Tuesday, March 29, 2011

A Very Syrian Way of Doing Things

A foreign plot to destabilize the country and spread chaos across Syria has been foiled. Furthermore, the sinister plot aimed at succeeding by subverting the 'real and legitimate' grievances of the Syrian people. Whilst the plot has been foiled, the Syrian government will graciously acknowledge these grievances and will now begin implementing immediate change.

This is the narrative that has now been produced in Syria for immediate reproduction and dissemination across the country and the world. It is a face-saving narrative for those who took part in, or supported, the protests that began in Deraa and spread to other Syrian cities. It is also a face-saving exercise after the Syrian government's atrocious handling of these protests and those ridiculous claims that were made when protests first began. Dr Bouthaina Shaaban held a press conference last Thursday which marked the beginning of the massive public relations exercise that has re-engineered the Syrian government's response to what has happened. It semes, unlike in Egypt, Tunisia or Libya, that Syria has decided to respond to the protests in a different way. It is, however, still unclear how sincere the promises for change really are. As I write this, the emergency laws that Syria has been under for 58 years remain in place. It is also unclear how effective a new government in Syria will be, considering the old one, in power since 2003, offered nothing more than a rubber stamp to all presidential decrees. We do not know if a future government would or could hypothetically refuse a request by the president and begin to behave as the supreme legislative body of Syria that it is supposed to be. There is still no clear view of how corruption will be handled or where the requests for transparency will lead to. Finally, we don't know whether the heavy handed secret police will ever be reined in or held to account. The central theme that everybody is repeating is that Bashar al Assad should be given a chance, for the sake of stability. Nobody in their right mind would dare argue otherwise.

Will removing the State of Emergency make a difference?

In spite of all the uncertainty, it is clear that something has changed in Syria. Whether that something is the breaking of the fear barrier, or an optimism for the future, is a subject up for debate. But what does it mean for the state of emergency to be removed in Syria? In reality will the executive arm of the Syrian government continue to behave as it always has? And will the judiciary and the legislative bodies remain cowed into submission?

That does not have to be the case. The Syrian government has always been keen to appear to observe the "Rule of Law" and the Syrian constitution. Historically, before major decisions were made, either the constitution was amended, or assumed to be there de facto under the state of emergency. This behaviour has been the norm rather than the exception. For example when Bashar al Assad inherited rule from his father, legally he was too young to assume the presidency according to the consitution, but this was hastily amended in order to allow this to happen.

Syria's government mostly, and unusually for the region with the exception of Lebanon and Egypt, does attach an importance to the rule of law. Many, of course, would disagree with such an interpretation, but the rule of law and an adherence to it does not necessarily mean that the laws of the land must have substantive or moral content. Friederich von Hayek himself argued that Nazi Germany still observed the rule of law, albeit the laws themselves were heinous. For Hayek, formal law, that is, law which had no substantive content, was like a set of roadsigns that simply allowed society to function but did not specify how they should function. By and large, one might expect Hayek to recognise this in the Syrian model. The Syrian citizen has, for the past forty years or so, been able to plan their affairs according to laws that were fixed, unchanging and clear, however imperfect. This formal law may have been given a lip service by the government, but it was always there and always in the minds of those who were making decisions. It was not simply discarded as if the country were ruled by a medieval despot. That is very important to keep in mind.

Should Syria remove the state of emergency, nothing on the ground is likely to change at first. Regardless, the opportunity or legal cover for gradual change will have been provided. It will become increasingly difficult for security services and government officials to apply arbitrary and discriminatory laws or decisions upon the citizenry. Judges will be more hesitant to pass arbitrary sentences now that the cover of emergency law is gone and that they are forced to actually operate under Syrian law, with all the trappings and intricacies that this entails. This bigger challenge could, in turn, lead to better judges being appointed and better decisions being handed out.

In the Parliament, members of the body will have much more confidence in challenging and questioning government policies or existing laws. It will be more difficult to imprison or silence such individuals now that it is obvious that doing so will be contrary to Syrian law. For individuals on the street, the right to gather, protest and even declare their own views or form their own political parties will create a new reality on the streets of Syria.

In effect, the lifting of the state of emergency could mark the beginning of the end for institutional corruption. Of course there are no guarantees and the state of emergency can always be reimplemented later, perhaps under a pretext such as a future war with Israel oranother armed insurrection as was seen in 1982. The only hope is that if enough time passes then it may be possible to make such a reimplementation more difficult for future governments and only possible in genuine emergencies. That is, of course, a very big "if".

The Syrian Political Vacuum

Another problem which may appear if Syria genuinely begins to move down the road of reform is that of the political vacuum that has come into existence after decades of single-party rule. Most of Syria's political opposition from the heady post-independence days either no longer exist or have been pushed into exile or irrelevance, sometimes both as is the case with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. A new political climate that is conducive to plurality and political freedoms will have to face a political vacuum that is likely to be filled by parties of Islamic tendencies, something worrying to many people. Under Bashar al Assad, a Syrian religiosity was fostered and was found to be a useful outlet for people in the face of American designs for a "New Middle East" in the post-2005 battle for the region. This religiosity may now backfire as Syria is largely without any credible secular parties or political intellectuals of any calibre and who are outside of the government and mercantile ruling classes. The grim warnings by many pro-government supporters of instability and a fate similar to Iraq's may prove to be a self-fulfilling prophecy in such a case. But, if Syrians are serious about reform then they will have to take that risk and face the challenges it brings them. All are unanimous in recognising that the current state of affairs is intolerable.

Where to from here?

There is no doubt that Bashar al Assad has some difficult decisions to make. Stories of foreign saboteurs not withstanding, he must recognise that something is very wrong with Syrian domestic policies and that a change is needed. A simple re-arranging of furniture will simply not do anymore. Whether the country descends into chaos or pushes on to a braver and more promising future is now entirely in the hands of this mild mannered man, the reluctant president, whose only wish was to become an "eye-doctor". Tomorrow this quiet man will address the nation, and the Syrian people will be listening very carefully to what he has to say.

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