Syria, an exceptional despotism

Many authoritarian regimes - South Africa, Chile, Poland - have ceded power to the domestic opposition through a political process. The contrast in Syria speaks volumes, says Hazem Saghieh.

Hazem Saghieh
7 April 2012

The massacres taking place in Homs and Idlib and the rest of Syria are terrible. A realistic estimate is that around 10,000 people have been killed since February 2011.

But what is even more terrible and frightening is the ability of the Syrian regime to continue to refuse to create a mechanism for the transfer of power. This contrasts with many historical experiences of despotism which, compared to Syria's, were less attached to power and willing to accept change after a shorter period.

In South Africa, the bastion of apartheid, it took only one year between FW de Klerk assuming the leadership of his National Party and legitimising the African National Congress, releasing Nelson Mandela, and opening the way to the drafting of a new non-racial constitution. All those dramatic changes leading to the dismantling of the apartheid regime occurred between February 1989 and February 1990.

In Chile, the military dictator Augusto Pinochet handed power to an elected president after a plebiscite in 1988 in which 56% voted against Pinochet remaining in the presidency. True, the Chilean compromise was incomplete: because the opposition wanted to secure a peaceful transformation, it agreed to keep Pinochet as a commander of the army until 1998 and to nominate him a senator for life. Nonetheless, the process did result in the return of democracy to Chile, and did not prevent Pinochet's later prosecution.

In Poland, a wave of peaceful workers’ strikes in 1989 led to negotiations between the Solidarity trade union and the ruling communist authorities, culminating in the signing of the famous "round-table" agreement. This process lasted less than two months (6 February - 4 April) and was followed by a general election in June in which the communists were humiliated and power moved entirely into the hands of the opposition.

It is truly shocking to discover that the Syrian machine is worse than those three in terms of its ruthless determination to hold on to power. There is a sharp difference too even with the regimes of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, and even of Ali Abdallah Saleh in Yemen.

The Bashar al-Assad apparatus of killing refused to recognise the very existence of its opposition. It calls them the "infiltrators”, and then the "armed gangs”. This attitude and language arise only where a regime conceives the people as its private property - to be inherited, in the way Bashar inherited the presidency of “republican” and “socialist” Syria from his father Hafez in 2000, and thus also to be tortured and shot at will. 

The world community has given Bashar al-Assad many chances to behave in a sensible and rational way. It must now know that his power is based on violence alone, and work accordingly.


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Hear from:

Paolo Gerbaudo Sociologist and political theorist, director of the Centre for Digital Culture at King’s College London and author of ‘The Mask and the Flag: Populism and Global Protest’ and ‘The Digital Party: Political Organisation and Online Democracy’, and of the forthcoming ‘The Great Recoil: Politics After Populism and Pandemic’.

Chantal Mouffe Emeritus Professor of Political Theory at the University of Westminster in London. Her most recent books are ‘Agonistics. Thinking the World Politically’, ‘Podemos. In the Name of the People’ and ‘For a Left Populism’.

Spyros A. Sofos Researcher and research coordinator at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University and author of ‘Nation and Identity in Contemporary Europe’, ‘Tormented by History’ and ‘Islam in Europe: Public Spaces and Civic Networks'.

Chair: Walid el Houri Researcher, journalist and filmmaker based between Berlin and Beirut. He is partnerships editor at openDemocracy and lead editor of its North Africa, West Asia project.

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