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Larbi Sadiki
Larbi Sadiki
Dr Larbi Sadiki is a Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter.
Syria's 'spring' toward democracy
For democratisation to happen in Syria, leadership and unity must be addressed first.
Last Modified: 06 May 2011 13:45
Many free-thinkers in Syria want to work with - not against - Assad towards democratisation [GALLO/GETTY]

Syria's quest for popular empowerment has now entered critical mass: Multiplication of protests and fatalities with the risk of escalation posing a major obstacle to re-negotiating a genuine social contract between state and society.

The question for which there is no easy answer regards the source of a tipping point for a consensual – not conflictual – tipping point.

For proper 'democratic conversion' to happen, the road to Damascus in search of good government requires sound leadership and addressing the people. But what are the challenges of such a conversion?

No single force in Syria can right now engineer such a tipping point. What is needed is a civic synergy requiring collective ownership over a transition road-map that helps avert implosion and the slippery slope of structured chaos.

May the 'Springs of Damascus' bloom

Struggling for democracy is something; making it actually happen is something else. The onus is equally on society to ease the state into partnership for peaceful and 'pacted' transition that does not frighten the incumbent political masters. This is a skill that must be mastered and mustered in Syria.

My own investigations gave me an insight into the thinking of key dissidents and hosts of the leading political salons of the time. The likes of Muntada Al-Kawakibi, led by Samir Nashar and others in Aleppo, and Muntada Al-Atassi, in which Suhayr al-Atassi played a leading role. Like Nashar and al-Atassi, Najat Tayyara, Michel Kilo, and Riyad Saif all of stood for peaceful, gradual and plural democratic transition. They only wanted political engagement with – and not against – Assad. That was five and six years ago.

These forums were part of the broader struggle at the time to revive civil society in Syria. They stood for a liberal constitution, invoking institutions from the late 1950s.

The security forces and the hardliners within the Baath Party closed the site of peaceful grassroots struggle les saloniers and the political salons sought to open up, eventually proscribing all of the country's salons, which Assad initially tolerated.

These activists, like those who championed progressive reform and human rights through the 2007 Damascus Declaration for Democratic National Transformation, were victimised in different ways. Punishment included  surveillance, travel bans, confiscation of property, imprisonment through 'kangaroo trials' and torture.

The protests in Syria have thus far been bloodied, and the security forces are mostly to blame. However, civic struggle demands that civil society ensures its peaceful strategy is not sabotaged by violent elements. This is one way of guarding against 'securitisation' of Syria's peaceful struggle for popular empowerment. It takes two to tango.

Assad and historical responsibility

Assad has articulated a reformist agenda. Many of us are guilty of giving him the benefit of the doubt more so than we seemed to do vis-à-vis Gaddafi, Ben Ali or Mubarak. Mea maxima culpa.

But his reformist terms, since spoken and declared to Syria and the world, have become a binding contract. Implementation is awaited and needed.

If Assad's hands are tied by the likes of Rami Makhlouf, Maher or Asif Shwakat, close relatives, then he will have but himself to blame for procrastination and inaction on the possibility of engineering a democratic tipping point.

Assad realises time is a rare commodity when a nation stands running out of time, bloodied and nervous. To engineer a democratic tipping point requires Assad nothing less than cleansing the state from the disease of corruption, brutality and nepotism. He needs no lecture of how to navigate the ins and outs of the state he presides over in order to do this.

Besides the committees he has formed, he must hold unconditional dialogue with hundreds of nationalist and dialogical figures, including in the diaspora, who have suffered for the greater cause of democracy in Syria.

Connecting with the first spring of Damascus

Assad will find, in the likes of Feda' al-Hourani, Abd al-Karim Jadd, Al-Bunni Brothers, Nashar, al-Atassi, Saif, Kilo, Kamal al-Mwayyal – among many others – willing partners for the greater sake of smooth, orderly, inclusive and genuine democratic transition.

In so doing, Assad will contain foreign meddling of how Syrians go about reform. Two-pronged processes can work in tandem.

Internally, there are ideas being floated in various activists' discourses: about a process of truth and reconciliation; independent commission for tackling corruption; de-'sectarianising' polity and economy; inclusiveness of all difference; reviving the muntadayat or political forums; which remain safety valves for venting dissenting views; and re-launching political reconstruction via broad-based, unconditional and inclusive legal process.

In this regard, de-coupling the state from the Baath Party, de-privatising the state, and dismantling the internal mukhabarat (security) apparatus that has for so long oppressed Syrians is imperative.

With regard to the security forces, every citizen they has been killed over the past few weeks, from Deraa to Homs, is a nail in the coffin of the police state. Assad must now distance himself from this apparatus, and restructure it in a fashion that prepares it for legal policing of citizens, as opposite oppression of denizens.

The same articles of the Penal Code that for years (285, 286, 306, & 307) under which dissidents were wrongly charged with 'weakening national sentiment', 'broadcasting false news which has the potential to affect the country's morale' or activity that could 'change the financial or social status of the state' may be applied to the corrupt parasitic elite, the state-owned media and the security forces.

Externally, by teaming with the pro-democracy voices and forces, Assad may want to consult with his friend King Juan Carlos, a man who played a vital role in Spain's pacted democratic transition. The route to reform does not have to be American or French. Shopping further afield for ideas, including from Egypt and Tunisia, is desirable. 

Modesty at the top

No Arab opposition or civil society can claim to possess all of the keys to reform. What they possess are the struggles, the history of grass-roots activism, and the cost they had to pay with dear life. In many cases, this cost is exile, imprisonment, and humiliation.

Nonetheless, right now Arab masses, especially youths, have produced the momentum and the currents that are now creating critical mass. The tipping point does not come easy. Egypt and Tunisia found ways of subverting the paradigm of dynasticism and despotism thanks to neutral armies. Such a neutrality is absent in Syria to place leviathan-like regimes on the defencive and produe ousters (Tunisia followed by Egypt).

This is just one more reason why Assad must recruit Syria's vibrant civil society into a collective search for democratic learning, outcomes and agendas.

Arab oppositions have to bow to the Arab masses and the youths within them that spearheaded protest and deployed human and artificial intelligence to beat dictatorships in the game of information. They blinded the state and then drowned in in seas of popular protests resounding with 'degage'-type commands.

Modesty is necessary. In Syria, like elsewhere, the litmus test is how to manage the process of reform without "doing a Libya".

Modesty by society

I recall in the summer of 2004, observing a lively meeting held in during a summer evening in Aleppo by Mr Nashar and members of Al-Kawakibi salon. The discourse was dispersed, plural, and resonated with the right messages of democratic construction.

This is one of the key values of the salons: re-learning the virtues of citizenship by acquiring democratic language, and then struggling to apply it for the purpose of toleration. So, morbid foes who used to exchange insults learned how to accommodate one another and accept difference.

But, there was a problem. Up to that point, the 'republic' they were debating was not the discursive republic whose boundaries and language they were constructing. Syria is not the utopian republic with confines of Levantine gardens and stone walls shaded by olive and citron trees.

The republic that posed a challenge to them had guards, censors, official transcripts, and Dr Assad. When I was invited at the end of the session to give a summary of my observations, I had to be frank but still respectful of their struggle for democracy.

The crux of my summary was delivered through a question-begging statement: if Assad were to die tomorrow, would you be prepared to take over and rule Syria democratically? I was not being patronising at all. Quite the opposite; I respected the intelligent and peaceful dissidence enacted by the salon's members. But I was deliberately provocative.

I wanted to know if opposition was about opposition, democratic becoming, or clamour for power. I wanted to test the extent to which an attitudinal kit was constructed to ready civil society for the travails of power. Ben Ali went and so did Mubarak. But now, Tunisians and Egyptians have to shorten the distance between political wilderness and political sovereignty.

I wanted to know how rule is first mapped out and sculptured into civic ethics susceptible to keep in check with political ethology. The characteristics of selfishness, vengeance, dangerous competition and rivalry, self-centrism, exclusion, hunger for power for the sake of power, and megalomania are all too real. I am still deciphering my findings.

Today, more than ever, my question makes sense. Dissidents will soon share the real political theatre and sense and feel the stage and the scaffolding propping the republic they wish to redesign.

That moment will usher sweet victory but also challenges, which require stamina, and above all else, modesty every step of the way. It will test their ethical armour, and more to the point, what they are up to as far as the democratic learning curve is concerned.  

Syria's second spring

The 'Spring of Damascus' refuses to fade away. The second 'Spring of Damascus' is an opportunity for Assad to embrace it.

Syria has a liberal legacy. Egyptian Abd Al-Hakim Amer and other Syrian military men, during the short-lived Egypt-Syria union, dismantled Syria's liberal institutions and introduced the infrastructure of militarised and security-run polity. Assad can help revive that legacy.

Assad (literally meaning lion) need not be a predatory lion, rendering other species 'animals', subservient or petrified. He needs to be lion-hearted and partner with his compatriots to measure up to the toughest assignment of all: rule with and for his people, instead of ruling over them. As in all cases, action now must prove louder than his words in favour of reform.

In any case, the operative terms are vision, executive decisions, dialogue, partnership, and turning the learning curve of plural, peaceful and sustainable Damascene democratic conversion.

Dr Larbi Sadiki is a Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, and author of Arab Democratisation: Elections without Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2009) and The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses (Columbia University Press, 2004), forthcoming Hamas and the Political Process (2011).

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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