Wednesday, May 16, 2012

What Can the Average Syrian Do?

I really don't know what game the Syrian oppositions are playing at. After much initial fanfare and hullaballoo, they are still unable to organise themselves. I don't think Haitham Manaa or Burhan Ghalioun are the ones to fault, as much as those who deride the Syrian revolution at every opportunity would love to. Far from it, there is only so much that these men can do. I remember an agreement between the two men that was almost immediately howled down by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, and that they both had to distance themselves from, last year. Whether with the regime or the decrepit political oppositions, a hero is clearly lacking for Syria. But at a time when there are no heroes, and with so many insurmountable obstacles, what can we do on an individual level?

I sometimes wonder in amazement at how difficult it is to hold a rational conversation with many of my countrymen and women. It is rare to find somebody who gives you their genuine opinion, based on their own evaluation of a situation, rather than the party, religious, or popular dogma that they might hide behind. Casual racism and anti-semitism can be rife, while sexism prevails at almost every level. In Syria the universities are awful and the teaching is sub-standard. Students at the baccalaureate level have to memorise vast swathes of text for their exams, during which the slightest deviation is heavily penalised. Even in mathematics, a simple response to a question is not enough. Instead there is an educational dogma and ritual that must surround the response to an exam question, and marks will be taken even if mathematically the response is sound.

We have still not dealt with institutional corruption in the educational system. It is not unheard of for students to spend years trying to graduate for university, if they have not greased the palms of the right university lecturer. That is, if the student is lucky to get into university. If a student has not managed to gain enough grades in the insanely difficult pantomime called the baccalaureate, they will be drafted into a military service during which they would be forced to become the foot servants of whichever officer they have the misfortune of serving under. For two years, and maybe more with penalties, a conscript is a slave labourer. Should he wish to obtain leave, he must pay a bribe. If he complains, he is given a penalty and his time as a conscript is increased.

So there you have it, and that is by no means an exhaustive description of what is wrong with Syrian society at every level. If there ever was an argument for small government, then this country surely cries out for it. Yet, in spite of an absence of any form of government accountability, state regulations or an effective infrastructure, Syrians still manage to organise their affairs and lives with astonishing adaptability. Families and friends help each other out, or barter and do each other small favours - at enormous risk of personal friction of course. The informal economy, ignored and unstudied, operates as a nebulous, breathing and living entity. It responds to market supply and demand and seems, to the shock of many, to self-regulate itself. Reputation is everything, and your perception by peers and by the public are far more valuable than any government certificate of approval. Builders, engineers, shop owners, dentists and doctors, all build and cultivate their business through a meticulously cultivated network of customers. Word of mouth appears to have replaced a free media, and is a remarkable way to hear about what is happening. Naturally this national game of Chinese whispers is far from perfect, but coupled with mobile phones and internet connectivity it has proven to be the backbone of the Syrian uprising. Ironically, the regime's firm control of the state's media and news outlets have helped create this situation.

Economically, the black market price of the dollar fluctuates almost hourly, and yet there is no newspaper that will give you that price, no Bloomsburg or MSNBC-style news tickers to give you the latest price of Syria's currency. There is, of course, the official price, set by the government, but only an idiot really buys or sells at that price. All of this is undocumented, unstudied and ignored. Nobody comments on this state within a state, an undercurrent to Syria that the regime has never been able to penetrate fully or even to understand. In spite of the official sounding "Syrian Computer Society", such ridiculous government organisations are not behind the computer savvy local population that have been transmitting mobile phone videos out of the country. The country's massive DVD piracy networks, computer gaming, and music piracy markets have done what no national computer literacy drive could hope to achieve.

If you come to Syria and you have friends there, you will quickly be given a USB stick from which you can copy the latest proxy software to bypass internet censorship. And when one proxy is blocked and stops working, another becomes distributed via this informal network within days. Chat programs might be blocked, but for those wishing to meet a future spouse online, or simply to chat up girls, a million and one ways to communicate are devised. Forums, discussion groups, blogs, messenger programs, all can be utilised in the life-long quest to spread one's genes. The more you examine it, the less you see government control as all-pervasive, but rather as a thin shell which gives off the illusion of control.

All of this seems to counter-balance the deficit in political institutions, a free media, and decent educational establishments, but only just. Whether it was in 2011 or 2021, the country has too many internal contradictions to have survived in the way that Assad's regime preferred it too. It is just not possible to sustain a regime that exists on corruption with a growing, restless, unemployed and increasingly literate, if politically naive, young population. It is a recipe for disaster, and the explosion of political uncertainty, contradictory statements and bipolar politics that is emerging from Syria is the inevitable result we are seeing of over forty years of dictatorship.

If you ask me, the focus must be on strengthening the way this informal economy and state within a state interacts. More and more efforts to circumvent state control of information, knowledge and communication would help connect the population with the rest of the world, and help bring the people up to speed. One might say that the influence of extremist groups would help destabilise the country, but that is absurd. It is like saying drinking water should be banned because some people have choked to death. The benefits of a free and open society far outweigh the dangers, and preventing such a society is far more harmful than the danger this prevention aims protect society from.

If there is anything individual Syrians, frustrated with their helplessness, can do, it is to talk to other Syrians, and keep talking. The biggest focus of this regime for the past forty years, from laws which ban public gatherings without a permit, to censorship and state control of the media, is to stop Syrians talking to each other and exchanging ideas, or finding out what is happening. This is something that they can no longer do - all we have to do is start.

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