Article published in February 2010
Last January, the Syria Trust for Development, under the patronage of Mrs Asma al Assad, has organized the 1st International conference on development in Syria under the following title: “the emerging role of civil society in development”. Mrs Al Assad, the wife of the current President Bashar al Assad, has notably declared during this conference that the role of civil society in development is complementary to the public and private sector, and has added that the numbers of associations has grown from 300% over the last five years, entering news domains such as teaching, teachers trainings, health and environment and support to small and medium economic initiatives. The conference also considered the insertion of civil society in other sectors of Syrian society and has besides invited representatives from 30 NGOs to expose their different projects. Asma al Assad has therefore highlighted, quite rightly, the rising role played by civil society in Syria. Actually we could underline the very important and essential role played by a new generation of activist from civil society, who use new communication tools, on sensitive issues such as the cancellation of the controversial Personal Status draft, the cancellation of the article of the Penal Code related to “honor crimes,” the campaign to enable Syrian women to give their children the Syrian citizenship, in addition to a vast number of other civil campaigns. The term civil society is not anymore a taboo in Syria and does not only designate or represents the opposition to the regime per se anymore.
Are we therefore entering a new era for Syrian civil society and NGOs? Is Syria on the path of democratization? Western paradigms of power assign an active role to civil society organizations in confronting state power structures throughout their efforts to bring about political and social transformation. Such advocacy networks are seen as indispensable elements of transitioning societies which seek to slough off their authoritarian pasts, reduce corruption and implant more transparent systems of governance consistent with the formulae of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund . Are we on the opposite observing once again a policy of controlled Economic Liberalization and a step forward toward the resignation of the State in certain areas of society, merely social issues, to NGOs and civil society?
Civil society has a long history in the region and especially in Syria; it should be reminded to western theorists who very often claim the opposite. We can actually date back primary forms of civil society to the Ottoman era such as the “Tawaef System” that regulated the role of handcrafts and professions in the empire or the rise of the Arab national movements which took the shape in the beginning of civil organization and societies. The arrival of the Baath in 1963 marked the beginning of a new period characterized by State interventions in all the strata of the society and therefore linking public and private life to the government dominated by one political party. Syrian civil society diminished importantly and instead non civic organizations appeared. These latter combined political and civil features, while mixing ideology and civil endeavor. The society accordingly observed throughout these forty years the appearance of a narrow caste instead of a broader society. Pluralism was hence dissolved in a unique ideology.
Since 2000, Syrian civil society has gone through two different phases. Firstly, the movement from 2000 to 2006 was characterized by political and civic interactions between their participants. We can observe examples such as “The Statement of 99” or the Committees to Revive Civil Society,”(which was announced in a statement that was called “The Statement of 1000”) both a gathering of intellectuals, artists, writers, scholars and even politicians who demanded reforms and democratization of the State. This was accompanied also by the opening of forums to debate and between 2004 and 2006 by the multiplication of sit-ins, a new political phenomenon in Syria. Calls for sit-ins came from political parties and civil organizations at the same time. The government of Bashar Al Assad cracked down this movement, forums were actually closed, sit-ins were severely repressed and many intellectuals who launched this call for civil society and democratization were imprisoned. This repression led to the separation of opposition forces and civil society groups, as it became compulsory for this latter to survive.
We are currently witnessing the emergence of a new generation of civil society activists, who for the vast majority did not have any political record. They’re usually people who have been very active on social and economical issues such as the national campaign against honor crimes, where they managed to send a petition signed by thousands of people to the President and several other main government institutions. The President in response to this new form of activism amended Provision 548 which exempted male murderers from penalty if they “took their wives by surprise committing adultery”. In addition to this, many campaigns were launched since 2006 using notably the internet and online social networking tools. Bassam al-Kadi, Director of the Syrian Women Observatory and active member of this new Syrian civil society, also notes that another achievement of this campaign is the way medias have now improved and started to cover women’s and children’s issues. He adds that “Since we launched our campaign (Stop violence against women), more than 1,000 articles and programs about honor killings have been aired on local TV channels, radio stations and published in print and online publications”. Bassam al Kadi has encouraged the youth to participate more and play a greater role in their society, and even though these youngsters work on a voluntary basis because of lack of funding, the observatory has conducted several campaigns and expanded its network to cover all parts of the country.
This phenomenon covers what we understand as civil society: many social organizations outside the auspices of the State which can counterweight the power of the State, diluting its control over society, and articulates for the progress of various societal interests towards the dominant political elites. However, there are a few reservations or doubts on this opening of the Syrian government.
Firstly, as rightly pointed out by the Director of Syria Woman Observatory, civil society organizations that are not supported or accepted by the notorious law of associations implemented by the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor were not invited to the conference. The organizers invited 30 individualities selected with the agreement of the authorities; the conference was actually under the direct patronage of the State: the wife of the President was its sponsor. This is quite in opposition to the way civil society should organize itself to come together to provide a buffer between state and citizens.
The government’s will through this kind of conference is to show the International Community that Syria is indeed opening up and to promote a certain civil society close to the authority. This is part of the government policy to allow a controlled liberalisation which in other words is to provide more space in the public sphere without any effective political participation of the citizens. It also includes a retreat of the State from certain sectors of the society, mainly social domains. This phenomenon has been observed in different Arab countries since the 1980s. NGOs working in development and procuring services therefore increase considerably, and, far from being viewed as a challenge to the regime, are on the opposite understood as effective partners especially in a developing country such as Syria. The problem that stems out from this situation is that these organizations, unlike those in South America, don’t have a double agenda containing development and democratic change, and are therefore not able to mobilise population in their way.
The NGOs which are therefore fostered by the government have more a “Para public” than a truly civil nature, because of the narrowed links harboured by the civil society with the State, so much on the local than the national level. They either constitute an additional instrument of public intervention, or a privilege field of intermediation between the social order and the state order: a communication channel between the society and the administration, a construction field of social and political notabilities and as such of electoral basis. Civil society organisations approved by the government are thereafter supported financially and administratively by the State in a “clientelist” approach. The private sector, very often linked to government personalities, also participate in this policy by providing fund to the “accepted” and “well seen” civil society organisation by the State.
This main feature does not exclude a number of exceptions such as the Syria Woman Observatory and many others. This administrative reality for Arab NGOs doesn’t mean though that Arab societies are totally submissive to the State. They have proven their capacity of self organisation and of exceptional survival in an economic framework characterised by poverty, unemployment and increasing social gap, especially these last few years in Syria. Unfortunately, these kinds of advocacy civil society organisations working without clientelist relationships linking them to the State suffer from financial problems, difficulty to find sponsors, and administrative issues, while authorities sometimes intervene to slow down or stop a project. The Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour which grants the right to associations to work have still refused to license a number of professional associations, as well as ones related to women’s rights and human rights on the grounds that “they are not needed.”
The emerging role of civil society put forward in Syria by the government is in my opinion definitely not part of a Political democratization that is defined as“entailing an expansion of political participation in such a way as to provide citizens with a degree of real and meaningful collective control over public policy”. Syria is unfortunately not on the path of democratization. There is a threat as well if the privatization and the control of the resources of the country by a few and the increasing wealth gap between people, which lead to social problems. This economic development has generally been praised by Western countries and institutions, and NGOs are actually part of this strategy to find new forms of development leaving the public power to retreat increasingly, while the private sector on the opposite becomes the main agent of change. This has unfortunately led to harsh consequences for developing countries and Syria should definitely be careful not to follow them. Finally, in relation to civil society, a new and clear law should firstly be implemented and secondly and most importantly, they should be no restriction on their activity in order for them to play their role fully as real agents of change.