Authoritarianism in Syria: Institutions and Social Conflict, 1946-1970

Authoritarianism in Syria: Institutions and Social Conflict, 1946-1970

Authoritarianism in Syria: Institutions and Social Conflict, 1946-1970

Authoritarianism in Syria: Institutions and Social Conflict, 1946-1970


For almost forty years Syria has been ruled by a populist authoritarian regime under the Ba'th Party, led since 1970 by President Hafiz al-Asad. The durability and resilience of this regime is a striking contrast to the instability and intense social conflict that preceded the Ba'th's seizure of power, when Syria was seen as among the least stable of Arab states. This dramatic transition raises questions about how the Ba'th succeeded in constructing the institutions needed to consolidate a radically populist and authoritarian system of rule. The Ba'th's accomplishment also poses a significant theoretical challenge to the widely held view that populist strategies of state building are inherently unstable.

Drawing on evidence from Syrian, American, and British archives as well as from published French and Arabic sources, Steven Heydemann explains the capacity of the Ba'th to overcome the obstacles that typically undermine the consolidation of radical populist regimes. He links the Ba'th's adoption of a radical populist strategy of state building, and its capacity to implement this strategy, to the dynamics of social conflict, state expansion, and structural change in the political economy of post-independence Syria. Arguing that conventional accounts of Syrian politics neglect the centrality of institutions and institutional change, Heydemann shows how shifts in the pattern of state intervention after 1946 transformed Syria's poetical arena.


Each year on March 8, Syrians are subjected to celebrations commemorating the anniversary of the 1963 Ba˓thist "revolution." Syrian leaders deliver lengthy speeches before mass audiences, recounting the successes of the revolution and reaffirming its sacred mission. These events are highly choreographed, with frequent interruptions from the audience for applause and chants praising President Hafiz al-Asad, the ruling Ba˓th Party, and the Syrian nation. The ritual of Ba˓thist celebration peaks with the participation of President Asad himself. His speeches are national events -- the high point of the anniversary. During his appearances, whole sections of the audience may be transformed by well-drilled, placard-carrying enthusiasts into portraits of the president, images of the Syrian flag, or maps of the Arab nation that highlight Syria's position at the center of the Arab world.

For many observers, however, the survival of the Ba˓thist regime and of Asad himself is far more striking than are their self-proclaimed accomplishments. Such longevity is by no means typical of Syrian governments or of populist authoritarian regimes in general. Asad's ascendance in 1970 brought to a close a twenty-four-year period of rapid and often violent transfers of power, as well as bitter social conflicts over the identity of the Syrian state and the organization of Syria's political economy. Before Asad's rise to power, Syria was taken as emblematic of the personalistic, weakly institutionalized, and coup-prone politics of the Arab world. Asad's victory over rival factions within the ruling Ba˓th Party has been seen as a turning point in the consolidation of Syria's political system and the Syrian state.

If Asad's ascendance in 1970 reflects the consolidation of Syria's system of rule, the unprecedented survival of Suriyat al-Asad, the Syria of Hafiz al-Asad . . .

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