Democracy to the Rescue
By Andrew Tabler
Institute of Current World Affairs, March 2006
DAMASCUS, Syria–As I approached the demonstration, I realized that the more things change in Syria, the more the state’s reaction stays the same. It was March 9, the 43rd anniversary of the declaration of “emergency law” in Syria. For the second year in a row, members of the Syrian Students’ National Union (SSNU) were busy beating up and chasing off opposition figures staging a sit-in in front of the old Ministry of Justice — a stone’s throw away from the radio station where martial law was declared in 1963 the morning after the Ba’ath Party seized power in a military coup. Multi-party politics in Syria was suspended that day, all in the name of bringing to an end raging political instability that had plagued the coun-try since independence in 1946.
A man with grey hair broke from the crowd of demonstrators, arms waving overhead. Scores of student-union protestors were on him like a swarm of bees, shouting “traitor” while beating him with wooden sticks adorned with Syrian flags. As I took a photo of the melee, colleagues Hugh Macleod, an eager British journalist, and Obaida Hamad, a Syrian reporter, sized up the situation, notebooks in hand.
“Come on, let’s go talk to that guy!” Hugh said.
Obaida and I looked at each other. Without saying a word, we understood that the worst thing that could happen to this brave man at that moment would be for two foreigners to ask him how he felt about being abused and beaten up. We probably knew the answer anyway.
“That’s the story!” Hugh shouted, eyes opened wide.
In an ideal sense, he was right of course. But in a country where nationalist sentiments are high due to U.S. and UN pressure, it is often hard to know what to do. If the man wanted to talk to foreigners — and put his neck on the line — that was his choice. But if we approached him, it could be seen as the very treasonous activity of which he was being ac-cused, leading to possible dire circumstances that could prevent him from enjoying the very freedom he seeks — permanently.
We did not have time to mull it over, however, since the students quickly converged on another target — me.
“We are here to support Syria and President Bashar against the traitors!” one protestor shouted as the crowd closed in around us. “The West just wants our oil!”
I could hear someone whispering the word “Ameri-can” behind me. Suddenly, a sweaty young man with wild blue eyes, short-cropped hair and a Syrian-flag ban-danna appeared. “So…. An American!,” he boomed, strutting like a rooster. The crowd roared. Someone started tugging on the belt of my raincoat, which admit-tedly would have been more appropriate on Dupont Circle than the edge of Damascus’ Old City. I went silent, as did Hugh. Obaida shouted back “We are journalists for a Syrian magazine!” and whipped out a few copies of Syria Today, a monthly publication I helped found with a Syrian colleague in 2003. The protestors, most with con-fused expressions, stared at the magazines’ covers.
Not to be cowed, the blue-eyed man raised his arms above his head. “America…. Fuck America!,” he screamed, throwing his limbs to the earth. The crowd roared again.
Suddenly, a young man appeared wearing a white baseball cap on which was printed “I love Syria” in En-glish.
“It’s OK,” he said, smiling at me. “Please, this way.”
He gave a single hand-motion that Moses might have used to part the Red Sea, and the crowd quickly obeyed. We were escorted to the side, and the mob turned its at-tention toward its next victim.
I had not bothered to show up for last year’s sit-in. Syria’s illegal-but-tolerated opposition parties are often hard to take seriously. Not because they have not taken their licks from the state over the years, but rather due to the opposition’s stale political ideologies, chronic divi-siveness and questions as to their real penetration into society. Marxist parties, for example, which throw around terms used only in North Korea these days, are ironically split along sectarian lines. Sectarian parties, especially Kurds, are divided ideologically. The Muslim Brother-hood, which waged a terrorist war against the state that culminated in the darkest day of Syrian political life – the state’s bombardment of the city of Hama in February 1982 — is strictly outlawed, and its leadership is in Lon-don. And last, but not least, it is hard to point to a single thing the opposition has done to effectively change po-litical life in Syria for the past four decades.
So why show up this year? Because this ramshackle bunch of Marxists, Communists, Socialists, Arab Nation-alists, Liberals, Islamists, Assyrians and Kurds have fi-nally agreed on something — the Damascus Declaration for Democratic National Change. Announced on Octo-ber 16, 2005, the Damascus Declaration calls for peaceful and gradual change toward a democratic regime in Syria. With over a thousand signatures to date, the Declaration has united Syria’s domestic and exiled opposition groups for the first time in the country’s recent history.
What is behind such rare accord? Strong external pressures, growing nationalist and Islamic sentiments, and a pervasive sense that the regime is simply unable to carry out political reforms promised by President Bashar al-Assad nearly six years ago, has the opposition prescrib-ing democracy as the cure for Syria’s ills.
While the Declaration’s leadership has its act to-gether, they now have competition from an old adver-sary, former Vice-president Abdel Halim Khaddam, who formed a rival opposition front including the Muslim Brotherhood on March 17. Just who will join what group remains to be seen. Perhaps the biggest question now, however, is how Syria’s opposition can avoid becoming a casualty of the escalating cold war between Damascus and Washington that neither capital can afford to lose.
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