Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Syria and the transition to democracy

The uprisings of the Arab Spring have largely failed to bring democracy to the Arab World. This was predictable. Previous revolutionary waves had similar disappointing results. Building democracy involves more than getting rid of bad dictators and revolutions tend to harm some of those other requirements. Syria is a good illustration of that process.

In my previous article Peace in Syria starts by building trust from a year ago the focus was on reconciliation. In this article the focus is on the transition from dictatorship to democracy.

Disappointing results
1848 was Europe’s revolution year. A few years later all the revolutions had been turned back. Only in the Netherlands where the king had prevented a revolution by forging an early compromise some of the revolutionary achievements remained. Compromise proved more effective than revolution in achieving more democracy.

The Color Revolutions of the 1990s were rather disappointing too. They replaced many dictators but the results were dubious. Kirgizstan became unstable. In Serbia and Ukraine the new leadership soon scored single digit approval rates. A revolution can change the people at the top but it changes very little in the way people think their country should work.

Both violent and non-violent revolutions force the government and the opposition to focus on power instead of common goals. So when they fail – as they do in most cases – they may leave behind a less free country. When they succeed they risk seeing either stagnation under divided leadership or - like France (1789) , Mexico (1910), Russia (1917), Cuba (1961) and Iran (1979) – long lasting dictatorship.

The democratic attitude
Democracy works much better in societies where people believe that they work for a common goal than in zero-sum societies where people believe that someone else’s gain will be their loss.

Democracy is closely related to advanced economies where the government provides services like education, roads, health care, electricity and drinking water. Such societies value people who want to “serve their country”. As in such societies everyone is richer they have more to lose and are less likely to support violent uprisings.

Poor countries can have democracy too. But its main focus will be the distribution of power and its spoils. It is much less about how the country should be run. As a consequence this kind of democracy is brittle.
Another essential element of democracy is respect for the other and letting him or her live as much as possible according to his own principles. This is a logical consequence of cooperating for the benefit of the country.

From the Arab states Tunisia now seems closest to democracy. What helped was that the parties saw a common goal: avoiding another dictatorship and violence. That made them more flexible in zero-sum goals like sharia law.

As democracy is collaboration it works best in countries where people have experience collaborating in private organizations like chess clubs, agricultural cooperatives and businesses. This is often called “civil society”. Foreign sponsored pro-democracy organizations are rather useless in promoting this aspect of democracy: they cover only a small section of the population and they don’t face many of the zero-sum questions that real cooperation faces.

The laws of dictatorship
For many centuries kingdoms were the dominant form of government. In countries were the population has no democratic attitude authoritarian rule is the form that still comes the most natural. In such societies the primary task of government is maintaining peace and order.

Many dictatorships rely on a small trusted section of the population – usually from the region where they were born or the tribe they are from. For example: Saddam relied on his fellow Tikriti’s and Assad on his fellow coastal Alawites. This favoritism is part of the dictatorial system and contributes to its stability. Quite often the ruling class comes from a minority: in fissiparous societies despised minorities tend to be the most coherent. Protests against dictators often focus on the favoritism. However, many of those protesters just want their own group to be the favored one.

Dictatorships have other peculiarities that are logical from their perspective. They use crony capitalism to prevent the development of independent power centers. They see repression as the lesser evil in an environment where there is always the threat of uprisings and civil war. Tolerating corruption can keep civil servants loyal. And just like many long serving democratic politicians dictators tend to develop a sense of entitlement.

Insurgents often attack dictators for these traits. But from the point of view of the dictatorship such attacks are just power struggles by people who would do the same if they were in their shoes. Unlike a genuine appeal to common values such attacks are unlikely to result in a change of behavior.

Islamists in opposition
Islamist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood have a lot in common with the communists of yore. Both claim to have the absolute truth about how human society should be organized. Both attract lots of idealist people. Both lead in the end to intolerant totalitarian states.

Such ideologies are most attractive in times of turbulence as they bring strict codes of conduct. In times of modernization when many people stay behind while others get rich quickly in dubious ways their strict justice is appreciated. In the Syrian civil war it is mainly the corruption of many rebel leaders that has led to demand for more principled leadership.

Unfortunately such ideologies are a straightjacket. They may be right on a lot of points and sometimes their initial rule is quite effective. But there are always problems that the ideology cannot solve and these grow as time passes.

Such ideologies suffocate the intellectual debate already when haven’t won yet. Under their influence the public debate becomes focused on the merits of the ideology instead of concrete reforms. After they win things become even worse as they tend to suppress open debate.

The tragedy of the uprisings in the Arab world is that the opposition doesn’t understand the power of ideas. Both the “liberals” who would like to impose Western models, and Islamists who would like to impose their vision of sharia, prefer their ideological blueprint over detailed discussions about the needs of their country. Yet concrete ideas for improvement are the most likely to be copied by the government.

The transition from a traditional authoritarian regime to a democracy is a tricky one. Both the government and its subjects need to change their attitude. If the government adopts too soon a democratic attitude it will create opportunities for a coup – and the turbulence will hurt the country. If it waits too long it hinders the development of the country into a more complex society.

The main justification for dictatorship is that they maintain order and peace. When people get used to peace this is no longer enough and people start asking for the government to do more to develop their country. The average dictator – who cares about his reputation – will react to this with reforms. As the ruler and his subjects get used to “serving” their country the step towards democracy becomes easier. “Non-violent” revolutions abuse this process by pretending to be more peaceful and mature than they really are.
It may seem absurd to negotiate with perverse brutes like Saddam. But although one may despise them as a person one should still respect them for their role. Democracy is formalistic system and not respecting a sitting president will translate itself later on in a lack of respect for democratic rules. Such negotiations force the opposition to control its hunger for power and revenge and to focus on reforms. Revenge like we see in Libya is not “understandable” as many journalists and politicians claim. It painfully shows people who don’t respect authority and don’t believe in building their country together and as a consequence are not ready for democracy.

Traditionally democracy developed when kings gradually and reluctantly gave up their power as their country developed. In some countries – like Morocco – it still works this way. A modern variety is the “guided democracy” where some power - usually the military - keeps a check on the democratic leaders and takes power back when it thinks they no longer serve the interests of the country. This often means steady negotiations between the old and the new order.

Countries like Belgium and Switzerland show that you can have a democracy in an ethnically diverse country. They do have ethnic disputes but they keep them largely separate from the discussions on the common interests. For countries in transition it can take considerable effort to achieve this attitude.

If the West wants to help the Arab countries to become more democratic it should focus on democratic values like tolerance and commitment to a common good. It should encourage the opposition to negotiate with the government and to focus on concrete measures that improve the life of the average citizen. That will create trust between government and opposition and lay the basis for further reforms later on.

Before Hafez Assad grabbed power in 1970 Syria was an instable country where loose coalitions of politicians and military officers grabbed power in a rapid succession. Many Syrians initially valued the stability brought by Assad. Unfortunately parts of the opposition tried to exploit prejudices against Alawites.

The Syrian opposition likes to claim that its initial protests in 2011 were peaceful. Yet the protesters indulged from the very beginning in destroying Baath Party offices and other Assad related buildings. Their focus was on getting rid of Assad – not on negotiations and gradual improvements.

In Syria support for the government and the opposition is about equal. Not only minorities but also many Sunni’s prefer Assad over the rebels. In this light the refusal of the rebels to negotiate showed little respect for democracy. Rebels often claimed that they only want to talk with people without “blood on their hands”. But nearly everyone has blood on his hands in a war. What they want is a kind of victor’s justice. We can see in Libya what happens when such triumphalism is indulged: discrimination and harassment of many people and a sense of entitlement among the victors.

It is often claimed that the radicalization of the Syrian opposition would not have happened if the West had given more support to the moderate faction. However, a tendency to radicalize is inherent to revolutions and that tendency continues after the initial revolution has succeeded. Revolution is the imposition of your ideas with extralegal means. Doing so legalizes similar attempts by more radical groups.
If discussions about the position of Assad and other people dominate the coming Geneva conference it is doomed to fail. It is hard to find a compromise in zero-sum power discussions. Instead the talks should focus on Syria’s national interest with subjects like economic reform and restructuring of the security apparatus. That is an area where the parties can find common ground. It is to the international mediators to sell this to the opposition and the Gulf States. This will not be an easy sell after we indulged their zero-sum power thinking for so long. Yet it is the only way.

The Geneva conference has committed to a transitional government. However, experience in Northern Africa learns that such governments tend to be weak as neither side trusts them. As a consequence they can’t act at a time when there is a huge demand for reform and restoring order. The result is anarchy and a rise of radicals.

It would be better to apply in Syria the same method as was used in a.o. South Africa and El Salvador. There the old government stayed in place and implemented the agreed on reforms while the negotiations went on. In the Syrian case one could imagine a solution where Assad’s side keeps the security related positions and the opposition gets some of the other positions like housing and healthcare. In the meantime the rebels would keep control of their territories. Their integration into the government controlled part would be subject to local negotiations.

Instead of getting rid of Assad the accent should be on getting rid of the presidential system. You cannot rule a divided country like Syria with a “winner takes it all” presidential system. Diminishing the power of Assad would make the question whether he should leave less important.
Rather than taking over Assad’s security apparatus the negotiations should focus on reforming them into a streamlined organization. At the moment there are seventeen security services and some other security related organizations who not always work in tandem. This makes concluding agreements with the Assad side and checking that they are followed up very difficult.

In this article I have tried to sketch the position of both sides in the Arab Spring and specially Syria. In a climate where both sides are often demonized my goal has been to paint them as human beings who behave quite rational when one considers the context. I have tried to paint both their delusions and their valid demands and worries. Seeing the human being on the other side is the first step towards peace. I hope that the Geneva negotiations will be able to set that first step.

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