Posted by Alex on Tuesday, July 5th, 2011
Syria: An Uprising, Not a Revolution
By Yazan Badran for Syria Comment
It has been four months, give or take, since the beginning of the protest movement in Syria. Many pages have been written about the nature of this conflict, from many points of view–pro and contra. Aside from the propaganda being hailed from every side, there has been precious little investigative or analytical work being done. And even then, it inevitably wanders down the sectarian narrative as if that’s the only possible explanation for the uprising, and the subsequent stalemate. I personally believe that while the sectarian issue is of great importance to the discussion, it should not be the dominant line of discourse.
This is one attempt to explore a different facet to the conflict. It is by no means a comprehensive analysis, but an attempt to highlight an area that has not been sufficiently discussed with regards to its importance to the developments on the ground.
Narratives and struggles
Since the very beginnings of the uprising, its most delicate task was how to define itself to the rest of the country. And in that regard, it has failed miserably. The uprising completely forfeited the ground and left the discourse to be run by everybody else; the regime, the opposition and the outside players. It is a catastrophic failure, even for a decentralized, disorganized popular movement.
There are three main facets to the struggle, and they represent the three main narratives:
It is what I believe the true propagator and the most essential element in the fomenting and even the survival of the uprising. It is also the most evident. But, ironically, it is the least-highlighted and discussed.
The overwhelming majority of those protesting represent the most alienated, impoverished and, indeed, humiliated populations in Syria. They are those who have been completely and utterly starved out by the last 10 years. Their humiliation and dehumanization does not happen in the political sphere but rather on the level of their daily bread. Their struggle is against the cruelest realities of the “modernization era” of Syria.
This is a narrative, and indeed, a struggle, that should’ve been actively carried over by the truly revolutionary elements in the uprising. A vanguard of sorts, the responsibility of which, would have been to propagate this line of discourse so as to better represent, defend and define the uprising. To establish a consciousness of this struggle as a class-struggle that involves the impoverished and the alienated regardless of religion or sect. The lack of such vanguard meant that those demonstrating, those who make up the physical component in the uprising were left with no voice of their own. One need only to observe how successful and important the role of such vanguard was in the Egyptian revolution, to know what catastrophic effect its lacking had on the Syrian uprising. (Union activists in Egypt had a great role in mobilizing the working class, and keeping them mobilized even after the fall of Mubarak. The demonstrations in Cairo and elsewhere greatly benefited from the simultaneous strikes that took place all over the country, where in many parts the workers took over their factories.)
The sectarian narrative has been a very useful propaganda tool for both sides. The Syrian regime has stuck to this narrative since the very early days of the uprising. It advertised sectarian vengeance and hatred, both indirectly, and indeed sometimes in less-ambiguous terms, as the main catalyst behind the protests. While only a small, negligible minority in the uprising (or the correspondent elements in the opposition) have attempted to directly invoke sectarian language, other elements in the opposition as well, inadvertently or otherwise, still managed to succumb to this narrative. In their attempt to expose what they viewed as a sectarian element to the regime’s crackdown, they have exposed their own narrow-minded and simplistic understanding of the nature of this uprising.
The main consequence of the dominance of this narrative is to pit the natural allies within the proletariat against each other, and to let them disintegrate into petty sectarian fights, instead of focusing on their real enemy. It is not unusual, nor is it original. In fact, throughout history, this has been the most effective tool in preempting and responding to any revolutionary intent.
It is the middle ground that the established opposition feels more comfortable with. Frightened by the disastrous consequences and possibilities resulting from the regime’s reliance on a sectarian discourse, and unwilling, or incapable, of leading the uprising in truly revolutionary fashion, the opposition has also struggled to propagate a political discourse that they, as representatives of the middle class, are more familiar with. (regardless of how “leftist” the Syrian opposition may seem, their narrative represents the interests of the middle-class/petitebourgeoisie).
A Personal Perspective
I come from two distinct backgrounds. My maternal and paternal families, albeit being both Alawis, are quite different in how they came about. In fact, I would go further and say that both families represent a certain arch-type within Alawi society, and between these two lies the overwhelming majority of Alawis. I, myself, was consciously shielded from both families by my parents. Which is why I can attempt to look at it from an objective perspective, and why I find myself outside of both.
My mother’s is a small landowning family that used to reside in the area around Jisr al-Shughour. They were forcibly resettled in the west (Mashqita) during the Safarbarlek (World War I), and later moved to Latakia. In Latakia, they were a poor urban family supported by my grandfather, a conscript in the Army of the Levant, under the French mandate. Their development, in one generation (that of the 60s~70s) into one of high social standard, wealth and impeccable education, is a story that, while remarkable, could also be found in many other Alawi (and other minority sects as well) families of that era. They represent a once burgeoning and becoming middle class of professionals educated between western and eastern Europe.
My father’s side, on the other hand, was a family of great religious prestige but little wealth. My grandfather, his father, and especially my grandmother’s father were renowned Sheikhs in their locales. Throughout the same period, they advanced in a very different way to my maternal family. They now represent a class of low-income government clerks, army personnel and such. I won’t go into the reasons of why two families with the same opportunities could develop so differently, but what I want to say is that they both represent a larger phenomenon seen throughout Alawi society, and indeed within other sects as well.
Needless to say, secular values are stronger in the former and more traditional tribal ones are stronger in the latter.
Apart from individual sympathizers, both families stand firmly against the uprising. And while my mother’s family moves slowly towards a coherent defense of their best interests, siding with a political discourse, my father’s family, bizarrely, slides to an extreme and sometimes violent posture against the protesters and all their demands.
This is the sectarian narrative in its utmost success. A family struggling with economic realities of alienation and dehumanization defends its status-quo with all means possible. This is where the uprising fails. This is true not only for Alawis, mind you, but for many other sects within this struggle. The specific dynamics of how this works for Alawis were discussed in an excellent piece on this very blog a few weeks ago.
As I said, this is not an attempt at a comprehensive analysis of the crisis, but one that tries to shed light on parts of it that are drowned by the propaganda machine of both sides and a sensationalist media that only amplifies this propaganda.
As it should be obvious by now, and as I have mentioned before on this blog, I personally would’ve wanted to be part of a truly revolutionary change. Destructive as it may be on the short term, it has always been the catalyst of real progress. And while a revolution is still brewing in the country, this isn’t one yet. As it stands, with the failure of the proletariat to realize itself and the vicious sectarian out-pour, it seems that the political struggle is the only valid ticket out of this crisis. This will turn the uprising into a bourgeoisie revolution, akin to the revolutions that brought democracy to Europe. Nevertheless, the problems afflicting the working class, which were at the core of this uprising, will not be solved, and with the economy being the worst hit, they will most probably deteriorate further. Thus, there is a greater need today to reorganize these classes for the betterment of their conditions and to avoid the dangers of sectarian intrastruggles that have threatened and will threaten to tear them and the nation apart.
Posted by Camille Otrakji