While the eyes of the world public have been on the internationalized conflagration in Libya, and we now have to bemoan the loss of Bahrain as a site of revolution after its bloody suppression with the connivance of Saudi-Arabia and the United States, events have been developing in a revolutionary fashion in Syria. This country is a longstanding opponent of American influence in the Middle East but also itself notorious for its meddling in the affairs of its neighbour Lebanon. The Assad clique, representing the Alevite minority in a strongly Sunni majority country, have professed themselves as most Arab dictators in such a position as forces for nationalism and progress as against the reactionary powers of sectarian politics and liberal openness to American power. With the Arab world divided in many ways between these three pathways, the Assad-Nasser-Saddam Hussein path of nationalism and state-building may appear to be the most progressive. At the least, one could be inclined to see in it a way towards the ‘developmental state’ that could lift the economic and social levels of the peoples concerned to a point where they would actually have the consciousness and ability to resist their domestic tyrants without the help of clergy or American bombers. But of course in practice they have proven as opportunistic, as stubborn and as tyrannical as their colleagues of the clerical or the Westernizing kind, and their appeals to ‘Arab socialism’ as a different way forward have long ago been revealed to be so much hollow talk. In Syria as much as in all such countries the order of the day is corruption, repression, and hypocrisy. The frequent adventures abroad and the talk of defending larger interests, whether of their so-called ‘socialism’ or the Palestinian case are but masks for the massive enrichment of a small elite at home while the people are held mute and ignorant, leaving them with little more than religious fervor to give them a sense of dignity and an ideological source for resistance. And the Assad clique has repressed even that with characteristic bloody-mindedness, virtually levelling the city of Hama when a religious rebellion against the regime of Assad sr. broke out in 1982. This suppression was done with such force that almost everyone in the city who had not fled was killed en masse, reminding one of the ‘liberating fervor’ of the Crusaders. The primary organizer was none other than Rifaat al-Assad, the brother of the current President and his main competitor for this position, sidelined since.
The Syrian people, long seemingly quiet after the 1982 events, have now arisen against the Assads with a strength and purpose not seen hitherto. Inspired by the revolutionary movements in other parts of the Arab world, they have fought and died against the henchmen of Assad, and have not let themselves be cowed into submission this time. Though outsider have at times portrayed the Syrian government in positive terms, depicting it as at least not as tyrannical as Saddam Hussein or the House of Saud, such ‘praise’ is clearly not much of an inspiration for the Syrians condemned to experience this ‘generosity’ on the part of the Assad regime. The latter has resorted first to shooting and beatings, always its first instinct in such cases – which alone shows the real nature of its rule. But now this one card has been played and has been trumped by the resilience and courage of the Syrians, it seems to have few others in hand. The Syrian tyrant has shown remarkable signs of weakness, and publicly at that. Bashar al-Assad has played the same game from a position of weakness that was attempted by his colleagues in crime, Ben Ali and Mubarak: a little concession here, removing a hated official there, a wage rise here, a public speech for unspecified ‘reform’ there. With such gestures, reminding one of the generosity and liberalism of a Friedrich Wilhelm IV or a George III, the “Regional Secretary of the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party” is trying to stave off what is more and more looking inevitable: his defeat.
While some have seen Bashar al-Assad as more reform-minded and as a ‘modernizer’, whatever that may mean, it is clear that no serious reforms will ever be considered that could materially or politically affect the position of the Assad clique and its secret police. Moreover, one can hardly blame the Syrian people for not waiting until the benefits of Assad’s modernizing wisdom are bestowed upon them like the manna from heaven. The deserts of Syria are not like those of Biblical Israel, and the manna of freedom must be conquered by the people itself if they are to enjoy it. Several factors influence the timing and nature of this rebellion, some of which are general across the Arab revolutions of today, and some of which are specific to Syria. The general underlying pattern is in all such countries one of a new generation coming up in countries in which the population has been growing fast, yet unemployment, undereducation and inequality are high. The result is that the median age is very low, there are great masses of young people with no jobs and little hope for any kind of meaningful future; a ready recipe for revolution in any place and time. Moreover, religious revivalism in the region has rekindled a sense of dignity and courage in the masses of Arabia, while offering little of a concrete program of any kind for the transformation of their societies towards one based on their emancipation rather than their oppression. Therefore, many of the young Arabs of today feel emancipated subjectively, but are lacking emancipation objectively; they are emancipated in the realm of the spirit, and yet unfree in the realm of matter. This leads to contradictory results, because while it motivates them to great fury and courage against their tyrants, it also robs them of the tools to achieve material and political revolution of any meaningful kind. Overthrowing the one tyrant, they are soon saddled with a new one, often draped in clerical robes. The fact that in some of these countries, such as in Bahrain and Syria, the rulers are of a different sect than the majority of the poor masses adds to this aspect of the revolutionary sentiment. At the same time, one cannot but note that no leader ruling on an explicitly religious basis has yet been overthrown, only the ones who had hitherto presented themselves as belonging either to the sham-socialist modernizer or the Westernizing path. Of course, this is not to say that mere appeal to Islam is sufficient to fool the Arab masses: indeed all rulers in the region are experienced in the opportunistic use of religious appeals in troublesome situations, and while there has been little organized political movement in the revolutions so far, there have been equally few appeals for an Islamic Revolution of the Iranian type. Moreover, Ghadaffi has always presented himself as both a champion of his own brand of mystified Pan-African socialism as well as of the cause of Islam. Sufficient, it seems, to fool respectively some particularly silly Western socialists and some wishful thinkers abroad. But not in any way sufficient to fool anyone locally.
That the usual methods seem to avail the leaders little now is shown in the case of Syria itself. The Assad government first attempted more repression, shooting many demonstrators and implementing further censorship. When this only infuriated the masses rather than discouraging them, it went on the other tack. Assad has shortened conscription; then fired some provincial governors; then raised public employee wages (a big thing in the heavily bureaucratized ‘Arab Socialist’ countries); it has then freed some imprisoned Islamists and other political prisoners; even gone so far as to against its generation-long chauvinist campaigns by considering granting citizenship for hundreds of thousands of Kurds in the country; and now finally has even announced lifting the state of emergency under which the country has been ruled for 48 years. It may be clear to the most naive observer that this is not a government convinced of its strength. Of course, weakness in tyrants tends to invite contempt, and contempt invites further resistance, so that the pattern shown before in Tunisia and Egypt may well be expected to follow here also. The withdrawal of Syria from Lebanon after the Hariri affair and the subsequent clear demonstration of fury by the Lebanese has further reduced the Assad regime’s room to maneouvre. Of course, the government has banned political demonstrations and has agitated against the dangers of sectarianism and ‘chaos’, and so forth. They may after all safely be expected to continue attempting various ways of regaining control over the situation. But the Syrians are fools if they will let them, and so far they have shown no sign of being fools. The arrest of left-wing oppositionist Mahmoud Issa will only add fuel to the fire.
As elsewhere in the Arab revolutions, for the time being the ‘left’ and ‘right’ appear united: the mosque in Homs has, reports indicate, announced a general strike in the city! Of course, this is not to say that there truly can be a lasting unity of this kind, nor even a likely popular front of some sort. The underdevelopment of a clear political differentiation is not just the result of a general desire to overthrow the tyrants, but also a result of the stasis imposed on the Arab world by the latter. But after this or that figure is defeated, real choices will have to be made. The long period of nation-building and the ‘developmental state’ after independence, combined with severe repression virtually everywhere, has rendered real socialism a very minor force in the Arab world; this is not surprising since education levels are generally low, political freedoms often nonexistent, and the sway of religion is almost universal. Nonetheless, the neoliberal turn has affected this part of the world as greatly as anywhere else, creating unemployment and widespread insecurity for all classes but the top, and the creation of more or less rudimentary industrial structures and increasing urbanization has led to an increase in the numbers of the proletariat. Trade unionism in the Arab world is underdeveloped as much as all its institutions, but is not at all absent, and the only organic force that can countervail the power of the mosque over the petty bourgeoisie and the still very substantial peasant population. The main thing therefore is for the revolutions to succeed in as many countries as possible: though we can expect fairly little from the bureaucrats, national bourgeois and military strongmen that are the likely successors, what is essential is to create the political and social space for the working classes of the Arab world to obtain its real independence from other forces and classes. The painful battle against the national bourgeoisies as well as against the power of religious sectarianism will then have to follow, but it cannot be waged but on the basis of a certain degree of formal freedom. Whatever their ‘secular’ and ‘modernizing’ credentials, therefore, the fall of regimes like that of Assad in Syria is a necessity.