The Guardian published this piece on Syria tacked onto the end of this piece on Egypt. Unfortunately they cut my paragraphs on sectarianism, the most important part of my argument. I should add that, after today’s great revolutionary awakening in Egypt, I am no longer certain of anything. Everything has changed.
With its young population, and a bureaucracy run by the same authoritarian party for four decades, Syria is by no means exempt from the pan-Arab crisis of unemployment, low wages and the stifling of civil society, conditions which have now brought revolution to Tunisia. Nevertheless, in the short to medium term it seems highly unlikely that the Syrian regime will face a Tunisia-style challenge.
A state-controlled Syrian newspaper blamed the Tunisian revolution on the Bin Ali regime’s “political approach of relying on ‘friends’ to protect them.” Tunisia’s status as Western client was only a minor motivator for the uprising there, but still al-Watan’s analysis will be shared by many Syrians. Unlike the majority of Arab states, Syria’s foreign policy is broadly in line with public opinion – and in Syria foreign policy, which has the potential to immediately translate into a domestic security issue, matters a great deal. The regime has kept the country in a delicate position of no war with, but also no surrender to, Israel (which occupies the Golan Heights), and has pursued close cooperation with Lebanese and Palestinian resistance movements as well as emerging regional powers such as Turkey and Iran. This is appreciated by ‘the street’, and the president himself is no hate figure in the mould of Ben Ali or Mubarak. Where his father engineered a Stalinist personality cult, mild-mannered Bashaar al-Asad enjoys a reasonable level of genuine popularity. Much is made of his low-security visits to theatres and ice cream parlours.
Syria’s ostracism from the West also means that the country is less vulnerable than some to dramatic fluctuations in the price of essential goods, because it is less linked into the globalised economy.
Perhaps more fundamentally, any potential effervescence will be damped down by the well-founded fear that political change could unleash sectarian chaos. Beyond the Sunni Arab majority, Syria includes Alawis (most notably the president and key regime figures), Christians, Ismailis, Druze, Kurds and Armenians, as well as Palestinian and Iraqi refugees. Syria feels itself to be in the eye of a sectarian storm, between the bad example of Iraq’s collapse and divided Lebanon (where Tuesday’s violent anti-Hizbullah protests, which targetted the media, had very little to do with democracy, less to do with love for the West, and a great deal to do with intolerant Sunni identity politics).
In the 1980s Syria was traumatised by the state’s savage repression of an aggressively sectarian Sunni Islamist uprising. The memory of that civil strife, and the current Islamist dominance of oppositional political discourse, scares many Syrians. The secular regime, corrupt as it may be, offers them security.
Yet in the longer term Tunisia’s revolution may have as profound an effect on Syria and the Arab east as the 1979 Iranian revolution, which set the tone for dissenting thought and activity over the next 30 years. Certainly Arab Islamism was generated by specifically Arab conditions, but it was inevitably shaped and given prominence by the one regional example of successful revolution.
But now we are seeing in Tunisia a democratisation which didn’t require religious mobilisation, foreign invasion, or colours coded in Washington. This revolution is the result of a mass popular movement focussed on straightforward, practical demands which everybody can understand, whether they’re religiously observant or lax, Christian or Muslim, Sunni or Shia. Lessons will be learned, in Syria and elsewhere. In future years, the regime would be well-advised to proceed with great flexibility.