Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Regime's Sham Civil Society Claim

The idea of civil society as conceived by the government is a pretence.
By
I have been watching incredulously as Syrian officials have claimed to be carrying the torch of civil society in the country.



For the past week, the words “civic organisations” and “development process” have been splashed across the front pages of official or state-controlled newspapers as if they were concepts that had been freshly created by the Syrian government.



On January 23, Damascus hosted a so-called pioneering conference on the role of non-governmental organisations in development. International delegates from France, the United Kingdom and the United States participated in the event which was held under the auspices of Syria’s first lady, Asma al-Asaad.



Without prior notice, and under the watching eyes of the international media and western officials, the Syrian government made a plea to us, the Syrian people, to help move the country forward.



They solemnly asked us to be more engaged in addressing the country’s social and economic challenges and added that progress could only be achieved with our active participation.



This is simply ironic. This public relations gesture has ignored some basic realities of why the Syrian people do not venture into the public domain, why Syrian civil society is crippled and battered, and why we need to be careful in reading the intentions of the government.



Ten years ago, following the death of President Hafez al-Assad, a short-lived movement, which came to be known as the Damascus Spring, took the brave initiative of reviving civil society in the country.



After decades of harsh one-party rule and the systematic silencing of any dissident voice, a group of intellectuals and civil rights activists thought the moment was ripe to lead a peaceful march towards democracy.



They were sowing seeds in a barren land in trying to promote the concepts of citizens’ participation in decision-making and public life after these ideas had become totally foreign at the social and educational levels.



They were creating discussion forums to conceive a new era where people could speak up and regain confidence. They were working under very difficult conditions against a backdrop of an intelligence apparatus strangling society and an emergency law that legitimised kangaroo courts and indefinite detention.



Their attempt was quickly crushed. Most of these pioneers are today in prison or exiled or silent. In ten years, the majority of independent NGOs have been either dissolved or placed under tight control.



Meanwhile, officials are saying that the number of NGOs working in various fields like health, environment and education, has significantly increased over the past few years. Maybe, but what kind of organisations are they talking about?



The majority of these groups are charities with religious affiliations and with roles limited to gathering donations and distributing them to people in need.



Some are working on social and environmental issues but with the support and supervision of the wives of high-profile officials.



The fact that the regime is now projecting an image as the guarantor of civil society has not come about by chance.



In recent years, the government has been opening up the country’s economy by sloughing off 40 years of military socialism and installing the basis of a market-oriented economy.



This drive required the adoption of a set of western-style concepts in the areas of local governance and civic participation, ironically, long branded here as “imperialistic” or “foreign” ideas.



The process remains acceptable to the authorities as long as it does not overstep the legitimacy and interests of the Baath ruling class.



Another factor that could explain the sudden zeal for embracing civil society is that the country will, sooner or later, be signing a partnership agreement with the European Union. The accord would necessarily entail a need for NGOs that could receive funds and support from the EU.



If we scratch the surface, it will become clear that the idea of civil society as conceived by the government is a pretence.



Trade unions are under the tight control of the authorities. Independent political parties and civic groups are not allowed to exist. Youth activities are not allowed unless they have the blessing of officials.



So is it possible to have "active" NGOs when basic civil rights and freedoms are not respected?



What exactly is the exemplary civil society that Syrian officials were alluding to?



These are questions that people can ponder in the media or behind the closed doors of conferences but the concept of civil society is alien to the ordinary people of Syria.