Quandil: Neither bread nor freedom

Jan Smoleński, Political Critique: In the context of the Arab revolutions we hear mostly about Egypt and- more recently- about Libya. It seems to me that very little is said about Syria. The UN didn’t take a stand on this issue. Why are they keeping silent?

Magda Quandil*: It seems to me that in Poland they talk the least about Bahrain and Yemen. They started talking about Syria after the Dara massacre where during first two days 120 unarmed protesters were killed. There were acts of violence earlier as well, but they weren’t that “spectacular”. During the Dara siege there were many dramatic pictures and recordings that were seen by the public.

Why is that so? I believe this is a result of the interest, which Europe has, or in this case doesn’t have, in Syria. Libya is rich in raw materials, which Europe needs. Besides Italy had an agreement with Gaddafi – his forces didn’t let masses of refugees from Africa break into Europe. The western coalition took on the task of putting Libya, overwhelmed by chaos, in order. In the case of Syria this is not likely to happen. A failed announcement by the UN, because it wasn’t even supposed to be a resolution, disapproving of violence against the civilians was blocked by China and Russia, which are Syria’s partners, as well as by Lebanon.

Two hundred members of The Ba’ath, the Syrian ruling party returned their membership cards as a protest against the massacre…

Earlier on thirty members left the party in Baniyas, a town inhabited mostly by Alawites who constitute the ruling class. These two hundred you are mentioning were from Dara. After the massacre two members of parliament resigned as well. I think this is an absolute breakthrough. After fifty years of being in power the Ba’ath Party is still one of the main pillars of the Syrian regime and the key to advancement within the regime. The party membership, regardless of what social group someone comes from, gives a chance to improve their own and their family’s standards of living. That is what the regime was based on. Seeing people breaking loose from that unwritten obligation, or rather from that financial necessity, is a signal that things are falling apart. Obviously I can’t predict the future, but that’s what my intuition and my experience of life in Syria tells me is going to happen. Earlier on those people were too threatened to come out on the street. Until the protests happened, I was convinced that Syrians were unlikely to protest. Anyway, in the beginning people didn’t quite know where it was all going.

What do you mean exactly?

People actually didn’t stand up against the regime. They protested for the first time in mid-March in Dara after a couple of teenagers were arrested who, seeing what was happening in Tunisia and Egypt, started to write democratic and revolutionary slogans on the walls. Their parents and relatives came out on the streets to demand their release. They didn’t call on the president to resign or for the regime to be changed. These weren’t opposition protests but an action to protect “our children”. It was only the brutal response of the authorities that made them demand reforms to the regime and then become opponents of the president. Citizens of other towns started coming out on the streets to show their solidarity with Dara, where the regime massacred the protesters. Now there’s no way back- the regime went too far even for its most faithful followers to stand by.

On the first Friday after the pacification in Dara, Syrians on social networking websites were calling for a day of rage.

It looks as if the other towns had been planning to organise protests in order to draw attention away from Dara. That solidarity is really something unusual, because these people know that the army will shoot live ammunition at them.

Supposedly most of the protesters are the less wealthy who until now were the stalwarts of the party.

I think this is also an important aspect, because The Ba’ath Party- when it was being created- was reaching out to the excluded, minorities such as the Alawites, Christians, the Druze or the poor people from the towns. The former regime of the French Mandate was based on the Sunni majority; they were stirring up group identities. The Ba’athists gained popularity owing to the slogans of socialism and pan-Arabism, but also because of their secularism, i.e. crossing the borders of the narrow religious groups.

Alan George wrote a book about Syria – Neither bread nor freedom. If there is no freedom, then the masses need to have bread that is the minimum needed for their normal existence. In Syria, however, there was no freedom for a long time and during the last couple of years, for an increasing part of society, there was no bread either. That’s why those deprived of resources are the quickest to pull themselves together and go out on the streets. The irony is in the fact that the protests against the Ba’ath Party are creating solidarity across the ethnic or religious divide.

It is impossible to divide the political class from the business class in Syria; that’s why the Ba’athists lost their social base. That is being slowly taken over by the Muslim Brotherhood which, although absent in Syria, is enjoying some popularity among poor small bazaar traders and among the working class who are having to work day and night to ensure the survival of their families. I think if the Brotherhood returned to Syria, they would reach those groups very quickly.

In Egypt, overthrowing Mubarak went quite bloodlessly, because the army didn’t initially take part in pacifying the protesters. In Bahrain and Yemen the army wiped the protesters out. In Libya , there is still a war, because a part of the army joined the rebels and another part is still faithful to Gaddafi. Is there a chance in Syria that the army would join the protesters or at least revolt against the massacres of the civilians?

Compared to Egypt, the army and the security services in Syria are much more connected to the regime- the most important positions are taken by the Alawite minority. The division that pacified Dara is commanded by the president’s brother, Maher al-Asad. Rarely does any information about the army refusing to obey orders reach the public. Nevertheless, there have been revolts of whole units, the rank and file don’t want to shoot their relatives. The Syrian regime is very efficient at suppressing the opponents; they don’t have oil, so they can’t just buy some rebels and suppress the others. For many years they had to be quick witted and work out their own ways of manoeuvring and absorbing the rebels into the political system.

Before the riots, Bashar al-Asad was enjoying the support of society

Bashar became president by accident. His brother Bassel was being prepared to take over Hafiz al-Asad’s office, but he died in a car crash. In 2000 Bashar inherited the ruling system created by his father as well as numerous guardians of the system, the so-called old guard. Many Syrians who I spoke with believed he was hostage to the situation. Bashar was trying to introduce some reforms, but even the smallest changes were meeting with the opposition of the party and the elite. So people didn’t blame him, but blamed “the system” instead. In my opinion, Bashar was genuinely popular. Only current events are making Syrians realise that he is also responsible for what is happening in Syria.

What is the social-economic situation in Syria actually like?

In 2004 half of the country’s resources were in the hands of just 5 per cent of the population. Now the distribution of goods is even more unfair, because since then Syria has introduced market reform. In 2004 the first private banks were opened in Syria, in 2009 the stock market was opened and huge monopolies started to appear. For example until recently one man, Rami Makhlouf was the owner of two local mobile networks, which didn’t differ from one another by anything other than their names. Private schools and universities were opened where the children of the richest attended. The opening up of the economy only deepened the social inequality and unemployment. It is estimated that approximately 65 per cent of Syrians live in poverty.

You mentioned the Muslim Brotherhood. Aren’t the Islamists the answer to the secular regime, which has compromised itself?

The Muslim Brotherhood were banished after they had carried out a series of attacks in public places in the 70s and there was a final confrontation between them and the regime. In 1982 Hafiz al-Asad killed 20 to 30 thousand inhabitants of the town of Hama, pacifying the Brotherhood. There is still a threat of the death penalty for being a member of the Brotherhood. In that respect the situation is completely different compared with, for instance, Egypt where the Brotherhood put up their members as candidates for the parliamentary election.

However, the fact is that Syria, as well as the whole region, is going through a return to religion. More and more people are attending mosques, more and more women are wearing traditional clothes and covering their hair; and people are fasting during Ramadan. There are home lessons of the Koran, which not only give the opportunity to discuss religion but also politics. This is overlapping with the economic marginalization and Islam is the answer to that situation. Religion is filling in the holes resulting from the lack of political freedom and poverty.

Arab dictatorships were explaining to the West that if democracy were to be introduced in Arab countries, then the Islamists would get power. The trouble is that it was actually the repressions of the undemocratic regimes themselves that pushed the people towards religion and its political trends represented by the Brotherhood and similar groups.


* Magda Quandil- a Middle East specialist, a graduate of the Middle East studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (University of London). She lived in Syria in 2008-2010, her correspondence from the region was published in “Tygodnik Powszechny”, a Polish magazine, in Wirtualna Polska, a Polish news website (“Conflicts” section) and in “Le Monde Diplomatique- Polish edition”, which she co-edits.

Translated by Katarzyna Abramowicz.


Krytyka Polityczna
Krytyka Polityczna (Political Critique) is the largest Eastern European liberal network of institutions and activists. It consists of the online daily Dziennik Opinii, a quarterly magazine, publishing house, cultural centres in Warsaw, Łódź, Gdańsk and Cieszyn, activist clubs in a dozen cities in Poland (and also in Kiev and Berlin), as well as a research centre: the Institute for Advanced Study in Warsaw.