Published: June 28, 2013
“Freedom for an Oxford don . . . is a very different thing from freedom for an Egyptian peasant,” said that most eminent of Oxford dons, Isaiah Berlin. Is he right? Does the Egyptian peasant demand a different sort of freedom than that of an English professor?
At no point has this question exercised the minds of scholars and commentators more so than at present. Ever since Mohamed Bouazizi’s act of self-immolation, the matter of what Arabs want has become a central feature of the global debate. Yet there is little that is known for certain apart from a general aspiration to be in a state of freedom—hurriya in Arabic. What that means for the Arabs on the streets of Cairo, Tripoli or Sana’a is wide open to interpretation. Those of a Western disposition would tell you that it means to live in a secular democracy, while an Islamist would argue that true freedom can only be achieved by way of a state that applies the Shari’a.
What is freedom?
There is little consensus among the Arab political classes on the definition of “freedom,” in no small part because they have not yet settled that most elemental question of politics: that of political authority. As Berlin himself put it, “‘Why should I (or anyone) obey anyone else?’ ‘Why should I not live as I like?’ ‘Must I obey?’ ‘If I disobey, may I be coerced?’ ‘By whom, and to what degree, and in the name of what, and for the sake of what?’” Convincing answers have not been forthcoming.
The result is has been a blanket of pessimism and foreboding that has descended on the Arab world as “revolutions” have given way to conflict and chaos. “When ideas are neglected by those who ought to attend to them,” Berlin warned in the 1950s, “they sometimes acquire an unchecked momentum and an irresistible power over multitudes of men that may grow too violent to be affected by rational criticism.” Is this not what troubles the Arab intellectual today? The uprisings may have launched a thousand political careers, but they have not produced a unifying intellectual movement that defines the popular will in the same way as the philosophes did for the French Revolution. There is much that is indefinite, and it is in the indefinite spaces that the power-seekers of Egypt, Tunisia and so on now quarrel, clothed, as they often are, in the language of freedom.
That it is the language of “freedom” and not anything else is significant. But as Berlin argues in Two Concepts of Liberty, the term is heavily nuanced and can serve as much to emancipate as to enslave. Communism may not have survived the last century, but its underlying account of what freedom is lives on through a host of ideas that have dominated Arab political culture for decades.
Whether it be Arab nationalism or political Islam, insofar as these ideologies maintain that the freedom of the social whole—be it a nation or a body of believers—to be of a higher value than that of the individual, they can be said to espouse a vision of “positive freedom.” Communism promised the proletariat the freedom to achieve collective self-realization as a class, while Arab nationalism promised to do the same for a linguistic group, as a sovereign people in a world of sovereign states. “Freedom to” contrasts with “freedom from,” the latter of which is merely the absence of coercion or interference by others. In the West, political freedom has come to mean this “negative,” individual liberty.
However, across the Middle East, calls for the pursuit of ideals exterior to one’s self—“positive freedom”—appear to growing louder and louder. In Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Syria, Islamists are on the march, promising their peoples the freedom to become great once again, despite the fact that many of the dictatorial regimes that were overthrown relied chiefly on the same type of collectivist ideas for legitimacy. The ideological soil from which Arab democrats hope to cultivate freer societies could hardly be less fertile, and yet what is expected to emerge is something resembling a Western-style liberal democracy, complete with a free press and respect for human rights.
How one intellectual tradition can give rise to a political system that emerged out of another quite distinct tradition remains one of the great paradoxes of the Arab Spring. Those who have already written off the uprisings as unmitigated disasters will say that what the “Arab street” really wants is just another dictator, only this time with a beard. But there is another explanation, which says it has something to do with an Arab propensity to hold simultaneous ideas that are not easily reconcilable. Many in the early part of the last century adopted the slogan “modernity and tradition” (al-asala wal mu’asara) as a cure-all for several centuries of slumber, while the Ba’athist call for “Unity, Freedom, Socialism” a few years later served much the same purpose.
Could it be that, given the deep confusion in the Arab public’s mind and its lack of decisive quality, what the Egyptian peasant thinks he wants is both individual and collective freedom? Quite possibly. What is more certain is that, at least with “negative” individual freedom, it is the same type everywhere, whether in Cairo or Oxford, because the objective wants and desires of all human individuals can only be one and the same. Where there is a difference it is not in kind but in quantity, and that is a question of horse-trading between civil society and the government of the land.
The republican fraud
No entity has shaped Arab attitudes to freedom more so than the state. But as Moroccan historian Abdallah Al-Arawi notes, the Arab state has never been associated, in its emergence and development, with the idea of political liberty in its Western sense. “Liberty (hurriya) in Islamic thought has a psychological/metaphysical meaning, whereas in Western thought it carries mainly a political and social meaning,” he wrote.
Indeed, the first recorded use of the word “liberty” to denote “political freedom” dates to the year 1798, when Napoleon Bonaparte issued a declaration in Arabic addressing the Egyptians on behalf of the French Republic “founded on the basis of freedom and equality.” One can then speak of a tension between the concept of liberty and the concept of the state in traditional Arab–Islamic society: “The more extended the concept of the state,” Arawi argues, ”the narrower the scope for freedom.” That is why Arab nation-builders in the modern era failed to entice the Arab citizen into regarding the nationalist state, created in the European image, as a manifestation of a general will or of public ethics. Instead, Arab states are to varying degrees obsessed with power and strength, “but lack the necessary moral, ideological and educational supports.” The result, argues Arawi, is that the state remained “alien” in relation to society, feared but unloved.
This was not a happy start for Arabs who had newly emerged into modernity. It got worse for some when Egypt’s Gamal Abdul Nasser inspired the rise of a fiercer breed of state: the radical, populist republic. Tunisia, Libya, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Algeria and Sudan all came to be ruled by regimes that mimicked Nasser in his authoritarianism, corporatism, militarism and pseudo-socialism. Invariably, power in these states revolved around three poles: the president, the army and the party. In this system, popular legitimacy was found not in procedure or achievement, but in lofty goals expressed in nationalist, religious or class terms, to which ends individual interests and desires were wholly subordinated. In such a state, writes political philosopher Anthony de Jasay, “the subject’s whole existence shall be ruled by one and the same command–obedience relation, with no separate public and private spheres, no divided loyalties, no countervailing centres of power, no sanctuaries and nowhere to go.”
Faced with criticisms over his trampling of political freedoms, in 1961 Nasser set out to explain what he understood by the word “freedom”: “There can be no political freedom in this nation without there being first social freedom,” he declared, “because social freedom is the basis on which man becomes free. Political freedom has no meaning if man is not free from feudalism, capitalism and monopolies.” Herein lies the problem.
Nasser was an angry young man who felt humiliated by Israel, European colonialism, and by a redundant upper class of indolent pashas and effendis. After capturing power, he embarked on an ambitious programme of nationalization, centralization and industrialization, waging a battle to transform the whole of society in spite of itself, to create a more modern and more assertive state that he and his fellow Arabs could be proud of. And because this rapid pace of transformation required a new social ethos, what transpired was a deliberate confusion of values—an ideological sleight of hand by Nasser—in which the limited degree of “negative” political freedom that Egyptians had previously enjoyed was replaced with Soviet-style “positive” freedom that prioritized collective national goals.
The underlying motive for leaders of Nasser’s generation was therefore not the search for political freedom at all, but a search for status by a people wishing to escape a position of perceived inferiority to which colonialism and its trappings of democracy and capitalism had consigned it. And so the term freedom (hurriya) became loosely interchangeable with national independence (istiklal), justice (‘adala), and dignity (karama), blurring their meanings together. For Nasser and his disciples (Mubarak, Saleh, Gaddafi, and so on), freedom was the freedom of the Arab to be taken seriously.
Inasmuch as the recent uprisings were a conscious rejection of the Nasserite model of government, they were also a rejection of that poorly defined freedom that came along with it. Not by chance did republican regimes collapse while monarchies did not. Several factors appear to be at play. The liberalizing influence of satellite television channels on Arab political culture from the mid-1990s onward helped to popularize “freedom,” “democracy,” “elections,” “human rights” and other words that engendered a liberal consciousness. There was also the uncomfortable adjustment to market capitalism that many of the populist republics had to endure, which resulted in a contraction of the state’s social base and a widening of the gap between rich and poor. For paternalistic regimes that prided themselves on being able to provide for their people, this proved particularly damaging.
But there is also another factor, one that shattered the foundations of the radical republican dream. The humiliating defeat of Saddam Hussein proved to be the crippling blow because he, more so than any other Arab dictator, took the Nasserite model to its logical (and rather absurd) conclusions. But far from elevating the status of Iraq in the rank of nations, he brought disaster upon it in a series of misadventures that destroyed his country’s prestige, economy and society—exactly the opposite of what the Nasserite model was meant to achieve. His demise underscored the moral bankruptcy of a system that suppressed humanity’s empirical needs and desires to a transcendent and controlling “self”—a bloated bureaucracy no less—which manipulated and crushed the individual until he had lost all agency. Saddam’s undignified end was not only the final nail in the coffin for a deeply authoritarian system of government, but also for the vision of freedom on which it was based.
Speaking at an Arab League summit in 2008, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi showed that he knew that the writing was on the wall. “A foreign power occupies an Arab country and hangs its leader while we watch and laugh,” he harangued fellow heads of state. “An entire Arab leadership is taken away to the gallows while we watch! Maybe it will all be your turn next!”
One of the great tenets of the post-Bouazizi era is that what Arabs want is democracy. In an earlier generation, similar pronouncements were made about Arabs wanting nothing more than the liberation of Palestine, or socialism, or the nationalization of oil. General assumptions such as these risks pigeon-holing Arab needs based on whatever slogan happened to be fashionable at the time. Isaiah Berlin, for one, saw no necessary connection between freedom and democratic rule. “The answer to the question ‘Who governs me?’” he wrote, “is logically distinct from the question ‘How far does government interfere with me?’” Indeed, a democracy may deprive an individual of many liberties which he might otherwise enjoy in some other form of society.
Present-day Egypt serves as a warning against confusing democracy with freedom. The country’s rulers may have been elected through a free and fair vote, but they have been unwilling to dismantle the authoritarian state against which the youths of Tahrir Square ranged themselves. “That authoritarian conception of the state remained entrenched regardless of the differing ideologies and motivations of those who ruled,” wrote commentator Jack Shenker, “from colonial officials to the post-1952 military dictatorship, from Hosni Mubarak’s kleptocrats to the army junta that managed the so-called ‘transition’ to democracy,” and now arguably to the Muslim Brotherhood. So what really has changed in the new Egypt? Activists continue to be imprisoned, NGOs hounded, voluntary associations criminalized and women victimized, while contrived identity politics dominates the political space. Without an agenda to enshrine individual liberty—that is, to redraw the boundary between public authority and private life decisively in favor of the latter—the promise of the revolution will remain unfulfilled.
The Arab Spring may have opened a Pandora’s Box of unresolved prejudices and vendettas, but it has also broken open the box containing Arab individualism, which so far has not expressed eloquently, but it is there nevertheless and cannot be put back in the box. It is the natural counter-reaction to the authoritarianism of the Nasserite republics, and it represents the latent energy that has sustained an irresistible drive for change.
This is manifesting in various ways. Political scientist Olivier Roy has written extensively about the “diversification and the individualization of the religious field,” and how this has helped bring religion back into the private sphere and exclude it from government management. In politics, too, this process is taking place, albeit with some unexpected results: a study by an Egyptian social scientist shows that voters in a village in Fayoum chose the Salafists over the Muslim Brotherhood partly because they came across as less monolithic and centralized. Arab political culture might still be dominated by collectivist and statist ideas inspired by “positive” visions of freedom, but these are increasingly being used simply to legitimize what is blatantly a free enterprise agenda aimed at creating diversity and meeting individual tastes. Thus the Salafists of Egypt will talk about an Islamic state, but what they really appear to be interested in doing is opening profit-making TV channels, segregated coffee shops and alcohol-free hotel resorts. The idea that a state—any state—can hope to solve society’s ills in the coming decades is declining in the public mind and giving way to a quasi-libertarian vision that accommodates different lifestyle choices within a politically neutral, though not necessarily fully democratic, framework.
Some states, like Syria and Yemen, may not survive this process, but the current trajectory of the uprisings points to that end. The Arab search for individual “negative” freedom is, in this respect, absolutely elemental to an understanding of the spirit of the Arab Spring
For any of that to be realized, there must first be an authority that will sustain and protect political liberty. Here, the discord-riven republics can learn something from the monarchies that have traditionally been more successful in delineating the public and private realms. The historian Bernard Lewis believes that this may have something to do with how different Arab countries came to experience Western hegemony. “In those [Arab] countries which were never entirely taken over [by colonial powers],” he writes, “the discussion of freedom was concerned primarily not with the rights of the group against other groups or of the state against other states, but rather with the rights of the individual against the group or the state.”
Consequently, the monarchies have tended to recognize society and its constitutive groups and have not sought to supplant them as the populist republics had done. Attachment to family, kin, neighborhood and community, observance of custom and tradition, an adherence to a collective faith and a general nostalgia for the past: this is the “organic” ideology on which all Arab monarchies are established. Indeed, authority in monarchical states can said to be more “social” than “political,” more cultural than coercive. This, in large part, explains why revolution has not taken place in Jordan, Morocco or Saudi Arabia. Post-Arab Spring “democracies,” take note.
Published: June 11, 2013
The Syrian National Coalition (SNC) is a peculiar creature. It can be classed neither as a revolutionary organization—it is no Palestine Liberation Organization or African National Congress—nor as a true opposition umbrella group, like the Alliance for Change that toppled Milošević. Its purpose is similarly perplexing. It claims to represent the aims and aspirations of the Syrian people, yet it has no presence on the ground and little say over what people do there. It promises international intervention—or at the very least the arming of the Free Syrian Army—yet NATO has explicitly ruled out becoming involved. And while the SNC makes a big fuss about its humanitarian work, what little money that reaches the deserving is often marked by corruption. If the SNC is not an effective leadership body, a relief organization, or a particularly good lobby group, what exactly is it?
This question did not seem to have perturbed the minds of the hundred or so oppositionists who gathered in Istanbul last month to debate widening the group’s membership. At the end of nine tortuous days of horse-trading punctuated by haranguing from foreign ambassadors, they eventually settled on a list of 114 members, up from a mere sixty. There are now more liberals, FSA officers and representatives of local councils in the internationally recognized and supported body. “The coalition has succeeded in undergoing the expansion,” declared acting president George Sabra. He is right. The coalition did succeed in Istanbul, but only in the same way as Hezbollah triumphed in Qusayr: at great cost.
But unlike Hezbollah, Syria’s oppositionists are not new to loss of prestige. They have been the butt of newsroom jokes for years, well before the popular uprising exposed their incompetence to all and sundry. The problem is that this time, their squabbling risks disturbing that last fig leaf of credibility: that they, despite their obvious faults, represent an alternative vision of politics to that of the Assad regime.
That claim is becoming increasingly harder to sustain. Take, for instance, the way that SNC members are chosen. Elections are out; in are the much-favored muhasasa (share-allocation) and tawafuk (consensus) methods, in which seats are dispensed by a committee of apparatchiks in a manner that aims to keep rival factions of (mostly exiled) oppositionists happy. When faced with criticisms over the ineffectiveness of the body, the usual answer is to expand membership to co-opt those complaining from the sidelines. The exact criteria for membership is kept conveniently elastic; that is how Ghassan Hitto, an unknown businessman who was an expatriate in Texas for thirty years and who has no experience of opposition politics, can end up as interim prime minister. Indeed, that is how Sabra himself—having failed to win a minimum number of votes in the Syrian National Council election last November—was handpicked by a shadowy inner circle to become first the head of the council (the largest bloc within the coalition), and then the coalition’s acting president.
Take also the delicate matter of “foreign interference.” Days into the Istanbul meeting, SNC figures began talking of “external pressures” being applied to accept resolutions that have been cooked up by Russia and the West. “A strong media campaign is underway against the SNC because it refused to submit to pressures,” tweeted Abdulkarim Bakkar, an SNC member. “The coalition fought for independent national decision-making and got most of what it wanted,” he added.
While all this sounds terribly heroic, the reality is that the SNC is heavily mortgaged to the Qatar–Turkey axis and is as much “independent” of the two as Assad is of the Iranians. Now, internal disputes within the SNC have to be settled by the group’s regional backers and the resolution of the conflict rests in the hands of US secretary of state John Kerry and Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov. The fact is that the SNC owes its legitimacy not to the backing of ordinary Syrians, but to the willingness of the West and Arab states to do business with it. This is precisely the sort of legitimacy that Assad enjoyed before the uprising, and which the SNC oppositionists hope will propel them to power.
The SNC also suffers from a lack of achievement, a corporatist mindset, disdain for the ordinary man, aversion to institutional transparency and accountability, and a disinclination to anything resembling intellectual honesty. What is the SNC? Well, it is a collection of self-interested individuals who see themselves as intermediaries between foreign powers and local communities in a strategically important part of the Middle East. They are essentially glorified middlemen who, quite naturally, spend most of their time in luxury hotels conceiving plots, striking deals, arranging payments, and every so often appearing on TV to condemn whatever crime Assad is committing.
This “go-betweener” role, which involves a great deal of clientelism and conspiracy, has been a constant function of the Syrian political elite. In the 1950s, it was split along pro-Hashemite and pro-Saudi/Egyptian lines until Hafez Al-Assad eliminated elite infighting by imposing himself as supreme middleman. What has changed is that now there are two political elites in conflict, and the difference between them is subtler than they can comfortably admit.
The SNC cannot shape its own destiny: it is the vehicle by which others shape theirs. So is the Assad regime. It is with this growing realization on the part of ordinary Syrians that both parties now weigh the costs and benefits of negotiating in Geneva.
Published: 29 January 2013
The recent elections in Jordan, held amidst a boycott by the main opposition parties, have fuelled talk of a missed opportunity. The argument goes that a toothless parliament, composed mostly of loyalists elected by an unfair electoral system, will be unlikely to provide a legal and democratic channel for dissent, leaving the opposition no option but to resort to the street.
Indeed, recent protests over price hikes have led some observers to speculate that Jordanians have grown wary of the king and are, like their neighbors to the north, ready for an uprising. Others concede that a full-blown uprising is unlikely, but that sweeping political reforms are urgently needed to avoid serious instability in the future. The side that advocates reform has, by and large, dominated the debate on Jordan.
But does King Abdullah II really need to reform so quickly and so deeply? A little-publicized incident from the northern town of Ramtha suggests that he can afford to take his time. In November 2011, twenty-year-old taxi driver Najm Al-Azayza was arrested by Jordanian military police on suspicion of smuggling arms across the nearby border with Syria. After four days in custody, the family of the young man were informed that he had “hung himself,” and were instructed to collect his body from the local mortuary. What followed was a riot that saw the Amman–Damascus highway closed and a police station and municipality building burned to the ground. The clan to which the young man belonged demanded justice, accusing the authorities of torturing their son to death.
What followed could so easily have been a re-run of events in Dera’a, Syria. Eight months earlier, similar circumstances in that city involving police brutality resulted in a nationwide uprising that continues to this day. Instead, Awn Al-Khasawna, then prime minister of Jordan, intervened and ordered an immediate investigation by the country’s chief coroner. When that failed to pacify the townsmen, it fell to King Abdullah II to settle the matter in person. The officer accused of the torture was arrested, compensation was promised and calm restored to the town.
While acts of royal magnanimity alone may not be enough to stave off future internal instability, they do underscore a number of key lessons that Jordan watchers will be wise to take on board. The first is that whatever mistakes agents of the state commit in their dealings with ordinary people, in Jordan the king is still seen as the ultimate guarantor of justice. That, in a clan-based society, is hugely important in affirming his legitimacy to rule over the kingdom.
The second is that the government has grown accustomed to handling outbursts of popular anger. Because Jordan is not a repressive state, and because the security forces there tend to tread lightly when compared to their neighboring counterparts, demonstrations and calls for reform are nothing new. At times, disturbances have resulted in real and immediate reforms, such as during the April 1989 food riots that led to the resumption of parliamentary politics. Most of the time, protests do not end in fatalities and local grievances are settled within the community through civil society networks. The moderation of the Jordanian political system helps to prevent sparks turning into fires.
Jordanian monarchs are not stubbornly resistant to change, but they are resistant to change where significant challenges to their authority exist. Given the civil war in Syria, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and growing instability in Iraq, it would seem uncharacteristically enterprising for the Jordanian monarch to embark on a program of deep political reform at this time.
King Abdullah II can take heart from the fact that the demands of recent protests have been mainly economic, and that the Islamist-dominated opposition remains weak and splintered. Despite high fuel prices, the Jordanian middle class does not object to subsidy reform as long as it is offset by greater inward investment. There is still some ground to cover in the war against high-level corruption, but with the conviction last year of the former head of the intelligence directorate, it appears that a serious start has been made. The impression in Amman is that the king will deliver reform at a pace congruous with wider developments in the region, but at least he is listening.
The early days of Syria’s uprising in spring 2011 saw young activists across the country rising to demand an end to the authoritarian regime led by Bashar al-Assad. Many were idealistic students or recent graduates now working in modern professions, who were inspired by the successful revolts in Tunisia and Egypt. Their aspirations for a new Syria began with free and fair elections, constitutional reform, freedom of speech, respect for human rights and a farewell to the brutal police state.
Samir, a 31-year-old IT professional and protest organiser from Zabadani, forty-five kilometres northwest of Damascus, is typical of many from this emergent activist community. He helped coordinate the first demonstration in his hometown on 25 March 2011, and co-established there the first tansiqiya(protest coordination committee). Before this, Samir had been unaffiliated to any political party but had kept himself informed by watching satellite news channels and browsing the internet.
What tipped him into action? Samir had admired figures such as a local doctor and pro-democracy activist, Kamal Labwani, then held in jail on trumped-up charges. He was also buoyed by events in Tunisia and Egypt. But it was the vigils, boycotts and demonstrations that had occurred in Damascus in previous weeks – even before the eruption in the town of Der’aa – that gave him the boldness to act. Samir and other activists say that Syria’s revolution began on 15 March 2011 when a courageous band of young people staged the first protest in the capital’s historic Hamidiya market. Their chants were “peaceful, peaceful”, “the Syrian people are one,” and “God, Syria and Freedom.” This nascent model of protest would later be replicated in towns and cities across Syria.
The intellectual point of departure for Samir and activists like him was a belief in the innate goodness of Syria’s people and the decency of Syria’s society. They believed that Syria, once freed from the malign grip of Assad and his cronies, would return to a liberal default setting – with a multi-party system and a free press – that resembled the model of the 1950s. If Syrians were left to their own devices, they would reject sectarianism and violence, coalesce around a freedom agenda, and create the conditions for a new society to emerge: de-Ba’athified, demilitarised, and democratic. What’s more, all this could be done without foreign military intervention.
Against the odds
The heady heights of the early phase of protests made such idealism almost forgivable. Now, twenty months and later – after thousands of deaths, hundreds of thousands of reguees, and massive destruction of infrastructure, with no end in sight – it is clear that this Jeffersonian vision of Syria’s refoundation from a “state of nature” was nothing more than wishful thinking. The country’s steady descent into sectarian civil war and chaos makes the initial hopes of a non-violent people’s revolution look naive. This hard experience has taught many activists who began by jumping headlong into a struggle for peace, freedom and democracy a hard lesson. Between the Syria of their dreams, and the land beneath their feet, a huge chasm has widened even further.
The turning-point for Samir came in September 2012, when a Free Syrian Army (FSA) commander in his hometown gave him a video recording to pass on to the Al-Jazeera broadcasting network. It was of local fighters, inside a holiday villa belonging to a wealthy Damascene, going through the owner’s library and removing Shi’a theological books. The FSA wanted to show the world that the presence of such books was evidence that Shi’a Iran was aiding the Syrian regime in a proselytising plot against Sunni Islam.
What really upset Samir was how little he still shared with his revolutionary comrades in the way of political vision. He had joined the uprising out of patriotism, believing that by getting rid of dictatorship and campaigning for progressive values, Syria would be on the road to joining the ranks of successful nations. “The incident reflected how much our priorities have changed”, he laments, “it was a real wake-up call.”
But it was not only the rising sectarianism that put him off. He accuses jihadists and the Muslim Brotherhood of stealing a revolution started by everyday citizens and skewing its aims for their own ends. “People came out to demonstrate for four main reasons: the Arab spring, corruption, religiosity, sectarianism – in that order.” Now he explains, the order has been reversed. “A lot of people stopped participating in demonstrations when the radical Islamists began controlling them.”
Emma Suleiman, a 31-year-old media activist, goes further. She visited the northwest town of Idlib in June 2011 to record a documentary about the uprising, and returned to the governorate in August 2012. “The change was huge”, she says, “it was like Afghanistan.” What alarmed her was not just the growth of Islamist power, but the general chaos. “There was no cooperation between the different groups, no strategy, no political programme, and everyone was working for themselves.” She cites a recent French initiative to fund the running of administrative councils in rebel-held areas of Idlib, which collapsed because local commanders couldn’t agree. She wanted to advise, “but no one was prepared to listen.”
Even more difficult for many of the initial activists to accept was how many opportunists and fake revolutionaries there were. These are the “climbers” who saw in the collapse of law and order and the availability of guns an occasion to profit. Edward Dark (not his real name) is a 35-year old protester from Aleppo turned relief worker, and one of few activists to have publicly criticised the FSA. “When I saw at first hand the crimes of some of the rebel militia done in the name of the revolution, my attitude changed”, he says. “There was open sectarianism and sectarian killing, kidnappings for ransom, killing of prisoners, looting and theft were rampant, as well as extortion of businessmen and landowners, the things which had always been whitewashed by mainstream media and prominent opposition figures.”
Behind closed doors, these activists admit that they have lost ownership of the revolution. That the majority remain largely muted suggests their disillusion is mixed with a degree of bet-hedging and (even more) saving face. Inter-opposition wrangling and recrimination play into the hands of the regime, which has already won much propaganda mileage out of a few activist defections. The opposition’s ranks, albeit mostly in rhetoric, remain united against Assad.
In fact, though, the activists’ fortunes have already been declining for some time. The rise of the Syrian National Council (SNC) and the FSA in the latter months of 2011 helped relegate the young, university-educated idealists, armed with nothing more than their laptops and their conscience, to the bottom of the revolutionary pecking order. The latter had tried to set up their own organisations but these were either too narrowly focused on human-rights work to the detriment of playing a more active political role (as in the case of the Local Coordination Committees [LCCs], run by human-rights lawyer Razan Zaytuna), or unable to create a single representative body (as in the case of the Syrian Revolution General Commission [SRGC], which effectively collapsed).
The sad reality is that the odds were stacked against the activists from the start. They were mostly urban, middle-class and educated, a minority within a largely rural and working-class revolution. The regime’s uncompromising totalitarianism meant that they were neither able to act as interlocutors by extracting real concessions, nor commit wholeheartedly to the armed struggle. Amid the shelling, their initiatives to encourage nonviolent civil disobedience and civil-society empowerment began to appear indulgent, even luxurious. No wonder then, that when the unarmed protests lost centrality in the uprising, many of the more ambitious activists – from sincere conviction, or attracted by by the limelight and the facilities – gravitated towards the opposition’s political or military wings.
Between dream and reality
This tale of shattered dreams is not unique to Syria. The youth that created Tahrir Square were not able to capitalise on their victory, and have seen their march stolen by Islamists and former regime associates. In Tunisia, the young unemployed are beginning to turn against their democratically-elected masters. In Yemen, the game of musical chairs continues to alienate and disgruntle, a Nobel peace-prize notwithstanding. Perhaps, it was all too much to expect from a new and untested generation.
The activists themselves may also be criticised for failing to learn from history. Violent social upheavals do not always bring about lasting and positive change; quite often, they result in power shifting sideways to new elites and new paradigms of governance that are not very different from the old ones. The Russian revolution led to the gulag and the cold war, the Iranian revolution to the rise of an expansionist sectarian theocracy.
Syria’s own history, the 1950s precedent notwithstanding, provides little in the way of optimism. “Syria” and “Syrians” were, in Albert Hourani’s view – referring to the creation of a state by Britain and France after 1918 – “ancient entities but very modern notions.” The societies that inhabited a provincial hinterland of a backward and crumbling empire proved unable to keep pace with the rapid demands of newly-bestowed nation-statehood. The outward appearance of modernity belies a society still wrestling with a host of subnational and supranational loyalties and injustices that are the Ottomans’ legacy to today’s Levantines. A candid look at Syria today reveals a picture of tribal selfishness masquerading as populist nationalism; little wonder that scheming politicians, local toughs and extremists of every kind have prospered, and why violence, vulgarity and bravado have become the order of the day.
Peoples and systems entrenched in power don’t go down without a fight. More than ever Bashar al-Assad deserves to go, but both his regime and the opposition will stop at nothing in their desperation to triumph. Outside observers have been shocked by the levels of wanton cruelty perpetrated on each side, to the extent that they wonder what Syrians now still have in common. The divide is accentuated by propaganda campaigns that focus on rallying core constituencies at the cost of promoting a middle-ground consensus. Events on the ground suggest that Syrians face a grim choice: a regime victory or the destruction of the state.
This presents an acute dilemma for the activists, because in their idealised conception of regime change there is still a firm requirement for, if not a strong dosage of civic awareness, then at the very least a modicum of state cohesion. This dilemma was never felt in Tunisia, Egypt or Yemen, where government changed hands but society remained relatively cohesive and consequently the state remained standing. By misjudging the nature of their own society, the activists became actors in a struggle that was stubbornly refusing to play to the rules they had imagined for it.
The day after
Despite all this, it’s not curtains just yet. Almost two years and thousands of videos on, the activists still carry the unique currency of hope. That may seem less powerful than the violence of the FSA rebel warriors, it still matters. For revolutions are in the end judged primarily by what they aspire to and build, not what they destroy.
The uprising may have been lit by events elsewhere, but its fuel is homegrown: rural poverty and (mainly) Sunni discontent. In the end all combatants grow tired of fighting, and a new political order will almost certainly emerge that will address, in one shape or another, the delicate question of how to redistribute political power and national wealth more equitably. This is not a task that angry men with kalashnikovs can do. Wherever it may lead and however long it takes, in the struggle for Syria there will always be a place on the political stage for the champions of rationalism and pragmatism, moderation and compromise. When the guns fall silent, the liberal vision held by the activists is the only one that makes sense for multi-religious, multi-ethnic Syria.
In the race to rescue meaning from the nihilism of civil war, much will depend on whether Syrian activists can turn from disillusioned idealists to aspiring realists. In the process, they may achieve something that has so far eluded the youth of the Arab spring: the creation of a real leadership that advocates inclusive change.
To such an end, forty-five activists launched The Day After project in August 2012. This is an initiative designed to foster a shared vision of Syria’s democratic future, define the goals and principles of a transition, and prepare a detailed yet flexible transition planning document.” It’s a start, though many challenges remain: to frame the conflict within its real real historical and socio-economic roots, and set out out specific policies to address them, thereby laying the foundations for an enlightened settlement. In this regard, the younger generation of activists face a long road, and the moral qualities that motivated them in the early days of the Syrian uprising – as well as the tougher political ones picked up along the way – will be needed if they are to become agents of what Montesquieu called “a deeper immanent tendency of their society in motion.”
In truth, Samir and his colleagues may not see the fruits of their labour until they are well into middle age. But if the Syrian revolution is to grow up, it will still need the young men and women who once claimed it as their own.
In the same week as Prince Harry’s nudity made it onto the front page of the UK’s biggest selling newspaper, an equally racy expose was made on a Syrian news website involving a naked rebel commander and his laptop.
The commander in question is little known outside the Middle East, but 25-year old Abdulrazaq Tlass (pictured) is the undisputed poster-child of one of the largest groups in the Free Syrian Army: the much-vaunted Farouk Brigades. He is a brave and handsome lieutenant who led the successful defence of Homs against Assad‘s hordes of army and shabiha. Recently, and to signal a growing religious piety, he took to sporting a beard in the Salafist fashion.
So when he decided to go online and engage in a spot of Skype sex sometime in mid-August, little did he know that regime hackers had installed spyware that enabled them to capture images from his webcam. The recording found its way online and one opposition news website decided to run with it.
Terribly embarrassing it may have been for him, at a time of revolution personal indiscretions are easily forgiven. A public apology would have helped, but in the end Syrian media activists like myself decided that, big-picture wise, it wasn’t worth the fuss.
What happened after that made me, a dyed-in-the-wool opponent of Assad, question the motives of those leading the revolution to oust him.
Three days after the video was posted on the Internet, Lt. Tlass issued a video response in which he, quite straight-faced, claimed that the entire recording was a regime fabrication aimed at besmirching the reputation of revolutionary figures. Assad’s accomplices in this cheap propaganda trick were Russia and China, “who supplied him with the technology to do such things.” In the words of Shaggy, it wasn’t me.
At this point it might be worth reminding ourselves of what Lt. Tlass had done wrong. He used a laptop and satellite Internet connection donated by Syrian expats to conduct an online sexual liaison. He sort-of cheated on his wife with an unidentified female, though the rumour points to a journalist in Turkey. He displayed a gross lack of judgement and brought the FSA into disrepute.
All that, however, was dwarfed by the simple fact that he lied. The intelligence of millions of Syrians was trumped by his sense of personal honour; he actually wanted us to believe that his word outweighed video evidence. The audacity, the gall, the bare-cheeked effrontery of it, was remarkable.
Equally remarkable was the reaction of the Syrian opposition, office-holders and humble activists alike, who launched into vulgar verbal tirades against anyone who dared question Lt Tlass’ character. “His shoes are more honourable than you dirty scoundrels” was one comment left on the opposition news website that dared to post the video. “You are Assad’s dogs and whores. Why do you make up lies about the opposition? Who is paying you?” screamed another.
The journalist who called for his resignation was bombarded by over one thousand abusive messages on his Facebook page, some even demanding he be hanged as a traitor. Those less shrill dismissed the video as a fabrication, and calmly asserted that even if it was genuine “who among us has not wronged?” It was a case of a public corruption passing off as private misdemeanour.
The big taboo
Assad’s propaganda machine spent the first few months of the uprising trying to convince the world that protest footage aired on Al-Jazeera was fake. It went as far as to claim that a giant Hollywood set of famous Syrian landmarks had been erected in Doha as part of a US-Zionist-Wahhabi wag-the-dog conspiracy. It didn’t quite wash, but it wasn’t all together unexpected coming from a regime that accused teenage bloggers of being Mossad agents.
Naturally, one would assume that the opposition would be radically different. They would champion free and independent media reporting as part of a wider vision for a post-Assad Syria that centered on freedom of expression and public accountability. Unfortunately, experience of working within the opposition media machine has shown that that vision is lacking.
The Syrian opposition runs at least seven satellite television channels and scores of news websites. But if you want to know what the opposition is up to, you’re better served trawling Facebook where you can pick up half-truths and hearsay. Voices that criticize opposition leaders (and there is much to be critical of) or that shed light on the internal workings of opposition organizations such as the Syrian National Council, have been quietly hushed. Rocking the boat is taboo.
In February of this year, an Istanbul-based member of the SNC Executive Committee, the highest body in the organization, claimed on Al-Jazeera that his brother in Aleppo has been murdered by the regime. A Barada TV investigation that I oversaw however, revealed that it was the FSA itself that carried out the hit because it believed his brother was a financier of the shabiha. Family honour dictated that the SNC leader suppress this news, and so he lied. He did so because he thought he could get away with it.
And he did. He threatened to sue the channel if it broadcast the story and promised swift political retribution on all those associated with the investigation. The channel’s management caved in, and an hour before it was due to be aired the story was spiked and replaced with something less offensive.
This was by no means an isolated incident. Eighteen months of self-censorship has meant that gross incompetence, petty squabbling, vote-buying, clientelism, embezzlement of funds, and yes, lying to the world by members of Syria’s opposition has gone unreported and unaccounted. The result has been a break down of trust between the political opposition and the grassroots, and a strained relationship with the West – and the revolution as a whole has suffered for it. The Abdulrazaq Tlass affair shows that the rot has now infected the FSA.
At stake is the kind of media that will emerge in a future, democratic Syria. Opposition media activists should not be impervious to the risks of cosying up to the revolutionary figures of today who may turn into the dictators of tomorrow. There is a balance that can and should be struck between robust and responsible journalism and not handing the regime a propaganda victory. If the Syrian revolution is genuinely about freedom and democracy, those claiming to be its champions should live up to its ideals.
How do we explain the de facto civil war unfolding in Syria today? How do we predict what course it will take? How can we come up with viable and long-term solutions?
A good starting point would be to compare Syria with a country that bears a striking resemblance: Lebanon. This may seem surprising because the two countries (and two peoples) appear to be different.
Syrians regard themselves as being superior to Lebanese because their country suppresses confessional and ethnic identities in favour of a secular and all-embracing Arabism.
The Lebanese on the other hand look at the Syrians and they pity. Fortress Damascus is not a good place if you value creativity and free expression; it is the GDR of the Levant.
Broadly speaking, Syria is about unity, Lebanon is about freedom.
In reality, these differences developed only in the last 90 years of political and social evolution. What Syria and Lebanon have in common is grounded in centuries of shared experience: as part of the Greco-Roman world and then the Islamic, the last chapter of which was 400 years of of Ottoman Turkish rule. In 1920, both fell under the French mandate.
Something else they had in common was significant groups of non-Sunni Muslim minorities, who chafed under Ottoman Turkish rule and who had vowed never to fall under Sunni Muslim over-lordship again.
It was during the formative Mandate years (1920-46) that non-Sunni Muslim minorities (Christians, Alawites, Druze, Ismai’lis) began to develop survival strategies to adapt to the reality of living in a new political entity: the nation state. It is by recognizing and analyzing these survival strategies and their long-term consequences that one can trace the historic roots of the Lebanese civil war (1975-90) and the Syrian civil war (2011-present).
The minoritarian order
After the retreat of the Ottoman Turks from the Levant in 1918, Non-Sunni Muslim minorities faced an acute dilemma: how to survive and flourish within societies that were overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim.
The Maronites of Mount Lebanon came up with a survival strategy that was not at all original: cessation. They successfully lobbied France not to remain part of Sunni-majority Syria but to be given a state where they could enjoy a monopoly on political power. Thus, the State of Greater Lebanon was born, later to become the Republic of Lebanon.
At the time of its creation, it had a slim Maronite Christian majority, yet the distribution of wealth and power was weighed heavily in their favour. Despite its outwardly secular constitution, it was a country created because of religion, and its various sects competed with one another for wealth and power within the framework of a liberal (albeit flawed) democracy.
For the non-Sunni Muslim minorities of Syria, it was a different story. The Alawites and Druze initially went along with French plans to have their own mini states, but the hostility of the economically influential Damascene and Aleppine bourgeoisie scuttled plans for independence. Long-term discrimination and neglect by the Ottomans denied the Alawites and Druze the chance to form their own states, while quasi-independence under the Ottomans and long-term French patronage enabled the Maronite Christians to “fly the roost”. Politically and economically the non-Sunni Muslims of Syria were too weak to go it alone.
The Alawites and Druze opted to be part of a unified Syrian Republic not out of choice, but out of necessity. They still had to meet the challenge of surviving and thriving in a Sunni Muslim-majority country where democracy entitles them only to a minority share of political power; not enough to guarantee that the Ottoman experience will never be repeated.
Instead of seeking independence as the Lebanese Christians had done, the non-Sunni Muslim minorities in Syria did quite the opposite: they embraced a secular, socialist brand of pan-Arabism and adopted it as their own. The Ba’th Party became a magnate for young, aspiring and poor Alawites, Druze and Ismai’lis who were drawn to the party’s secular and egalitarian creed.
By adopting pan-Arabism, the minorities had performed a great feat of one-upmanship; they had demonstrated to the Sunni Muslims that they were uber-patriots, prepared to relinquish centuries-old sectarian loyalties for the benefit of the entire Arab nation. By appearing to be so, they laid down a challenge to the Sunni Muslim majority to live up to this ideal vision of Syrian patriotism.
In reality, it was all a ruse. At first the Ba’th Party campaigned on issues of social justice such as agrarian reforms, which benefited poor Sunnis as well as impoverished Alawite peasants. But the minorities were not content with remaining as farmers. The religious minorities of Syria were still very much obsessed with the Ottoman trauma, and nothing short of a complete capture of power would allay their fears of once more becoming second-class citizens. One state institution was open to them: the military. It was through an active mass enlistment campaign, and a simultaneous policy of de-Sunnification of the officer corps following the 1963 Ba’th Party coup, that enabled religious minorities to first catch glimpse of the political power that they could enjoy under the guise of pan-Arabism and class warfare.
Ultimate power would eventually be won by a certain Hafiz Assad, a scheming Ba’thist air force pilot and son of a minor Alawite notable.
The centre cannot hold
The religious minorities in modern-day Syria and Lebanon responded differently to the challenge of surviving and thriving in a sea of Muslim. In Lebanon, the answer was secession; in Syria, it was pan-Arab unity. They were two different approaches to dealing with the same essential problem.
Despite the fact that they had lost political power, the Muslim bourgeois business and religious elite of Damascus and Aleppo did not resist the minoritarian order established by Hafiz Assad. Instead, they carved their own niche as the useful religo-merchant class: those who kept the economy ticking over, shared in the administration of the state and oversaw Muslim religious affairs – all the while enjoying the privileges of being junior partners in the mafia state run by an Alawite godfather.
Assad pursued a systematic policy of positive discrimination for religious minorities. In Assad’s Syria, it paid to be a Christian or an Alawite because it meant you had considerably better access to state patronage, both in the civil service and the military. Over a forty year period, this led to a disproportionate number of non-Sunnis becoming members of the elite. The Syrian novelist and former political prisoner Mustafa Khalifa notes in this excellent Arabic article that Christians in Syria currently represent only five per cent of the total population but account for 15-20 per cent of the bourgeoisie. A similar pattern can be drawn for Alawites and Druze. For the non-Muslim minorities, Syria was their country, it was their project.
Unlike poor Alawites, Druze or Christians, the Sunni Muslim working class had little ideological affinity with Assad’s Syria. Their conservative instincts are informed by unofficial religious education, supplemented by many hours of watching religious satellite channels and reinforced by weekly sermons at the mosque. For them, only religion bestowed real legitimacy upon a political order. The one that rules Syria today is run by “heretical” Alawites who managed to shift public discourse in a decisively secular direction, and by definition, in a manner prejudicial to the interests of the religious majority.
The order held, however, because it was able to contain the Sunni Muslim working class through a twin policy of repression by a multitude of security forces, and by providing the basics cheaply: food, water, housing, electricity and fuel. With rapid population growth, rampant corruption and the end of Soviet patronage, Assad was less able to provide these essentials to placate the masses. The Sunni Muslim “proles” in this Oceania bore the brunt of economic liberalisation reforms, which resulted in an exponential rise in prices and a net decline in purchasing power.
Poor Sunni Muslim farmers ached under the strain of increasing fuel and pesticide costs, a situation exasperated by several years of virtual drought (2007-2009) All the while, wealth and political power were concentrated in the hands of a globalised, minoritarian clique, represented most grotesquely in the figure of Assad’s billionaire cousin and Syria’s mister ten-percent, Rami Makhlouf.
The Sunni working class is a mixture of farmers, day labourers, small shop keepers, mechanics, taxi drivers, tradesmen, and of course, the unemployed. Because they had little money, they could not buy influence with the Alawite military elite as the wealthier Sunnis of Damascus and Aleppo had done.
Many lived in shabby and over crowded neighborhoods like Baba Amr in Homs for instance, or in small and dusty towns that enjoyed few amenities like Jisr Al-Shughur in Idlib. Because the doors of state patronage was locked to them, they felt the heavy hand of undeclared but institutional sectarian discrimination more than most. They watched on satellite television the unfolding of the Arab revolutions and saw an historic opportunity to turn the tables on the minoritarian order.
The first large-scale demonstration was held in Deraa on 18th March, and the chant was “Syria’s protector is its thief!” – essentially an economic demand. The fact that it grew rapidly into a nation-wide protest movement to topple the regime as a whole has much to do with the disillusionment of the Sunni Muslim working class with its living standard, and the most obvious lesson of the Arab Spring: that the hated mukhabarat secret police can be defeated, and that the West was willing to lend a hand.
The “Syrian revolution” is a revolt by Syria’s Sunni Muslim working class, which have fared poorly under the minoritarian order. The Assad mafia state has proved to be particularly prejudicial to their interests: the inequity in the distribution of political power and economic wealth was too stark, and too unjust. It is against this order (and not the Alawites per se) that the uprising in Syria aims to bring down. The survival strategy developed by religious minorities in post-colonial Syria has failed because it did not evolve new mechanisms to share wealth and political power with a rapidly growing and an increasingly aspirational Sunni Muslim population.
Lebanon was, in the words of the brilliant historian Albert Hourani, a lost star from the Ottoman galaxy. So too is Syria. The sectarian balance of power, so carefully maintained under the Ottoman millet system, has been shaken; the consequences are not difficult to predict. Look no further than to Lebanon circa 1975, when the entry of the heavily armed Palestinian Sunni Muslims into the sectarian melting pot created volatility in the system, causing a civil war that lasted for 15 years. It only ended in 1989 when a new political order was established following the signing of the Taif Agreement in Saudi Arabia, which established a more equitable distribution of wealth and political power between Christians and Muslims.
In Syria today there is a conflict of wills: the desire by a minority to remain free of majority domination, and a majority no longer willing to pay the price for that minoritarian privilege For both sides, it is first and foremost a struggle for survival. On the ground this battle is being fought with street protests but increasingly with bullets, tanks and roadside bombs. In the media, it is fought euphemistically, using the language of “democracy” and “human rights”, “salafists” and “terrorists”, “shabiha” and “Arourites”, etc. Neither side is willing to be honest and admit to the sad reality of the situation because that would be considered too “Lebanese”, unbefitting of a proud Syrian.
On January 26th 2012 I participated in a BBC College of Journalism panel discussion on Syria. The attendance consisted of senior BBC journalists and broadcasters, some of whom are household names in the UK. What they were looking for was a nuanced understanding of what is happening in Syria from experts, which goes beyond the superficial and the cliche.
On the panel was Dr Fawaz Gerges of the LSE, who offered his own reading of the situation. Then it was my turn. This is what I had to say:
I looked at the Syrian revolution from a historian’s perspective and asked myself: how would historians in 30-40 years’ time explain the remarkable events that we are now witnessing? It is difficult to make those kind of judgements without the benefit of hindsight, but I had a go.
My reading is that the Syrian revolution is the revolution of the rural Sunni working classes against the Alawite-dominated military elite and the urban bourgeoisie (both Muslim and Christian) that has profited from the Assad dictatorship.
I make the case that the Syrian opposition, itself an elite group, albeit political/intellectual, is almost as fearful of the revolution as the regime itself because of the wide-sweeping social change that will follow a collapse of the status quo. That is why its role in the revolution is more mediator than leader.
Genuine democracy in Syria will usher in a new elite that will give political expression to disenfranchised sections of society, who in turn, will transform the nature and identity of the Syrian state. This is why regime loyalists (and some within the Syrian opposition intelligentsia) find the revolution to be so dangerous.
The collapse of the regime may not come soon because the social groups that represent the backbone of Assad’s Syria are still cohesive and believe in the Assad regime’s ability to survive. It is not so much belief in Bashar Al-Assad as blind faith in the system.
However, if Assad falls, it will be as a result of regional and international consensus on the need to remove him from power. That consensus has not yet been reached, and it may never be reached.
Keeping the system or ditching it is a separate question all together. Assad’s Syria without Assad is a scenario currently being floated by the political opposition and the west.
The success of the Syrian revolution is not a foregone conclusion. The regime is bolstered by Iran and Russia, and indirectly, by Israel’s better-the-devil-you-know attitude. It is also encouraged by the west’s reluctance to commit to military intervention – quite possibly the only effective deterrent that Assad will take seriously.
A lot will depend on Syrians’ ability to organize themselves and speak with one voice. The signs so far are not encouraging. The political opposition has not been able to offer a convincing narrative of what the Syrian revolution is about and what kind of Syria they wish to create. Simply saying that it is a revolution for democracy and human rights is not enough – the question is: whose democracy and whose human rights?
This may all sound too academic but unfortunately, this is what it takes to truly understand the Byzantine nature of Syrian politics and society. In other words, to make sense of the Syrian revolution.