Posted by Joshua on Sunday, September 30th, 2007
How to “Democratize” Syria
Essay by Ford Prefect
Why aren’t Syrians taking to the streets by the millions demanding freedom, justice and democracy? Why does the Middle East seem so resistant to modernity and liberty? Why are the Syrian people so complacent and unable to produce a viable and organized opposition to the current government and the Ba’ath Party?
As the U.S. pursues a more diplomatic approach to the previously shunned Syrian government, these questions have now become the constant preoccupation of scholars, politicians, and human rights advocates everywhere – especially on this forum. Syria is a major player to the region’s stability. This was stated by the Iraq Study Group report and by the many recent visitors to Damascus from America, Europe and Asia.
So why is democracy so elusive in Syria? In answering this question, several causal threads seem to emerge. One points to the fact that the current regime is a ruthless one that produced generations of scared citizens whose main occupation is surviving harsh economic realities. These harsh, anti-middle class realities have reduced the number of political actors that would have otherwise posed a formidable challenge to the regime. Subsequently, Syrians have lost their educated and technical elite, en masse, to the rest of the world. For the vast majority of the economically deprived citizenry of Syria, participating in the political process is considered an unwarranted luxury.
Another aspect points to the war with Israel and other regional unrests as the source of legitimacy that is justifying perpetual authoritarian rule. Security and stability, therefore, are one of the main anchors of the regime’s legitimacy. For example, under the pretext of war conditions with Israel, martial law has been in effect in Syria since 1963.
And yet another, more dangerous reason can be traced to a dormant neoconservative theory that emerged forcefully after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. This theory, which eventually turned into U.S. foreign policy toward the Middle East, posits that the West cannot wait for the region to reach indigenous democracy on its own steam. Even more dangerously, Francis Fukuyama, a leading neoconservative scholar, went on to say in a column published in the Guardian (link) “…there does seem to be something about Islam, or at least the fundamentalist versions of Islam that have been dominant in recent years, that makes Muslim societies particularly resistant to modernity.”
Meanwhile, regimes on either end of the West’s blessing or wrath are busy using Islam as a means to either justify their existence as the defender and stabilizer of true Islam, such as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, or as the dam, defending against its virilent resurgence in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood, such as the regimes in Syria, Egypt, and Jordan. In either case, governments have made clear to their citizens that any alternative will result in the loss of security and stability of the status quo, which people have finally managed to accept as a condition for their survival. Fareed Zakaria once characterized the use of fear as a tool, calling it the “Fear-of-the-Alternative” (FOTA), which gripped people across all strata of society. Better the devil you know…..
While there are many causes for the lack of democratic reform in Syria, it is impossible to escape the fact that in the West, authoritarian rule has become the prime suspect. Many in the West are convinced that Syria and other countries in the region are in desperate need of drastic measures to “import” democracy. Consequently Syria’s fate is inextricably tied to decisions made by the West. This “need” is based more on the West’s strategic interests in the region rather than the well being of the Syrian people. Historically, the process of installing Western-style democracy ranges from military adventurism in the name of “democracy” – like the invasion of Iraq under the pretenses of spreading democracy in the region – to empowering dissidents and feeding regime-haters with further fuel in order to topple so-called rogue regimes. What is missing from the West’s approach, however, is a genuine and demonstrable desire to invest in the advancements of the people and not in their corrupt and authoritarian governments.
For democracy to grow roots and be able to defend itself through its intellectual human reserve and respected institutions, several factors must be ripe before reaching the “tipping” point. These factors include maturity in modernization, industrialization, literacy, urbanization, secularization, citizenship, and nationality. (More factors can be found in Rueschemeyer et al. (1992), Putnam (1993), Inglehart (1999), and Fukuyama (1992)). These factors cannot be created with a magic wand. Creating conditions conducive for democracy takes time. Syria will only reach this maturity through an organic and stable government that is driven to adopt a liberal economy out of necessity. Force cannot produce such conditions. Washington’s reckless ideology of claiming to bring democracy on the backs of tanks or by starving Middle Easterners through economic sanctions is counter-productive. By increasing instability and pushing people into ever greater economic uncertainty, the US is effectively pushing back the horizon of democracy in the Middle East. By inflaming Muslim sentiment and creating ever greater fear, a militant and demanding US undermines the voice of mederation and compromise and justifies the retrenchment of authoritarian states. The day that we, as Middle Eastern liberals, will taste the fruits of democracy and freedom, is delayed, not brought closer.
Why would the Syrian regime be forced to adopt and promote liberal economy? The answer is the self-enrichment and self-preservation of the regime’s elite. Ironically, economic liberation as a survival necessity for today’s authoritarian regimes is also the reason for their gradual demise. Guillermo O'Donnell et al. argue that democracy results from the stable equilibrium between the military, industrialists, technocrats, financiers, and other elitist groups to share power under a system of “checks and balances” in a market-driven expanding economy. The system of checks and balances (to initially protect their economic interests) is democracy’s best friend and incubator. Therefore, it is noteworthy to point out that democracy in Syria will be born not out of the threats from the U.S., the EU, or Israel, but rather out of the various struggles to get rich in a market economy that is spreading globally.
One can already see indications of a growing market-based economy in Syria. The emergence of a private banking system and increasing foreign investment are evidence of a move toward free markets. Ehasni2 on this blog, for example, noticed how today’s young bankers in Syria are scrambling to pursue MBA degrees in order to keep their jobs. In order to sustain economic growth and strengthen a liberal economy that can continue to provide wealth, Syrian elites will sooner or later demand an independent judiciary and government institutions that favor fair trade and the rule of law – another democratic institution. It is the beginning of Glasnost; the genie is out of the bottle.
If the West and patriotic Syrians are truly committed to liberal democracy in Syria, a call for a liberal economy should be the first and the loudest. Bringing down the current government in the name of Hariri revenge, freedom-of-speech, Israel’s security, or any one of the smorgasbord of reasons supplied by neoconservatives in Washington and their surrogates everywhere will only delay Syria’s progress toward democracy.