Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

Syria's Struggling Civil Society

Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

Syria's Struggling Civil Society

Article excerpt

Authoritarian regimes have traditionally been disinclined to accept any political or social opposition and have been hostile to the development of an independent civil society that could form a counterweight to state power.

Article 8 of the Syrian constitution established the Baath party, which has prevented any independent parties from emerging since the 1 963 military coup that brought it to power as "the leading party in the state and society."1 Yet despite this systematic repression, there has been a sustained effort by a small group of intellectuals and critics over the past decade to transform the country's political system and make it more open and accountable.

While these activists did not ignite the uprising that has shaken Syria since March 2011, their courageous defiance of Bashar al-Assad's regime has given them high standing among many Syrians. They may yet play a significant role in shaping Syria's future.


Bashar al-Assad's assumption of the presidency in July 2000 gave rise to a brief period of unprecedented easing of state repression known as the "Damascus Spring" whereby dozens of discussion forums and associations were created, all calling for political liberalization and democratic openness.

This sector of Syrian civil society came to light with the "Declaration of the 99," signed by numerous intellectuals including Burhan Ghalyoun, Sadeq al-Azm, Michel Kilo, Abdul Rahman Munif, Adonis and Haidar Haidar, who demanded: 1) an end to the state of emergency and martial law applied in Syria since 1963; 2) a public pardon to all political detainees and those who are pursued for their political ideas and permission for all deportees and exiled citizens to return; 3) a rule of law that will recognize freedom of assembly, of the press, and of expression; 4) freedom in public life from the laws, constraints, and various forms of surveillance, allowing citizens to express their various interests within a framework of social harmony and peaceful [economic] competition and enable all to participate in the development and prosperity of the country.2

On January I5 200 15 a group of Syrian lawyers demanded a complete reform of the constitution, the lifting of emergency laws, and the concession of full civil liberties. Shortly thereafter, a group of activists published the founding charter of their civil society committee - better known as the "Declaration of the 1,000."3 The following day, the Jamal Atassi Forum for Democratic Dialogue was established with the participation of communists, Nasserites, socialists and Baathist critics of the regime, and onMarch 7, authorization was given to create independent organizations for the defense of human rights as well as cultural and social associations made up of moderate Muslims. This group included the Islamic Studies Center, headed by Muhammad Habash, a progressive scholar opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood, who served as a parliament member. By July 3, 2001, the HumanRights Association of Syria had been established with lawyer Haitham al-Malih as president.

In just a few months, two hundred discussion clubs and forums were created. Reacting to the proliferation of spaces where the future of Syria was being freely debated, the regime pushed back, fearful it might lose its monopoly on power. Invoking a need to maintain national unity in the face of external threats, beginning in September 200 1 , the regime arrested deputies Riad Saif and Mamoun al-Homsi, economist Arif Datila, lawyer Anwar al-Bunni, and Atassi Forum spokesman Habib Issa, followed in short order by Kamal al-Labwani and Haitham al-Malih.4 All were sentenced to between three and twelve years in jail on charges of "weakening national sentiment" and "inciting sectarian strife." Other important figures were forbidden to leave the country including Radwan Ziyyade, director of the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies, and Suhair Atassi, director of the Jamal Atassi Forum. …

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