The New York Times, 10 April 2011
IN all my 50 years, I have never held a passport. Other than visiting Lebanon, I’d never left Syria when, in the fall of 2004, I was barred from leaving the country. I tried many times afterward to get a passport, but to no avail.
I spent 16 years of my youth in my country’s prisons, incarcerated for being a member of a communist pro-democracy group. During the recent protests, many more friends have been detained — most of them young — under the government’s catch-all emergency laws.
The state of emergency, under which Syria has lived for 48 years, has extended the ruling elite’s authority into all spheres of Syrians’ public and private lives, and there is nothing to stop the regime from using this power to abuse the Syrian population. Today, promises follow one after the other that these all-pervasive restrictions will be lifted. But one must ask, will it be possible for the Baath Party to rule Syria without the state of emergency that has for so long sustained it?
The official pretext for the emergency laws is the country’s state of war with Israel. However, restricting Syrians’ freedoms did no good in the 1967 war, which ended with the occupation of the Golan Heights, nor did it help in any other confrontations with the Jewish state, nor in any true emergencies. Because in the government’s eyes everything has been an emergency for the last half-century, nothing is an emergency.
Syria’s struggle against an aggressive Israel has encouraged the militarization of political life — a development that has been particularly favorable to single-party rule. And the suspension of the rule of law has created an environment conducive to the growth of a new ruling elite.
In 2005, the Baath Party decided, without any serious public discussion, to move toward what was dubbed a “social market economy.” It was supposed to combine competition and private initiative with a good measure of traditional socialism. In reality, as the state retreated, new monopolies arose and the quality of goods and services declined. Because local courts are corrupt and lack independence, grievances could not be fairly heard. Add to that a venal and idle bureaucracy, and the supposed economic reforms became a justification for the appropriation of economic power for the benefit of the rich and powerful.
Economic liberalization was in no way linked to political liberalization. After a half-century of “socialist” rule, a new aristocratic class has risen in Syria that does not accept the principles of equality, accountability or the rule of law. It was no accident that protesters in the cities of Dara’a and Latakia went after the property of this feared and hated aristocracy, most notably that of President Bashar al-Assad’s cousin Rami Makhlouf, a businessman who controls the country’s cellphone network and, more than anyone else, represents the intertwining of power and wealth in Syria.
Today’s ruling class has undeservedly accumulated alarming material and political power. Its members are fundamentally disengaged from the everyday realities of the majority of Syrians and no longer hear their muffled voices. In recent years, a culture of contempt for the public has developed among them.
Although some argue that the demonstrations are religiously motivated, there is no indication that Islamists have played a major role in the recent protests, though many began in mosques. Believers praying in mosques are the only “gatherings” the government cannot disperse, and religious texts are the only “opinions” the government cannot suppress. Rather than Islamist slogans, the most prominent chant raised in the Rifai Mosque in Damascus on April 1 was “One, one, one, the Syrian people are one!” Syrians want freedom, and they are fully aware that it cannot be sown in the soil of fear, which Montesquieu deemed the fount of all tyranny. We know this better than anyone else.
A search for equality, justice, dignity and freedom — not religion — is what compels Syrians to engage in protests today. It has spurred many of them to overcome their fear of the government and is putting the regime on the defensive.
The Syrian regime enjoys broader support than did Hosni Mubarak in Egypt or Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia. This is a source of strength, and one that Mr. Assad appears not to consider when he relies on the security forces to quell protests. If the regime is to keep any of its deeply damaged legitimacy, it will have to answer the protesters’ demands and recognize the popular longing for freedom and equality.
Whatever the outcome of the protests, Syria has a difficult road ahead. Between the pains of oppression and the hardships of liberation, I of course prefer the latter. Personally, I want to live nowhere but in Syria, although I am looking forward to acquiring a passport to visit my brothers in Europe, whom I have not seen for 10 years. I also want, finally, to feel safe.