September 20, 2003

Syria Dispatch Charles Glass has

Syria Dispatch

Charles Glass has an interesting piece up on Syria over at the LRB. Some in the Beltway get a bit carried away about mega-democratization processes unfurling with ease from Riyadh to Damascus; Algiers to Teheran. Iraq, to date, shows us what a hard slog democracy-building in the region will be. So does this extract from Glass' piece:

"In September 2000, 99 members of Syria's intelligentsia - writers, teachers, lawyers, engineers, film-makers - published a letter in the London-based Arabic daily al-Hayat declaring a kind of war on the Government. Called Charter 99, it demanded an end to the 1963 state of emergency, the release of political prisoners, the return of political exiles, freedom of the press and the right to hold public meetings. Two months later, Assad freed about six hundred political prisoners and closed Damascus's notorious Mezzeh prison, where political dissidents have been mistreated ever since it was built by the French. (The much harsher Tadmor prison in the eastern desert is still in use.) A month later, the Government issued a licence for al-Domari (the 'Lamplighter'), the country's only privately owned newspaper. Meanwhile, more civil society networks were forming, and more declarations were being issued. Although the government press in Syria ignored them, Lebanese newspapers reported their activities and published their statements. Some of their pamphlets circulated as samizdat in universities and schools. On 3 June this year, 287 'Syrian citizens' published an appeal to Bashar in the Lebanese daily as-Safir. The petition warned that Syria faced two enemies, Israel and the United States, and was too weak to defend itself against either. While making the usual demand for an end to martial law and the release of political prisoners, it also argued for something more fundamental. 'The authorities have no remedy for our ills,' the petition stated. 'There is a real cure, which is national reform.' Rather than appeal to America to deliver democracy in Syria, the signatories appealed directly to Bashar.

What is happening in Iraq and in Palestine is just the beginning of what America calls the new era. The characteristic of this era is the use of force by America and Israel. We should stop them from achieving their goals by repairing our society and making our country strong. The way to do this is to have a free people. The masses have been ignored and excluded from public life. You should let them come back and use their power to protect the country.

One of the signatories was Sadek al-Azm, a recently retired professor of philosophy. A participant in civil society groups that include both Marxists and Islamists, he spoke to me about the message of the American war in Iraq for Syria. 'In meetings, we asked ourselves: suppose this happened here? Who would go out and fight for the regime? No one said: "I would." The strength of civil society is to tell the regime to be legitimate. There is a difference between defending the regime and defending the country.' He said the Syrian dissidents who drew up the al-Hayat petition have studied the political process in Turkey. 'When Erdogan said: "I have to submit to Parliament," the Americans could not tell him to go to hell. What Arab leader could say that without the Americans laughing him off the stage?' Syrian democrats are not waiting for democracy as a care package from the American Armed Forces so much as wanting to seize it themselves as a weapon with which to confront the American empire."

Put differently: yes there is a hunger for democracy in the Arab world. Groups like Charter 99 are eager for more freedom in the environs of Damascus. But there is, as well, great distrust of the U.S. as the democracy-bearer, as the vehicle for democracy dispensation.

There are doubtless many reasons for this. National pride and fear of neo-colonialism. Or suspicions of U.S. intentions given what Richard Haas has called the "democracy exception", ie. our many decades old policy of dealing with various Arab autocratic regimes without pushing the democratization agenda with as much alacrity as we did in Europe, Latin America, Asia. The strategic U.S.-Israeli relationship. Other reasons besides.

Policymakers need to better keep this complex rubric in mind as the next policy steps in the region are undertaken and implemented. In the short to middle term--much hinges on making Iraq a success and getting power, in time, handed over to an Iraqi authority. This would go a long way towards allaying Arab fears. So would a more comprehensive effort at peacemaking between the Israelis and Palestinians. But even if both of these efforts were to go pretty well (which is so very far from assured) we still have much catch-up work to do in terms of our reputation in the Arab world--and not just with Wahabist types in Saudi Arabia--given the sentiments of intellectuals making up groups like Force 99.

UPDATE: Jackson Diehl has got an op-ed that touches on the above over at the WaPo:

"Arab governments "are not concerned about the success or failure of the U.S. in Iraq," Egypt's veteran national security adviser, Osama Baz, bluntly told me and several other visiting journalists over dinner in Cairo. "They are worried about the consequences for themselves." Don't expect Egypt, Baz said, to supply troops or police to help its nominal American ally. On the other hand, he added, "we can help with the drafting of a constitution. We can help strengthen the governing council and the bureaucracy."

Egypt is betting, in other words, that ultimately it will be easier for Arab states than the United States to reshape Iraq. "You can't export the American system of democracy all over the world," Baz said pointedly."

Posted by Gregory at September 20, 2003 09:53 AM
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