The road to Damascus: The Syrian reformation

Bashar al-Assad must seize this democratic moment and respond to the calls for political reform sweeping across Syria.

    Historical pedigree and diversity make Syria a natural destination for hungry minds [GALLO/GETTY]

    In light of Syria's revolution, many are currently asking what it means to be a Syrian demanding reform. The answer is simple: the 'road to Damascus' must lead to good government.

    The protests from Izra to Damascus, and the 'martyrs' paid for the cause of good government, all resonate with demands for justice, fairness, universality of rights, equal citizenship, and respect.

    Seeing things in any other way would be likened to an optician of the calibre of Bashar al-Assad myopia or optical illusion.

    Syria gives the Arab revolution a particular taste and twist: a revolutionary taste that yet again confirms Arab societies to be dead only in the minds of Orientalists; and a twist that no amount of partisan or sectarian cohesion or police control can arrest the march of Arab people's power. 

    The Syrian people's power is a multiplying effect with added value, especially for neighbouring countries, including Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.

    I have always had a soft spot for the Levant and Syria featured in my own research fieldwork trail. It was a delight I cared to share with my students during study visits in 2004 and 2005, and summer schools I organised in conjunction with Aleppo University over two years during that period.

    Historical pedigree, diversity, intelligent and vivacious people; and gems of books found only in Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon all make Syria a natural destination for hungry minds.

    Like their Lebanese neighbours, the Syrians are political animals par excellence. The rise of the phenomenon of political salons activated my mental buds.

    I am still constructing findings of four years of research on the 'salons' in a book by the title 'Salon Democracy'. It is complete in my head but only partly committed to paper.

    Syrian specificity

    In my book, I share three observations I have garnered from my research in Syria.

    First, one difference stands out when comparing Syria with the countries experiencing a people's power ferment in the Arab Middle East. The authoritarian state's penetration and control have not fully blunted society's ability to parley and organise in pursuit of good government.

    Naturally, this has been at a high cost for state and society.

    The hardliners within the security forces, intelligence apparatus, and the ruling Baath Party silenced pro-reform voices around Assad. Assad himself was a soft-liner when he inherited power from his father in 2000.

    Several interlocutors back then who were close to Syria's political kitchen during the years of the 'Spring of Damascus' feared that the hardliners in the power echelons were machinating the defeat of the reform agendas within state and society.

    The death knell fully administered to the first 'Spring of Damascus' by 2004 confirms their worst fears. None is more guilty of killing Syria's salons and forums that shaped the first 'Spring of Damascus' more than the then deputy president, Abd al-Halim Khaddam, now exiled in France.

    For society, innumerable activists from the diverse grass-roots struggles for reform before, during, and after the first 'Spring of Damascus' that sprung to life with the advent of Assad to power in 2000 were either locked up or had their civil and political rights severely curtailed.

    Secondly, as someone who has always displayed faith in a bottom-up research strategy seeking to locate manifestations of civic habituation and attitudes within Arab societies, not states, Syria is a prime candidate for a relatively smooth democratic learning and transition.

    An open-minded and responsive Assad would have no trouble whatsoever finding partners (from within the country's sophisticated civil society) for the purpose of constructing a genuine democracy in Syria.

    So the answers to the ongoing uprising are at the tip of his fingers; these must not include trigger-happy security forces. 

    Lastly, the thesis of 'silence' does not ring true in Syria. Syrian society was passive neither at the height of anti-colonial resistance nor when the political salons in private homes were turned into sites of anti-authoritarian struggles  literally vibrant and amazing speakers' corners.

    Assad's advent to power partly encouraged a phase of heightened civic activism. Even members of the mukhabarat or intelligence services regularly attended various salons in Damascus, Aleppo and elsewhere in Syria.

    Syrian demand for empowerment

    Many hopes were, at the time, pinned on Assad to change the course of the ship of government from autocracy to democracy.

    A decade later Syria is back at that point, as if reclaiming its first 'spring'. This time the demand for democracy is no longer confined to dozens of private homes' political salons. It is overt, open, and loud and clear in favour of reform. To an extent, the political pendulum has now swung in favour of society.

    The raft of reforms recently introduced by Assad, no matter how reactionary, show he is fast learning and acting accordingly.

    He knows two things: to partner with society or lose all initiative and control; and to 'never say never' now that the Syrian masses are fearlessly knocking on his palace's door demanding empowerment without delay.

    Above all else, popular empowerment is equated with ending political and economic singularity. Here too, the belts of misery and marginalisation have acted first, pushing the boundaries from rural and tribal Syria (Deraa) to the heart of urbanism (Damascus and Aleppo).

    The late Hafez Assad might have been the 'sphinx of Damascus'. So might have Mubarak in Cairo or Gaddafi in Tripoli.

    The age of the 'Sphinx' is over. Tunisians, Egyptians, and Iraqis before them, shattered that myth that states can be turned into private possessions or fiefdoms.

    Assad might be up to this learning curve. Times have changed. Central to increased Arab demand for empowerment is 'de-privatising' rule and distributing political and economic power more equitably.

    Assad conducted wide consultation with key thinkers, intellectuals, businessmen and others over a few years after he arrived in power. He sought a cross-wide opinion of where Syrian politics went wrong. This he did in the spirit of seeking independent assessment of the state of play in the country he found himself almost fortuitously leading.

    A car accident in 1994 changed his destiny from optometry to political casuistry. He was made to occupy the seat for which elder brother Basil was being groomed.

    Assad felt it his duty to step into Basil's shoes. But he was not a fit. Nothing in medicine prepared him for the travails of partnering with the rigid Ba'ath Party and a security apparatus over which he may have had limited control.

    Bashar al-Assad must now go back to that state of mind when he did not want the presidency; and all he wanted to be was a doctor.

    He can return to optometry after a four or five-year as a democratic president. This he must seek as a legitimate mandate from his people to lead for the sake of a democratic Syria – not for family or for sect.

    A short stint at the helm as a democratic leader is surely better than 30 years as a singular despotic leader. Here lies an opportunity to re-write the Assads' political history.

    Seeing is leading

    However, to enact a democratic conversion as a president, Bashar al-Assad must go back to the basics of optometry. The biggest surgery of his political career arrives now: how to make the old-blinkered Baathists and security forces shackling Syria see right.

    To make them see right, he must give then the sense that power-sharing and good government have become non-negotiables. It is the age of Arab people's empowerment with multiplying force and infectiousness.

    The very voices and forces the Baath and the powerful intelligence apparatus have tried to conceal through internment, censorship, or forced exile are the very voices Assad must hear from. And, the very forces he must see and engage with.

    The answers are in Syria. Exaggerated centralisation of power has always been justified in the name of curbing outside meddling.

    This is a faulty reasoning. The Syrian dissidents I have studied in my work have chosen to live and struggle from within Syria and most have opted to improvise and utilise modest resources rather than partner with foreign powers (such as the funding given to the establishment of the London-based opposition Barada TV).

    This is a time when Assad can work with his people, compatrioting pro-democracy voices to unshackle Syrians. Bashar will soon discover the miracles of citizenship.

    A vibrant civil society filled with discourses and counter-discourses, will move society forward, not only increasing the chances of economic mobility: through increased innovation, international trade and tourism, but most importantly political mobility within and outside Syria's borders.

    Maybe with this renewed ablity to actively and openly plot the course for society, freed Syrians may also deliver the Golan Heights from occupation, via the mechanisms of International Law and the merits of enhanced political discourse.

    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.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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