Reaction: change this change

Will the new Syria be any better than what the new Palestine proved to be? Annalena di Giovanni responds to the conversation between Fawaz Gerges, Rosemary Hollis and Robin Yassin-Kassab.

It is normally called neo-patrimonialism: that unhappy state of affairs where a weak, uncharismatic, undecided elite, void of a clear ideological standing and often freshly landed from abroad, tries to buy legitimacy through the arbitrary channeling of international aid. In times of transition neo-patrimonialism is what allows some winners to outclass the other winners. 

During the conversation between Rosemary Hollis, Fawaz Gerges and Robin Yassin-Kassab, a point was raised about the economic divisions and unequal political opportunities splitting present-day Syria. Gerges shifted emphasis from the supposed sectarian conflict unfolding in Syria onto the class-divided cleavages: the urban areas against the impoverished rural regions; the well-established inter-Damascus bourgeoisie on one side, and the restless suburban newcomers who were among the most active in demanding change. I find this analysis a much more fair approach compared to the narratives of sectarianism and regional interests which the western press tends to find so sexy.

During the Nineties, Rex Brynen conducted a merciless study of the neo-patrimonial workings of the Palestinian National Authority, highlighting a peculiar dilemma: that when Arafat signed the Oslo negotiations and shipped his old companions to the Palestinian Territories, there was already there a younger blood of local committees, grassroots leaders, students, volunteers, women’s unions, and of course, militias. In a word, the people who had fought the First Intifada. Like Arafat's kin, they had expectations too. One of them was to have the role they felt they deserved.

Unfortunately the Palestinian National Authority had other commitments. The first was to give a chair to every single one of that older elite who the International community recognized for negotiation - the men who had been flying in between Madrid, Oslo, Washington and Cairo. 

The second was to co-opt the collaborators of the previous regime - in this case, the Palestinians serving under the Israeli Military occupation - in the name of a surely humane amnesty towards hundreds of people who had no other choice but to compromise (just think about municipalities, public servants, policemen, etc). The third, and most important in light of the agreement with the USA and Israel, was to keep the local political realities under tight control. Starting with its most uncomfortable face, the one the west liked least: the bearded ‘fanatics’ of Hamas.

The first law ever passed by the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) revoked all previous Israeli regulations; the second was a law against NGOs, which forbade any social service away from the direct approval of the ruling leadership. After the first transition, those among the local leadership who could choose to engage, ran for elections, won, and were systematically confined to the seat of a parliament, the Palestinian Legislative Council, which had no real power. Decision was in the hands of the PNA Government, and the PNA government was run by the men of Arafat - the faces known to the international community.

Social structure was changed too. Tribal links were stressed in order to achieve control more quickly. Tribal leaders were the first ones awarded trust, money and influence by Arafat, pushing decades backwards a vibrant society like the Palestinian one. Things got so bad that I remember running a study on honour killings and finding that Arafat, under the pressure of some tribes, would prevent the conviction of those brothers who killed their sisters out of family pride - and thank them for defending national values. So much for years of women's campaigning against femicide. The PNA was instead visited quite regularly by the wider population of journalists, activists, even court judges who tried to criticize them for not letting go of power; hundreds of students freshly released from the jails of Israel found themselves faced with the PNA police.

It is for twenty years now that neopatrimonialism has been running the Palestinian Territories, to the point that a widely contested president like Abu Mazen is still in power four years after his mandate expired. Stability is kept by channeling money only through those men connected to him; thousands of policemen on the payroll of the PNA make sure to keep unrest under control. You have a problem? Then you need a good connection to the lords of the PNA. You want to say something against the PNA? Police will pay you a visit. For the sake of legitimizing an older elite, the youths who had fought the First Intifada have seen their country slip away from their hands twice.

Not all Palestinians accepted the nothing that the PNA offered them, a nothing made of continuing Israel occupation, no political representation, and neopatrimonialist patches here and there to keep everybody quiet. The local committees, the rural and village networks, the associations had seen all their elected leaders sidelined from real power; now those same faces locals knew, those leaders who had been there in times of struggle, ended up inspiring the Second Intifada -  an Intifada where the angry youth started targeting the PNA as well as Israel, and the PNA used its police against Palestinian groups and dissidents.

I have stirred this cup of bitter Palestinian memories because these very same dynamics are now emerging between the many leaderships and organizations mobilized inside the Syrian crisis. There is a lingering set of questions which  hardly emerge among the current analyses on the trigonometries of the USA’s position, or Iran’s, or Turkey’s. The questions are more simply about Syrians, those widely forgotten subjects: how will any new leadership step in; how will it retain, or else let go of power after transition? Some of them get preferential visa treatment abroad, an international spotlight, eventually setting up the narrative. Some others have more control on the field, but no great family standing, nor previous political experience. Others, as we all know, are just on the loose.

The only political entity that the international community is recognizing at the moment is the Syrian National Council. Yet every time I name it to a Syrian, someone busy with his or her everyday struggle for survival, I am always confronted with a second question - "And where are these people?". Well, Paris. Cairo. Istanbul. Doha.

It is winter now in Lebanon, to where more than a million Syrians escaped; it is cold and rainy, local hospitals are rejecting emergencies, there is nothing to help the Syrian families stranded in between the border north of Tripoli. These are the parents and children of those who remained in Syria to carry on the struggle - any kind of struggle, not just the armed one - against the Assad system. They have yet to see a representative of the noble families and intellectuals among the SNC come and sleep with them in the mud. The explosive cleavage of old Syria is still lingering beyond Assad. These people, who have bargained their lives in the name of change, they will still want that change once Assad is done. Just like the Palestinians did.

If Arafat didn't make it with the Palestinians, can the SNC make it? After all, the PLO leader had spent decades sleeping under the bombs in the camps, he even challenged Israeli intelligence by entering Palestinian territories; still, this was not enough to make him a good ruler. How many chances does the Syrian National Coalition get at that much aspired to transition to democracy? 

Arafat did not succeed in liberating at least the West Bank, which no doubt undermined him; similarly, the SNC cannot even manage to gather weapons to consistently protect the locals from Assad's air force, nor discipline rebel armed groups against unjustified violence. But unlike Arafat and the struggling icon he represented to many other struggling Palestinians, the prominent families and group representatives sitting in the SNC have not even tried. Not even tried. They do not meet in Antakya, they do not meet in Kilis; and when the first areas were liberated, they did not convey their talks there. They might have done their bit with some VIP field trips, but where are they sleeping while their people are crowded under the rockets on the Turkish border? Where are they when daily negotiations with the municipalities hosting Syrians are needed? Who fights for water and sanitation while winter is freezing hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees?

Sooner or later, everybody will go home. Displaced Syrians will probably not so much care about that famous sectarian factor - I don't think you will see them running after minorities for the sake of revenge. They might not so much linger on who among their neighbours was pro, against, or neutral, and try to settle accounts: life will go on, children will play among the rubble, spring will come, all will be busy reconstructing the present. But perhaps they will remember that, among the hundreds of foreign volunteers, activists, NGO workers (and, yes, journalists) who chose to be on the frontline, not many of the Syrian National Coalition decided to leave their houses and high-profile meetings in Paris and Cairo to hold on side by side with rockets and kidnappings, cold and starvation like the rest of the less lucky Syrian population.

But at the same time, does anyone expect them to let go, as soon as Assad (well, when) is out of the picture, to step out of politics and hand power down to the new realities which rose in Syria during their absence? I am not sure they will see their time to go - after choosing themselves to represent Syria. The fact that last month a top pre-condition for dialogue was the release of passport documentation for exiles  - maybe not exactly a priority for regular refugees or internally displaced Syrians short of everything - seems to show quite clearly who is heading for power in after-Assad Syria.

My fear is that they will most likely become the privileged channels of international aid and trust. That they will stay, watchmen against unrest. The elders who know better - the same who did not topple the regime in the past decades - have taken their decision for the younger Syria. But while it is easy to accept any leadership in times of emergency, the same cannot be said when the bell rings for statebuilding. When people have experienced mobilization for bread dignity and rights, it is kind of unlikely that everybody will unlearn the lesson and make do with whoever comes out on top. All want to have a say.

We might sympathize with the SNC for its inability to gather weapons or at least international support. We might be impressed by the standing and integrity of Moaz al Khatib. We might - no doubt - admire the SNC effort in trying to broker any kind of solution out of a worldwide diplomatic context that is unresponsive, to say the least. But I suggest we also wonder about the SNC legitimacy among the thousands of Syrians who now feel empowered by their daily fight for food, heating, safety. The day Assad is gone, an agreement will be reached on how to co-opt his apparatus into the new Syria. A decision will have to be made about who will be in charge of transition, and who will have to handle the victory, and through which channels bread dignity and freedom will come. It is likely that the Syrian National Coalition will be the one with the international money and recognition, and the committees which have been fighting on the field - again, I am not just talking about armed struggle - will be left with a command to put down their weapons, go home, and let the new elite decide for them.

Something needs to change in this changing Syria. Old structures of privilege, family standing, unequal economic and political opportunities must be addressed within this awakening, in order to make sure that Syria does not jump from a socialist regime to a feudal democracy. That is why breaking the economic, cultural, and social cleavage inherited from Assad will be - at least in my opinion - the crucial battle. That is where legitimacy must come from. Because without legitimacy, the price for power and stability is neopatrimonialism.

About the author

Annalena di Giovanni is a researcher based between Beirut and Istanbul.