Thursday, March 31, 2011

Syria: The Art of "Branding" Political Reform

Guest author: Ghaidaa Hetou

The political change permeating the Middle East is widely considered an unstoppable process. The push for greater personal freedoms and accountable government is feeding off the success of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, as much as being propelled by the counterproductive and typical defense mechanisms of the archaic authoritarian institutions that still dominate many countries of the region.

There are similarities between the popular uprisings in a number of Arab countries in that the demands for change focus on individual freedoms, better living standards and political pluralism. However, there has been a tendency to reduce the current political dynamics to a singular process that fails to recognize the different characteristics of the countries in which calls for change have occurred.

What role do country specific characteristics play, if at all, in the overwhelmingly popular demands in the Arab world? Can an Arab leader still afford to mobilize the same “national priorities” – anti-imperialism, anti-Zionism and so on - that have consistently been used to eclipse individual freedoms? How does a reform minded regime confront the fact that it is part of the problem, but potentially could be part of the solution if it would consider implementing meaningful reforms? How does the Syrian government’s stance of “resistance” differentiate its experience with political reform from other countries in the region, if at all?

Syria tried to celebrate what it felt was a triumphal moment when it sensed that the troubling winds of uprisings that were affecting other Arab countries had passed it by. Since demonstrations and calls for change had not yet materialized, the regime of President Bashar al-Asad began publishing self-congratulatory articles in popular magazines and issued an open invitation for President Barack Obama to visit Syria. This public relations offensive was too audacious and too soon, coming as it did right before the unrest in the southern Syrian city of Dar’aa.

The sense of exceptionalism that is ingrained in the Syrian political experience does have some grounding in reality. Compared to Tunisia and Egypt, Syria, especially during the last ten years, has promoted economic and social development as well as educational reforms. Syria has no external debt to the IMF or other international financial institutions, guaranties minority rights, and is the leader of a popular foreign policy that is officially opposed to the so-called American and Israeli agenda in the region. The roots of the Syrian president’s popularity among large segments of the Syrian populations stem from the above mentioned policies. When Bashar al-Asad says that he supports political reform, many Syrians believe him.

The Syrian president’s self-proclaimed reform agenda – underway since 2000 - has been almost nonexistent in the political realm. There has been no move towards greater personal freedoms or political pluralism. Yet events in Tunisia, Egypt, followed by the dramatic developments in Libya, not to mention the events in Dar’a, have put the spotlight on Syria. If the Syrian regime hopes to contain the current protests, its strategy of dealing with possible unrest will need to take into consideration a number of factors.

First, there is a need to minimize the use of recycled reactionary rhetoric and terms such as Fitna (actions that lead to chaos), conspiracy, infiltrators, and so on. The standard political discourse that has been trotted out in the past by authoritarian leaders such as President al-Asad has become irrelevant. It no longer works to contain popular political protests since the sophisticated political understandings of the majority of Syrians has come to associate this discourse with a “regime in crisis,” and one that refuses to eliminate the repressive national security state.

Second, the regime needs to appreciate the fact that time is crucial and not on its side. There is no time for a “wait and see” attitude since the regime’s window of opportunity for leaving a historic legacy of peaceful political restructuring and reform will soon close. We know that Tunisian president Zein al-Din Ben Ali and his Egyptian counterpart Husni Mubarak’s failure to address the desire for political change was what ultimately led both to be swept aside.

Some features of the anti-Syrian government rhetoric have actually helped the Syrian government. For example, some Arabic channels raised, albeit only for a few days, the typical and obvious sectarian accusations of the Syrian regime as Nussairi, Alawi and minority based.

Not only is this approach counterproductive, and even laughable, because it underestimates the intelligence of Syrians, but it fails to offer a concise and meaningful political argument for the “illegitimacy” of Bashar al-Asad’s regime. The tactic of invoking sectarianism to question the Syrian regime’s legitimacy might have garnered some traction during the 1980s at the height of religious tensions when Hafiz al-Asad, Bashar’s father, brutally suppressed the Muslim Brotherhood in the city of Hama.

But Syrians in recent years have enjoyed greater religious freedoms, which includes the Sunni majority, whose political rights have been expanded with the introduction of a degree of political pluralism. Raising the issue of sectarianism in a country like Syria to undermine the regime’s legitimacy resembles shooting oneself in the foot.

The Syrian regime’s method of dealing with the widespread demands for reform has to account for bureaucratic resistance for reform within the state apparatus, as well as the intricate balance between security, stability and gradual political change. If the regime of Bashar al-Asad does embark on the road to the gradual political change it has promised, it could possibly introduce a new model for political change in the region. No doubt, a Syrian made transition would look very different than the Tunisian, Egyptian, and the Libyan experiences.

Despite the ongoing protests, grass roots pressures will most likely not overwhelm the current regime, which has been able thus far to curb demonstrations in Dar’aa, Damascus, Latakia and in other Syrian cities. While President al-Asad has promised widespread reforms, his March 29th speech to the national parliament was defiant and once again blamed Syria’s unrest on unspecified “foreign elements,” and “conspirators,” especially those encouraged by Israel. It did not address one of the key demands of the protesters which is abolishing the national security laws that have been in effect since 1963.

The dynamic of the Syrian government’s response to the change sweeping the Arab world is still unclear. The beginning of meaningful reforms – reforms that the Syrian regime has promised since 2005 but still has not implemented - could create a dynamic of good will between the people and the government, especially in light of the popularity Bashar al-Asad still enjoys. However, if the regime continues to refuse to implement political change, this good will could harden into further political opposition, possibly destabilizing the country, with serious regional consequences.

At this point, it is up to the Syrian regime whether a new momentum of good will develops among the Syrian populace or whether Syrians will continue to be disappointed by a further lack of responsiveness by the government to their legitimate demands for political and social change