Strategic Research and Communication Centre, 10 October 2010

Analysis article reviewing the factors and events that has transformed the social and political structure in the Syrian society leading to its contemporary state.

Syria has been experiencing dramatic change since the year 2000. Exposure to globalisation, transition into new social economy, and the information age were the main factors behind these changes. However, with the failure of the Damascus Spring there has been no active voice of political opposition, without such a voice, it will be impossible to achieve success in this transition; which requires a dialogue between all parties.

In the first overt period of public political activity witnessed in Syria in the current era, the beginning of which coincided with the first summer of this century, the weakness of the political parties was clear. This period was named the Damascus Spring, because it followed a severe political drought which lasted throughout the last two decades of the twentieth century, and brought the relief of more fertile, and less harsh, political and moral climes. The character of the Damascus Spring was particularly centred in the “forums”. These were gatherings of dozens of interested individuals, usually held in homes, to discuss public affairs. The role of intellectuals, former political prisoners and rights activists was more prominent within them than that of the political parties. The focus during this period was on concepts such as democracy, human rights, civil society and citizenship, rather than partisan ideologies such as communism and Arab nationalism (the grass roots from which most of the participants in that abortive spring season had grown).

The forums at this time were openly attended by associations which defined themselves with the issue of human rights. An assembly of intellectuals of varying origins and inclinations was also established, calling itself the “Civil Society Revival Committees”. Women participated in all of these assemblies, and also in the forums, although perhaps with fewer than five participants. The common factor among these groups is that they were apolitical. They did not target the political regime, nor set themselves the task of changing it. Nonetheless, the government viewed them as opposition. This was because they were independent first of all, and secondly because they put forward public demands with clearly political content, the realisation of which would require significant political change. And finally, this was because most of those who participated in their activities had origins in the opposition, and no small number of them were former political prisoners.

One of the foremost characteristics of this phase of public activity was the complete absence of the Islamists. This is easily understood. They had waged a violent battle with the regime between the end of the nineteen seventies and the beginning of the eighties, which ended with them either forcibly leaving Syria or being subjected to extremely harsh treatment. Islamists resident abroad followed the Damascus Spring from their countries of residence, and were restricted to publishing documents conflicting with the democratic language of the activists of that period. They used the Internet to connect themselves with a relatively wide audience. The independent and opposition domestic political parties meanwhile moved slowly, working to rehabilitate themselves within this new scene. They were not isolated from the public work, but they were definitely not in a leading or directing position. This all runs contrary to the fundamentals of the history of public work in Syria, which was a history of political parties and ideologies, aside from a clear aspiration to rule. Success was not unusual, before the most successful individual took power for thirty years, and passed it to his successor. For their part, the authorities drove forward economic reform as an alternative to the political reform which was the focus of the demands of the Damascus Spring activists. This was then transformed into “development and renewal”, or to “administrative reform”. The government and the Islamists, in their own way were, responding to the demands of the “Spring” activists was an indication that the initiatives of the Syrian intellectuals and activists were setting the agenda for public debate in the country at that time, although the authorities refused to respond to their core demands for political reform.

The Syrian scene did not seriously change again until the year 2005. The irony is that this occurred during the most violent crisis through which the reign of President Bashar Al-Asad has passed, and which seemed for a time could be his downfall. These crises started straight after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri where accusation fingers were pointing at Syria and its intelligence forces in Lebanon. In the summer of 2005 the Baath party, which has ruled the country since 1963, held a conference at which it inaugurated the transformation towards the social market economy, which in practice meant towards an economic liberation, after more than forty years of the planned social economy. In late 2007, once the high point of the crisis had died down, the authorities directed a blow against Damascus Declaration, which had been formed in autumn 2005, and represented the main body of political opposition. The Damascus Declaration was essentially composed of parties, including participation from Kurdish parties, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and independents. But even before the authorities arrested its leaders in late 2007 and early 2008, the union experienced altercations and struggles which left it weakened. By adopting the social market economy and ending all political activities the regime took control of a broad economic playing field, and strengthened its grip on an already narrow political playing field.

Today, in autumn 2010, the Syrian ideological and party spectrum seems dull and inactive, too middle-aged to attract the younger generation. It seems that this even applies to the ruling Baath party, and also to loyal parties which are supposedly helping to rule the country, joining the National Progressive Front under its leadership. Similarly, it seems that the intellectuals, who were at the forefront of public work in the days of the Damascus Spring, are today distancing themselves from any public activities. The state itself meanwhile, on top of the fact that it has been partisan for 47 years, has demonstrated extreme centralisation around the position and permanence of authority since the early days of the reign of the late president Hafiz Al-Asad. This has always been achieved at the expense of its public structure and role. In an environment such as this, the political party and the modern and intellectual political ideology, the pillars of political modernity, suffer a crisis, to which is added the institutional weakness of the state and the emaciation of the legislative and judicial authorities and the media before the executive authority, the muscular element of which overcomes their legal element, and which moreover displays a “personalised” character. In an environment such as this, opportunities for a shared national identity are diminished and partisan tribal groupings, with religious links, are likely to be revived, which has in fact occurred. This has proven that the religious links were substituting for lack of free expression.

Over recent years manifestations and symbols of religiousness have been more evident in the public sphere, to the degree that they have aroused the resentment of the authorities. In late May, in a speech to American channel PBS, President Bashar Al-Asad said that “the greatest challenge” facing Syria is “preserving the secularism of society”. And towards the end of the following month, the Ministry of Education transferred 1200 veil-wearing teachers from schools to other positions, particularly within the municipalities, while the Education Minister said that other ministries would follow the same path. In fact the Ministry of Higher Education did so in mid July by banning veiled women from entering Syrian university campuses. It is possible that behind developments of this kind lies a message that Syria is not like Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas, according to observers. (In the same conversation the President said, “our support for Hezbollah and Hamas does not mean that we like them.”) However, this may also demonstrate the authorities’ uncertainty regarding how to deal with a worrying phenomenon which gives no cause for use of force, and which is impossible to control without broad moral, cultural and political renewal, which it seems the authorities are unable or unwilling to provide. It seems that the social religiousness, and the growth in class consciousness in general, is linked to irreversible economic and social processes at play in the country. These include the relative “economic liberation”, the accompanying degree of social and media liberalism, and the expansion of private education. They also include the collapse of public and educational services (and especially health services), the spread of unemployment and the growth of the informal economic sector. From an alternative viewpoint, there is an equivalent collapse in the system of social mobilisation which accompanied the rule of the Baath party, specifically the “popular”, student, youth and women’s organisations, the Baath party itself, and the unions. The issue here is the long term change in the “people’s social contract” by which the party state monopolised the social and political establishment, in return for guaranteeing life’s essentials to the general public (and defence of the country).

Today the economy is “liberated”, and the state has in practice withdrawn from its obligation to provide acceptable conditions of life for broad sections of the population, while maintaining its monopoly on the establishment, and forcefully resisting the creation of independent organisations and unions. Added to this is a moral and cultural vacuum created by the social transformation itself, and the collapse of the nationalist and leftist ideological values which were dominant in Syria until the nineteen eighties. All of this increases the demand for religiousness, and for its tokens and symbols. This is certainly not a political religiousness. It is a social religiousness towards which Islamist politicians in particular are moving, whilst distancing themselves from the adversarial politics of the authorities, and from political partnerships with other opposition elements.

All of these transformations are being consolidated by the new communications technologies which are winning sovereignty of information from the state on the one hand, and encouraging private life and the withdrawal from the public sphere on the other hand. They are also being consolidated by an international crisis of modernity and its institutions. The political party is in crisis everywhere, as are ideologies and universal metanarratives, according to theorists of post-modernism. This is systemically inclined towards small narratives, and towards all things marginal, transverse and recessive, supporting tendencies towards social fragmentation dormant within our societies, or giving them legitimacy, while weakening or damaging the legitimacy of concepts such as the youth, the community, the state and the citizen. Added to all of this is the phenomenon of the internationalisation of the elites through non-governmental organisations, the spread of which is still limited in Syria in comparison with Egypt, Palestine and Lebanon. We are not separated from this international climate borne by globalisation and its technologies, by a change in the structure of production and demand in the capitalist centres (moving further and further in the direction of individualism), and by the increasing movement away from wholesale production for an anonymous and unified people.

It can be concluded from this that these changes do not demonstrate a supposed revival of civil society in Syria. Governmental policies have weakened the civility of doomed society (the banning of independent social initiatives and organisations). It appears today that creeping capitalism, in an absence of political liberalisation, is driving a further weakening of social participation. The crisis of the tools and values of modernity within our social and cultural context, meanwhile, is leading to a revival of the values and formulas of a pre-modern order, or a simulation of pre-modern formulas, characterised by a significant fragmentation. Civil society is one of the concepts of modernity; when modernity is in crisis it has no refuge. I prefer to speak of the crisis in the national structure of the state and society, of a fragmented, organic society, and of a modern form of state authority.

In which direction is this social formation developing? And what are the forces guiding its direction of development? First and above all are the economic changes which, as I have stated, have a socially divisive force. There is a definite link between these changes and the spread of poverty, the rise in the unemployment rate and the broadening of marginalisation. In second place are the processes of globalisation, in terms of economics and communications, and the associated post-modern environments. These shrink the world economically and in communications terms, but they Balkanise it culturally according to Régis Debray, inspiring disputes of identity, civilisation and religion. This is plainly evident. Moreover they damage the economic, informational and symbolic sovereignty of the state. In third place is the role of regional dynamics, although this may jump to the fore at any time in a regional environment which includes Israel, Iraq and Lebanon, and Iran and its struggle with the West. This “Middle East” is internationalised to such an extent that internal dynamics are not independent of the developmental directions of countries. At any moment something unforeseen may occur and begin pushing in an alternate direction, which may be the opposite of the current movement. The effect of this “external factor” is proportionate to the diminishing of the domestic, local structure. The reality is that we lack a theoretical model for conceptually organising our contemporary political society and for explaining its transformation. This is a great challenge before Syrian and Arab intellectuals. I do not believe that the concept of “civil society” is facing up to this challenge.

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