentrated in the hands of the few – the big new companies are mainly owned by relatives and associates of the president – and there are no visible means of redistribution such as publicly traded shares.
Opposition parties like Seif's and monitoring NGOs like Ziadeh's, face the difficult task of bridging the gap between elites and the masses, of speaking to and on behalf of those without a voice under a government that claims more freedom of speech and association will lead to an Islamist revolt. Episodes such as the recent torching of the Danish Embassy over the cartoon controversy are held up as glimpses of the landmine beneath the regime’s feet. The new iconography unites the Ba'athist government with Islam. In place of the communist-style portraits of the old patriarch are photographs of his son with slogans such as “Suriat Allah haamiihaa” (Syria, God is protecting her) or juxtaposed with Hizbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah. This symbolism, like similar revisions in the secular regimes of Egypt and Libya and Iraq under Saddam Hussein, aims to neutralise the appeal of religious forces ready to enfranchise those at bottom of the social scale.
The popularity of the outlawed Syrian Muslim Brotherhood (al-Ikhwan al-Muslimeen) and the tolerated Al-Qubbaysiya, an estimated 50,000-strong secretive Islamic women’s movement, is growing. As one taxi driver said, rolling up his windows anxiously, "The Ikhwan? I love them, they are sincere and uncorrupt. And they don't use violent means like the ones in Egypt". According to journalist, Ibrahim Hamidi, who has been studying the phenomenon, "Al-Ikhwan are patient. They depoliticised their movement after Hama and worked quietly through social work in the poorer communities, they know this government won't last forever and they are waiting". Islamist movements are of particular concern to the Allawi community, many of whom were targets of a violent campaign against the regime before the army’s 1982 massacre in Hama. “For the last 40 years the people have [lived with] far from democratic practises,” said writer Ghada Al-Yousuf “if you give them in one push, the secularists will be the losers”.
However, the example of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government in neighbouring Turkey has persuaded many secularists that including Islamists’ in a democratic system would not be a disaster.
Free speech and an independent judiciary might not be a priority for the average Syrian. But in their absence, one problem is common to all: corruption.
Corruption is not so much endemic in Syria as it is the system itself, and it works. Such a system runs in favour of those wanting to keep the status quo as it stifles ambition and facilitates the cooption or blackmail of anyone who might challenge it. On the other hand, corruption breeds cynicism and makes a mockery of success. Another taxi driver complained of being regularly stopped by traffic police for bribes in order to avoid losing his license. He knew that he wouldn’t have a hope in court if he couldn’t afford to pay yet more bribes and feared for the future of his children in a climate where opportunities came only through wasta or large backhanders. His solution? “Democratic elections monitored by the UN”. But he did not believe his own dream. The next moment he was explaining that in any case people would be bribed to vote for regime candidates, boxes checked and punishments meted out to those who ticked the wrong box.
During my visit, a national transparency society – the first of its kind in Syria - was founded by a small group of lawyers, led by 84-year old Mazhar Shurbaji. Shurbaji served as Minister of Justice during the 1940s and 60s and as a member of the Majlis al-Umma in Cairo in the days of the United Arab Republic. “In developed countries, corruption only takes place amongst the elites“, he said “the need for strong [transparency] initiatives is greater in developing countries because here corruption touches every aspect of life and every class”.
While elements of government are blamed for fostering a corrupt system, it is by its very nature beyond their control. “The problem is, everyone is involved,” said lawyer Anwar Al-Bunni, “we would need to have a kind of ‘corruption amnesty’ where everyone’s slate could be wiped clean so long as they were committed in earnest to reforming the system”. Al-Bunni has drafted a new constitution in which he recommends this type of approach.
It appears that Bashar's ambition is to make Syria a global economic competitor. Ironically, civil society - one of his greatest assets in achieving this - is treated as criminal. In the wake of the negative attention that has dogged Syria over the last three years, there is some recognition of the trade-off that might be made to improve the country's democratic credentials. But fear of losing control has lead to a bizarrely paradoxical stance. As the president said in a recent interview, "we have human rights organisations in Syria - they are illegal, but they can work".