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Tarak Barkawi
Tarak Barkawi
Tarak Barkawi is Associate Professor in the Department of Politics, New School for Social Research.
Democracy and the nation-state in Syria and the world
A new Syrian nation can be born in the inferno of struggle, one that can overcome differences that appear unbridgeable.
Last Modified: 24 Aug 2012 15:13
Those struggling for freedom in Syria "must not sell out their revolution to foreign backers", writes Barkawi [EPA]

In his classic The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon drew a fraught connection between violence and national liberation. His idea was that in the course of a violent struggle against their oppressors, a disparate, divided people could come together to form a cohesive, democratic nation.

Fanon was well aware that violence was a diabolical means of liberation. He provided psychiatric case studies of mentally damaged liberation fighters, state security officials and their families to make the point.

But at the same time, he appreciated the generative, potentially positive powers of collective violence.

Violent struggle could transform a people. Through it they could learn political maturity, mutual respect and the subordination of personal interests for the cause. Most of all, they could cease being an oppressed, little people and become instead authors of their own fate, a beacon of freedom on the world stage.

The people of Syria have such an opportunity today. Many challenges confront them, and no one should underestimate the obstacles to such a democratic outcome. Internally, sectarianism is the greatest threat. Externally, the West and its allies in the Persian Gulf will seek to shape the outcome to suit their own interests and predilections.

Foreign relations

Everyone who joins the struggle against Assad, Sunni and Shia, Salafi and Alawite, Kurd and Christian, all must treat each other with tolerance and respect. A new Syrian nation can be born in the inferno of struggle, one that can overcome differences that today appear unbridgeable. Habits of co-operation developed under fire can endure into the peace. The demands of commanding rebel bands - cajoling, inspiring, sacrificing - are a university for Syria’s new leaders, a university with few places for the old elites. 

 Inside Syria - Aleppo: Syria's key battleground?

Those struggling for freedom in Syria must not sell out their revolution to foreign backers. The Qataris and the Saudis will be looking for an Islamist Syria. They and the West will seek to turn Syria against Iran and Hezbollah. Westerners will also want to privatise Syria’s economy and place it under foreign ownership. Free Syria must accept help, but not at any price. It must determine its own foreign relations, in its own interests, and support other peoples struggling for liberation.

For Fanon, liberation struggles like that in Syria could have worldwide significance. They can demonstrate new political possibilities for other peoples and lead to new forms of international solidarity. 

The Syrian struggle has brought renewed attention to the political viability of the nation-state and its democratic potential. For many in recent decades, globalisation has surpassed the nation-state and reduced it in importance. Much power is exercised at the international level, through free trade pacts like NAFTA, through international governmental organisations like the IMF and World Bank, through alliances like NATO, and through the institutions of the EU.

What all of these international entities share in common is their inherently anti-democratic character. They operate independent of any direct popular control; they are the instruments of elites.

There is no greater example of this than the EU. National publics are rarely given a vote. When they are, they usually reject further integration and control from Brussels. Eurocrats respond by going ahead with integration anyway, or hold multiple referendums until they get the “right” answer.

Democratic nation-state

By contrast, the nation-state remains a remarkable vehicle for democracy. Citizens can determine who their leaders are. They understand the major issues. They share enough in terms of culture, language and values that they can debate the collective issues before them. Most of all, perhaps, the scale of a single country is such that we can all imagine our fates are conjoined, interdependent. 

"The challenge in Syria is to make use of its violent opportunity to create a new national people and with it, a new republic."

Even in a globalised world, a democratic nation-state can direct its future, shape its economy and society, and determine what kind of place it will be. We have as yet come up with no larger political vehicle that promises a say to each of its citizens.

All of the great transnational entities that have brought us globalisation seek to stop us from having such a say. They are remote from the people and serve the interests of the elites of the day. And today, those elites are financiers who are destroying the West’s economies like they used to destroy those of the developing world.

The challenge in Syria is to make use of its violent opportunity to create a new national people and with it, a new republic. Democracy in the Middle East was never going to be implanted by foreign powers and their occupations. But it can be seized by a politically alive and mature people, who come to collective awareness in and through struggle.

But more than this, could it be that Syria will lead a new wave of democratisation? Could it be that Syria will be a beacon for those of us in the West? We are the ones who need to learn again to take control of our collective fates from rapacious elites who think only of their own wealth.

Those struggling for freedom in Syria have much to teach the world.

Tarak Barkawi is Associate Professor in the Department of Politics, New School for Social Research.

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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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