Popular Protest in North Africa and the Middle East (VI): The Syrian People’s Slow-motion Revolution
Middle East/North Africa Report N°108
6 Jul 2011
The Syrian uprising has defied conventional expectations and patterns established elsewhere in the region from the outset. It happened, first of all, and to many that in itself was surprising enough. The regime was not alone in believing in a form of Syrian exceptionalism that would shield it from serious popular unrest. Once the uprising began, it did not develop quickly, as in Egypt or Tunisia. Although it did not remain peaceful, it did not descend into a violent civil war, as in Libya, or sectarian affair, as in Bahrain. To this day, the outcome remains in doubt. Demonstrations have been growing in impressive fashion but have yet to attain critical mass. Regime support has been declining as the security services’ brutality has intensified, but many constituents still prefer the status quo to an uncertain and potentially chaotic future. What is clear, however, is the degree to which a wide array of social groups, many once pillars of the regime, have turned against it and how relations between state and society have been forever altered.
The regime’s first mistake in dealing with the protests was to misdiagnose them. It is not fair to say that, in response to the initial signs of unrest, the regime did nothing. It decreed an amnesty and released several prominent critics; officials were instructed to pay greater attention to citizen complaints; and in a number of localities steps were taken to pacify restive populations. But the regime acted as if each and every disturbance was an isolated case requiring a pin-point reaction rather than part of a national crisis that would only deepen short of radical change.
Over the past decade, conditions significantly worsened virtually across the board. Salaries largely stagnated even as the cost of living sharply increased. Cheap imported goods wreaked havoc on small manufacturers, notably in the capital’s working-class outskirts. In rural areas, hardship caused by economic liberalisation was compounded by the drought. Neglect and pauperisation of the countryside prompted an exodus of underprivileged Syrians to rare hubs of economic activity. Cities such as Damascus, Aleppo and Homs witnessed the development of sprawling suburbs that absorbed rural migrants. Members of the state-employed middle class, caught between, on the one hand, low salaries, shrinking subsidies and services and, on the other, rising expenses, have been pushed out of the city centre toward the underdeveloped belt that surrounds Damascus. The ruling elite’s arrogance and greed made this predicament more intolerable. Meanwhile, promises of political reform essentially had come to naught.
Much of this has been true for a while, but the regional context made all the difference. That the Syrian public’s outlook was changing in reaction to events elsewhere might not have been manifest, but telltale signs were there. Well ahead of the mid-March 2011 commencement of serious disturbances, the impact of regional turmoil could be felt in the behaviour of ordinary Syrians. In what had long been – or forced to become – a depoliticised society, casual discussions suddenly assumed a surprisingly political tone. What the regime used to do and get away with came under intense and critical public scrutiny. Subtle expressions of insubordination surfaced. Previously routine – and unchallenged – forms of harassment and extortion by civil servants met unusual resistance on the part of ordinary citizens, emboldened by what they had seen in Tunisia, Egypt and beyond. More broadly, Syrians – who like to imagine themselves as the Arab vanguard – increasingly were frustrated at being left on the sidelines of history at a time when much of the region was rising up.
Taking small steps to coax the population, the regime also repressed, often brutally and indiscriminately. That might have worked in the past. This time, it guaranteed the movement’s nationwide extension. Wherever protests broke out, excessive use of force broadened the movement’s reach as relatives, friends, colleagues and other citizens outraged by the regime’s conduct joined in. Worse still, the regime’s strategy of denial and repression meant that it could not come to terms with the self-defeating social and political consequences of its actions.
The regime also got it wrong when it tried to characterise its foes. Syrian authorities claim they are fighting a foreign-sponsored, Islamist conspiracy, when for the most part they have been waging war against their original social constituency. When it first came to power, the Assad regime embodied the neglected countryside, its peasants and exploited underclass. Today’s ruling elite has forgotten its roots. It has inherited power rather than fought for it, grown up in Damascus, mingled with and mimicked the ways of the urban upper class and led a process of economic liberalisation that has benefited large cities at the provinces’ expense. The state abandoned vast areas of the nation, increasingly handling them through corrupt and arrogant security forces. There is an Islamist undercurrent to the uprising, no doubt. But it is a product of the regime’s decades of socio-economic neglect far more than it reflects an outside conspiracy by religious fundamentalists.
True, areas with strong minority concentrations have been slow to rise up; likewise, Damascus and Aleppo have been relatively quiescent, and the business community has remained circumspect. But the loyalty these groups once felt for the regime has been under threat for some time. Most, in one form or another, have suffered from the predatory practices of a ruling class that, increasingly, has treated the country as private property. Even Allawites, a minority group to which the ruling family and a disproportionate share of the security services belong, long have had reason to complain, chafing at the sight of an ever-narrowing elite that does not even bother to redistribute wealth to its own community.
That leaves the security apparatus, which many observers believe constitute the regime’s ultimate card – not the regular army, distrusted, hollowed out and long demoralised, but praetorian units such as the Republican Guard and various strands of the secret police generically known as the Mukhabarat and disproportionately composed of Allawites. The regime seems to believe so, too, and has dispatched its forces to engage in ruthless displays of muscle, sometimes amounting to collective punishment. Over the years, these forces undoubtedly have served the regime well; in recent months, too, they have shown no mercy in efforts to crush the protest movement.
But here as well appearances can be deceiving. From the outset of the crisis, many among the security forces were dissatisfied and eager for change; most are underpaid, overworked and repelled by high-level corruption. They have closed ranks behind the regime, though it has been less out of loyalty than a result of the sectarian prism through which they view the protest movement and of an ensuing communal defence mechanism. The brutality to which many among them have resorted arguably further encourages them to stand behind the regime for fear of likely retaliation were it to collapse.
Yet, the sectarian survival instinct upon which the regime relies could backfire. The most die-hard within the security apparatus might well be prepared to fight till the bitter end. But the majority will find it hard to keep this up. After enough of this mindless violence, this same sectarian survival instinct could push them the other way. After centuries of discrimination and persecution at the hands of the Sunni majority, Allawites and other religious minorities concluded that their villages within relatively inaccessible mountainous areas offered the only genuine sanctuary. They are unlikely to believe their safety is ensured in the capital (where they feel like transient guests), by the Assad regime (which they view as a temporary, historical anomaly), or through state institutions (which they do not trust). When they begin to feel that the end is near, Allawites might not fight to the last man. They might well return to the mountains. They might well go home.
This report, part of a series on the popular movements in North Africa and the Middle East, is the first of two that will look in detail at Syria’s uprising. It focuses chiefly on the inception and makeup of the protest movement. The second, to be published shortly, will focus on the regime’s response.
Damascus/Brussels, 6 July 2011