Under pressure from the street, Syrian President Bashar al-Asad has opted to project an image of uncompromising strength. Some mild concessions were made on the religious front, and the president promised some basic recognition of the disenfranchised Kurdish population’s rights to citizenship. A government spokeswoman also suggested that the decades-long state of emergency might be lifted at some point in time. But the number of victims from police repression increases every day.
At the beginning of his reign, “Doctor Bashar” had promised a new era and was perceived as a reformer at heart (Hillary Clinton still seems to think he is one). What are his promises worth? In 2000, a progressive technocrat with international experience, Issam al-Zaim, was asked to modernize and rationalize the public sector. In 2003, he succumbed to a campaign of denigration slyly orchestrated by entrenched bureaucratic interests and the official press. Less than two years later, Nibras al-Fadel, in charge of administrative reform, also saw his mission abruptly suspended.
There are many such stories. According to former Canadian Ambassador in Damascus Brian J. Davis, the president and his confidants “are a very inward group, interested in their own survival and in furthering their wealth and power. Virtually every close advisor brought on board with international knowledge and experience has been undermined by the clique and fallen by the way side.”
In a similar way, the brief “Damascus spring,” a flowering of intense political and social debate in 2000-2001 was seemingly encouraged by some sectors of the regime. After a few months, its promoters were jailed, co-opted or insidiously deterred. For some time, the government daily Al-Thawra (Revolution) even opened its pages to critical voices. Most of the new unorthodox columnists were to be arrested sooner or later.
Eventually there were substantial economic transformations under Doctor Bashar, but their main beneficiaries were a narrow elite of new (and not so new) entrepreneurs favored by a rather cozy and oligopolistic form of liberalization. Experts in cultivating their family and business connections with the ruler’s circle, those members of the Sunni urban bourgeoisie are encouraged to prosper as long as their affluence allows the regime to consolidate strong alliances beyond its original power base, the Alawite community, a regional Muslim sect.
Samer al-Attar, vice president of Attar Group, a major Syrian conglomerate with lucrative activities in commerce, financial services, tourism and industry, is a typical representative of this new class. Asked by a French journalist to explain his vision of “democracy,” al-Attar offered the following formula: “Security, brotherhood and secularism.”
Not exactly what you learn in Political Science 101, but quite revealing. Security is what the ruthless police state is supposed to offer against the danger of internal strife –confessional or otherwise– and purported foreign conspiracies. Brotherhood is the euphemistic affirmation of a monolithic Arab identity and the rejection of any other sense of cultural belonging, mainly in denial of the simmering Kurdish issue, but also against pernicious “western” influences. Secularism means a “loud no” to the specter of Islamic radicalism, even when it’s not so radical: being a member of the now quite temperate Muslim Brotherhood is criminalized and punished much more severely in Syria than it was in Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt.
Al-Attar’s vision is actually shared by millions of Syrians, which explains a lot about Doctor Bashar’s resilience. Though partly orchestrated, the spectacular demonstrations of popular support for the president are no less authentic than the growing but scattered protests against his rule. Religious minorities (the Christians, the Alawites, the Druze, the Ismaili) are afraid of a possibly vengeful Sunni majority. Many Sunnis belong themselves to a dense network of Sufi fraternities and devotional groups. They don’t want to be overpowered by the puritan militancy of Saudi-inspired fundamentalists, who are rather hostile to their mystic outlook. And there is still diffuse pride in the Syrian regime nationalistic stance and its rejection of compromise with Israel and the West, even if many compromises have in fact been struck.
Since the beginning of the Arab spring, Asad keeps repeating that “Syria is different.” He certainly has a point. Until now, there were no perceptible cracks in the main pillars of the regime: the security apparatus, the military, the Baath Party and the new capitalist class. The Muslim clerics are largely apolitical or domesticated. The rural poor are still controlled by political clientelism networks and tribal structures (even if the revolt in Deraa shows that tribal compliance is not guaranteed everywhere). The urban crowd is divided between hopeless frustration and nationalist loyalty. And the wall of fear is a double wall: fear of the regime’s iron fist and fear of instability.
But Syria is not that different either. In his speech on March 30, the president himself acknowledged that “without reform we are on the path of destruction.” One wonders if he also realizes that always promising and never delivering is not a winning formula in the Arab world these days.
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Globalization might already sound like a stale catchword, but the new interconnected reality it describes still has surprising tricks up its sleeves. So what do you do when you’re a leftish French writer born in Africa and living in South America, with a background in Slavic Studies, a worried fascination for emerging Asian powers, and interests ranging from classical political philosophy to Bollywood film music? Read, travel, wonder. And send scattered dispatches from modernity’s frontlines.
Marc Saint-Upéry is a French journalist and political analyst living in Ecuador since 1998. He writes about political philosophy, international relations and development issues for various French and Latin American publications and in the international magazines Le Monde Diplomatique and Nueva Sociedad. He is the author of El Sueño de Bolívar: El Desafío de las izquierdas Sudamericanas (Bolivar’s Dream: the Left’s challenge in South America).