“How to Encourage Liberty in Syria,” by Ford Prefect

How to “Democratize” Syria
Essay by Ford Prefect
Sept. 2007  

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.

Comments (4)

ausamaa said:

The above is logical and reasonable, and it sure will be very nice to have a really democratic Syria even in the full sense of Western Democracy. But Nations paths are usually determined by three things: The Means and Resources availlable to their societies, the degree of Socioeconomic Development they have reached, and the existential Threats confronting those nations.

So in the end it is a matter of Prioritizing. The end product will be dictated by the growth of the society’s growing sense of the need and the ability (readiness) to move towards real Democracy (?), guided by a socialy-sensetive Authority, and conducted in within a strategic environment conducive to allowing such changes to take place in a natural and progressive manner.

As was said: There is nothing more powerfull than idea which time has come. For me, the “Idea which time has come now” is
beating back the brutal attack on the Arab Nation and the containment of the 60 years old threat presented by implanting Israeli in the midest of this area. Anything else, becomes secondary to this Priority but without neglecting the importance of the need for socio-cultural-economic development.

At best, we can look for a balancing act coming in steps. Unless the Nation “thinks” otherwise. ASk the Syrians on the street what is their HIGHEST priority are now and you will have the answer?:

1- Defeating the current attack and maintaining the safety of the Nation?
2- Containing the Israeli?
3- Dump all else for the sake of a free capitalist path?
4- Opening the doors to full poitical-parlementarian freedom?

My guess? the answers will be in this order: 1, then 2, then 3 with 4 coming last. The human Pyramid Needs theory I guess.

With a final comment being that niether Syria, nor its people, nor its “regime” operate in a safe and free international vaccume where conflicting interests can force a nation to Change its Prioreties and even block its Natural Path of Development. And that is precisly why Israel was implanted here. NOt to blame all on the “usual” Israeli factor, but in order of not to underestimate it and to keep it mind at least.

Which is in a way similar to the conclusion of article above.

October 1st, 2007, 6:59 am


Ina Khan said:

This article approaches what it refers to as ‘Western Democracy’ as a given. What is Western democracy, I would ask, and in how is it of any value, applicability or interest to the countires of the Middle East, and namely Syria?

What is more pressing for this article to make any sense is a clearer definition of ‘modernity.’ How do Syrians resist modernity as the article suggests? Does it mean ‘Western’ definition of modernity?

I definitely agree that ‘importing’ or ‘exporting’ social and political solutions is simply futile, ex. Iraq today. Each society has a specific socio-historical context, from which it can generate change. But I am puzzled at how this article can suggest that, yet still not understand that probably people in Syria do not want, understand or value what the West terms ‘modernity’ and ‘democracy.’

It is legitimate to analyze Syrian politics and social life, but for any analysis to be valid, it should start by paying a particular attention to how Syrians identify themselves, and what their vision of their country looks like.

October 1st, 2007, 2:35 pm


wizart said:

What was the political ideology of Dr Nuredine Atassi in 1980?

Just curious to know if anyone knows why Atassi was sent back to jail after being released in 1980? What was the negotiation about?

How long was he out for and did he support the Islamic uprising?


P.S: Atassi was the third president of Syria from a traditional Sunni family and the Golan was lost one month after his visit to the U.S in May, 1967. I wonder what he said at that security council meeting and if it had anything to do with Israel’s 67 war.

April 21st, 2008, 1:07 pm


wizart said:

سافر إلى الولايات المتحدة وألقى خطاباً أمام الجمعية العامة في 18 أيار 1967م.

The Golan was invaded June 5, 1967 shortly after returning from the U.S.


What did Atassi say or didn’t say at the U.N on May 18, 1967?

April 21st, 2008, 7:30 pm


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