Syria, the socio-economic crisis

article published in 2009 November

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Syria today is at a crossroad for many reasons, but especially on a national and societal scale. Syria has changed a lot over the last few years and the consequences are visible everywhere and throughout the country’s landscape. On an economic, societal and political scale the country has evolved, but towards what? The government claims very often his dedication to reforms, but what kind of reforms and who benefits from them? In relation to economic policy, Syria has adopted a “social market economy” and has undermined even more it’s so called socialism. What are the consequences for the country and the population? Concerning society, a growing feeling of religiosity have been noticed these past years which is a general feature in the Middle East but more surprisingly it has been maintained and even endorsed by the officials’ of a supposed Secular state. Where have the secular and progressive ideals claimed by the Baath gone to? In relation to education, which is, according to the government, a priority, is Syria preparing a new generation of Syrians of citizens or of simple subjects? Many questions are raised and very few answers are given for the future of Syrians. 
Firstly, on an economic and financial scale, Syria has definitely entered a new era which favours the private sector. The Financial sector has developed in a very effective way as we can see in the different cities of Syria by the establishment of Private Banks, insurance firms and money exchange bureaus. The assets of the banking sector as a whole rose by 7.7 percent in 2008, while assets of private banks alone increased by some 28.7 percent ([1]). Similarly, deposits increased by 15.7 percent (36 percent for the private sector) and lending rose by 37.4 percent (83.6 percent for the private sector) ([2]), the private sector benefiting the most, meanwhile, the insurance sector grew by 33 percent in 2008 compared to the previous year ([3]). In March 2008, Syria has also launched its first stock exchange, the Damascus Securities Exchange, an important achievement for many economic and financial reformers. The Financial Sector has grown of 13% during the 2008 year ([4]).
On an economic scale, the gross domestic product (GDP) of the country has grown by 7% in 2008 to reach 29 billions $ according to the Central Bureau of Statistic ([5]). Two mobile phone companies operate and the government is in the process of offering a third license ([6]). Import restrictions have been eased considerably, reaching 18.3 billions $ in 2008, which corresponds to a rise of 25.7% compared to 2007 [7], while exportation attained 14.4 billions $, an increase of 16.7% since 2007. The government has also done much to attract foreign direct investment, which has risen from SYP 5.7bn (USD 120m) in 2002 to hit SYP 52.25bn (USD 1.1bn) last year [8].
These features are mainly due to the liberalization of the Syrian economy and the reforms conducted by the government in the framework of a “social market economy”.
Do Syrians benefit from these measures? Quite sadly, not really; a UNDP report stated that the economic growth in Syria does not benefit to the population in general and that social inequalities have increased considerably these last few years [9]. Currently in the country, around 11.4% of the population, corresponding to 2 millions persons, can not afford to meet their food and non food basic needs. The considerable rise in prices and declining purchasing power of people is not a secret in the society. Moreover the government is struggling to reform, and reduce, the subsidies systems, penalizing again the population in a transition period towards a market economy. This economic transition is currently not benefiting the people, and despite the declarations of M Abdallah al Dardari, Vice President of the Ministers Council for economic affairs, affirming that a social market economy guarantees goods as well as high and costless quality services to the population [10]. Hussein Awdat, a Syrian writer and former Ba’athist, said on the opposite that this new economic policy is destroying the daily life of Syrian people and is totally against the interests of the population [11].
On an economic level, although Syria’s GDP has known a growth of 7%, the Syrian trade deficit peaked at 3.9 billion dollars, while the country was self sufficient before. Another source of concern is the continual decline of two historical sectors in Syria: the public sector and the agriculture. Firstly, the plight of public enterprises drains public finances. On approximately 260 public companies, only around twenty generate revenues for the State, including the Syrian oil company, the telecommunications company, Commercial Bank of Syria and the General Organization of Tobacco [12]. All other companies recorded losses or zero profits. The need to reform public enterprises is urgent and the government should get down to the job concretely as soon as possible. This latter should not forget the social role of the State in the Syrian economy and not only concentrate on privatizing any companies for the benefit of few individuals and to the detriment of the majority. In the field of agriculture, the sector is suffering from the country’s move to a social market economy and the government’s introduction of a new subsidy regime to fulfil international trade agreements such as the Association Agreement with the European Union. The government decided to cut subsidy on diesel fuel in May 2008 causing an overnight price jump of 250 percent from SYP 7 (USD 0.14) per litre to SYP 25 (USD 0.52) per litre [13]. The 250 percent price increase forced the decision of many farmers, notably from the Jazeera region in north-eastern Syria, to abandon their land by making the cost of irrigation and transportation unaffordable. Alfredo Impiglia, acting representative of the FAO, declared that the cost of living has increased considerably and that this increase was not matched by the incomes of the farmers [14]. He added “farming inputs cost more so their profits become lower. Government employees had a salary increase to compensate for the increase in the cost of living, but farmers didn’t have anything and their costs went up. They face serious problems in maintaining their farms” [15]. What was once upon a time Syria’s highly interventionist agricultural policy that ensured the country’s food security and provide the Syrian population with cheap access to food items, is slowly leaving the ground to a more liberal market with harsh consequences on farmers and peasants, who account for about 20 percent of the country’s GDP and 19 percent of its workforce. Unable to survive financially and faced with extreme rural poverty, they are now abandoning their land and migrating towards the cities in search of work [16].
Another harsh full and unfortunate impact of the country transition to the new social market economy is the constant increase over the past few years of children being forced into child labour, on the streets or in the industrial and agricultural sectors [17]. Indeed, a growing number of families are struggling to adapt to this new economic climate and to stay above the poverty line. A survey conducted by UNICEF, Syria’s State Planning Commission and the Ministry of Health in 2006 estimated that at least 4 percent of 5-14 year olds – 29,309 children in total – were involved in child labour, the majority of whom were under the age of 11 [18]. The modification of education and labour laws in 2002 and 2004, which made school for each child until the age of 15 compulsory and forbade the employment under that age, did not stop this sad evolution. The report stated that Hama and Deir ez-Zor had the highest rates of child labour at 12.5 percent and 8.7 percent of their child populations respectively, while the estimation for the capital Damascus was around 1.3% [19]. An UNICEF Representative Salma Kahale declared in relation to this subject that in parallel to economic reforms, there needs to be the development of a social protection system in order to prevent families to turn to child labour [20].
This is the real issue: the development of a social protection for the citizens. Moreover, Nabil Sukkar, managing director of the Syrian Consulting Bureau for Development and Investment, said that the government is yet to clarify in details how it plans to balance free market principles with social equity, while adding that, until now, the focus has been on transforming the economy to a market economy [21]. Mtanios Habib, professor of economics at Damascus University, believes extra money should be made available to cushion the blow for the poorest in society and adds “We have very low salaries in Syria. Subsidy reform should include the creation of a fund to support labourers; the labour force cannot live without subsidies and there is a risk of social trouble” [22].

Secondly, on a societal scale and more precisely on the increasing attitude of the State towards religion these past few years, we have to underline that the State’s behaviour is in total contradiction with the official picture of a secular country and more generally with its supposed ideals. A religious vocabulary appeared more often in political discourse and in socio cultural practices, along with a massive increase in the building of religious sites from the eighties until now. These government’s measures were also accompanied by censorship of literary and artistic works, while promoting a religious literature filling more and more the shelves of libraries and Islamizing the field of higher education. This is true particularly in the humanities and, expressed itself in the rather systematic referral to religious references of any scientific, social and cultural phenomenon [23]. Around 10 000 mosques, hundreds of religious schools were built and more than 200 conferences headed by clerics were held in cultural centres of important towns during the year 2007 [24]. Mohamad Habach, a deputy and director of a research centre close to the Syrian government, declared in 2007 to officers in training at the military academy, that there was a need of a religion’s return within the army, a feature which was severely forbidden during these last decades [25]. No need to say that as the other Arab countries of the region, no civil marriage granting couples of different faiths legal recognition of their unions is possible in the country where Muslims and Christians are famous for living in harmony together. Both the Christian and Muslim communities continue to adhere to strict religious and social norms, while family laws are strongly influenced by Islamic Law [26].
This appropriation and endorsement of religion by the government have been felt in the society and especially on the artists and writers. For example, a book mentioning the story of a young Iranian woman forced to wear the veil was forbidden, as well as a movie evoking the life of a Syrian woman in Canada who decided to live her love story without restrictions and limits [27]. Syrians’ officials will to control and manipulate religion was certainly not a very wise decision and consequences are observed throughout the society. For example, the State censorship is not the only one hitting the cultural scene in the country now. Rosa Yaseen Hassan, a Syrian novelist whose works has broken many local taboos by addressing contentious political, religious, cultural and gender issues, has denounced the socio religious censorship existing in the country such as in the case of the novel Ain Ezzohoor, a Sarcastic Biography by Abou Ali Yaseen. The book was firstly approved by the Ministry of Information, but then confiscated from the publishing house by the subordinates of an influential local figure [28]. The problem was that the book tackled an important socio-religious taboo: it talked about sheikhs and their religious authority. And despite the abundance of new publications covering notably economic and financial affairs, politics still remains limited as only a handful of outlets that focus on political news have been authorized. Actually besides the three state-run political dailies – Tishreen, Al-Ba’ath and Al-Thawra – only two political publications have been established in the last eight years: Abyad wa Aswad (Black & White) and Al-Bilad (The Countries) [29].

On an education level, which is according to the government a top priority, the curriculum content has not been revised in order for Syrian students to develop a critical mind. Actually, the most important in the development of a civil conscience is the teaching and the assimilation of the citizenship concept, which is replaced by the Baath party principles [30]. Schools still have to teach the Baath principles while this is not anymore the case in Universities, which have suppressed them in 2003. The curriculum very rarely introduces pupils to the principles of freedom, pluralism, democracy dialogue and Human Rights, while neglecting the issue of women’s emancipation’s or of equality between women and men [31]. The struggle for a reform and a renovation of education is part of the struggle for citizenship: the implementation of non repression and non discrimination principles, i.e. civic equality, in education, allows the conscious social reproduction and actualization of democracy [32]. Then and only then, can schools form citizens and not subjects.
the government should Definitely promote the right to a quality education for all as a first step in its reforms and this certainly can not be done by a policy of privatizing education and in the multiplication of private schools and universities. An education of quality is a right which should be guaranteed to all Syrians and not only to a certain class. Private universities have been allowed in 2001 and there is now 14 of them, including around 22 000 students, in Syria. They can range up to USD 10,870 per year, which is completely inaccessible for a far majority of Syrian knowing that the average salary is 15.000 (370 US dollars) – 20.000 Syrian pounds (500 US dollars) [33]. This will not take the pressure off the overcrowded public education system that besides lacks new facilities to welcome in good conditions the 264,550 students [34].

A last feature that is necessary for our article is the issue of democracy and the rights which come with it. We will not speak about Human rights violations and privation of freedom of many intellectuals and civil society activists which are well known and that we condemn without restrictions. There is a need to open the political scene to all the citizens, all the social classes and all the political parties. This opening will able Syria and Syrians to establish a Rule of Law and put an end to the endemic corruption system which has become generalized throughout the society. Of course democracy will not come overnight, but we should consider and conceptualize democracy as described by W. Parker as a ““path” or a “journey” rather than an accomplishment; a direct and full participation rather the mere spectatorship of nominating and then voting for political candidates; and recognition of pluralism- including race, gender, ethnicity- within society as opposed to the more traditionalist assimilationist view” [35].

In conclusion, we have seen that Syria is slowly abandoning his feature of Welfare State to join the liberal club of Nations around the Globe. This transition is characterized by a decline in subsidies throughout all the sectors of the society and a growing privatization of this latter. Reforms undertaken by the current government are satisfying the upper class and foreign investors by liberalizing the Syrian economy for their benefits and at the expense of the far majority of Syrians hit by the inflation and rising cost of living. In addition to that, Syrian’s agriculture and public sector are also declining and no effective strategy to strengthen them have been suggested yet which could jeopardize the country’s alimentary autonomy and harm the population by the constant rise in prices of food and non food basic needs. The lack of democracy does not improve the picture and these elements could have severe consequences on the society. The end of the Welfare State in Syria could lead the country to a “Lebanese model” which favours private initiatives over State interventionism benefiting a small percentage of the population and where people turn to their own sects for services because the State is absent and do not fulfill its duties towards its citizen. The results are straightforward in society notably with the development of sectarianism and large difference of wealth between the people. Yet it is true Syria is still far from this liberal model and the State is still playing a very important role on a social level, although less than before.
But I don’t think we would be wrong by pointing out to the warning signs, and start our much-needed advocacy.
________________________________________

[1] Syria Report Corporate Syria: Banking and Finance 2009
[2] Syria Report Corporate Syria: Banking and Finance 2009
[3] Syria Report Corporate Syria: Banking and Finance 2009
[4] YAZIGI J.; Le PIB syrien a augmenté de 7 % en 2008 ; Syria Report, 05/06/2009
[5] YAZIGI J.; Le PIB syrien a augmenté de 7 % en 2008 ; Syria Report, 05/06/2009
[6] Haidar D., Unity, Freedom and Socialism, Syria Today, June 2009
[7] YAZIGI J., Déficit record de la balance commerciale, Syria Report 11/09/2009
[8]Haidar D., Unity, Freedom and Socialism, Syria Today, June 2009
[9] IRIN, Syrie : L’inflation creuse l’écart entre les riches et les pauvres, 11 février 2008
[10] SANA, 01 Nov 2009
[11] Haidar D., Unity, Freedom and Socialism, Syria Today, June 2009
[12] Orient le Jour, 30. janvier 2009, Yazigi J.,
[13] Dalia Haidar & Francesca de Châtel ; Leaving the Land; Syria Today May 2009
[14] Lennert J., Tough Times, Syria Today; May 2009
[15] Lennert J., Tough Times, Syria Today; May 2009
[16] Lennert J., Tough Times, Syria Today; May 2009
[17]Ferguson F., No Time For Play, Syria Today; October 2009
[18] Ferguson F., No Time For Play, Syria Today; October 2009
[19] Ferguson F., No Time For Play, Syria Today; October 2009
[20] Ferguson F., No Time For Play, Syria Today; October 2009
[21] Haidar D., Unity, Freedom and Socialism, Syria Today, June 2009
[22] (IRIN); DAMASCUS, 30 October 2007
[23] Kawakibi S ; L’émergence d’une « Société civile » en Syrie et le partenariat, Documentos CIDOB, Mediterráneo; 8 Euro-Méditerranéen.
[24] Kawakibi S ; L’émergence d’une « Société civile » en Syrie et le partenariat, Documentos CIDOB, Mediterráneo; 8 Euro-Méditerranéen.
[25] Kawakibi S ; L’émergence d’une « Société civile » en Syrie et le partenariat, Documentos CIDOB, Mediterráneo; 8 Euro-Méditerranéen.
[26] Haidar D., Faith and Marriage Syria Today, March 2009
[27] Kawakibi S ; L’émergence d’une « Société civile » en Syrie et le partenariat, Documentos CIDOB, Mediterráneo; 8 Euro-Méditerranéen.
[28] Yaseen Hassan R., Don’t Wake the Bear, Syria Today October 2009
[29] Haidar D., Creeping Ahead, Syria Today, April 2009
[30] Kawakibi S ; L’émergence d’une « Société civile » en Syrie et le partenariat, Documentos CIDOB, Mediterráneo; 8 Euro-Méditerranéen.
[31] Kawakibi S ; L’émergence d’une « Société civile » en Syrie et le partenariat, Documentos CIDOB, Mediterráneo; 8 Euro-Méditerranéen.
[32] Grossman D; Democracy, citizenship education and inclusion: a multi dimensional approach; UNESCO IBE 2008
[33] http://www.interex.fr/fr/fiches-pays/syrie/legislation-du-travail
[34] Haidar D., Easing the Strain, Syria Today, September 2009
[35] Grossman D; Democracy, citizenship education and inclusion: a multi dimensional approach; UNESCO IBE 2008

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