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Syria: Not a state? | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Nobody wants to describe their own country as a “failed state”, or see it transformed into a battlefield. Anybody whose country has experienced a bloody civil war knows what it is to be an exile, or not to be allowed to return home. What is happening today in Syria can only be described as a civil war; with a partisan army and sectarian armed militia confronting the peaceful majority. When watching hundreds of unarmed protesters being shot and killed by pro-regime forces, one can only ask: how can this happen in a modern civil state?

In an interview with Dr .Muhammad al-Houni, the long-time adviser to Saif al-Islam Gaddafi stated that the situation in Libya was destined to become a civil war, unlike the Egyptian and Tunisian cases where the military sided with the demonstrators to protect the state against collapse. Dr. al-Houni stated that “Libya is a country without a constitution, an army, a parliament, or [political] parties. Libya is a country without a president or vice president. Libya is not a state.” [Al Majalla Magazine, 19 July issue].

This might seem a harsh description of Libya and the Libyan people; however in reality Libya is not alone in this, indeed there are a number of Arab republics that can be viewed as countries ruled by authoritarian regimes but which cannot be considered civil states that possess constitutional legitimacy and sovereignty, unless we are judging this by the criteria of “Westphalian sovereignty”. As for the concept of modern states – namely a state of institutions that possesses constitutional legitimacy and follows secular conventional laws – no such state exists in the ranks of modern Arab republics. One only needs to look at the Syrian state today and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to confirm this. Neither country possessed civil institutions in the modern understanding, for the apparatus and institutions that are in place are nothing more than an extension of the ruling parties. As for institutions such as the judiciary and the military, these are solely made up by members of the political elite, whilst the constitution is nothing more than a document that sanctions one-party rule and which nobody but the ruling party is allowed to interpret.

In situations such as this, it is difficult to find a modern civil state that exists on the ground [in the Arab world], rather than a nationalist entity that has the features of a state, and which can perform the tasks of a state, and which can represent a people on the regional and international arenas, if nothing more. We are, of course, speaking about countries that possess full sovereignty in the eyes of international law as well as regional and international organizations. However the concept of a state in this instance is more than borders and diplomatic recognition according to international law. Here we must distinguish between a state as a political entity (polity) and a state based on constitutional legitimacy in which civil law prevails; meaning a state of law (Rechtsstaat).

Readers might say that it is pointless to distinguish between these two meanings whilst protests are raging against republican regimes in the region. However this distinction is necessary and important because Arab people today only know what they don’t want [with regards to the features of any future state], namely an autocratic single party state under a president-for-life. However they do not know what kind of state they want to replace this with. The Arab demonstrator who loudly calls for his president to “depart” is sincere in his rejection of the existing regime, but there is no agreement with the demonstrator standing next to him – or indeed with other citizens who are not demonstrating at all – regarding the mechanisms of rule, or the form of the future regime or state that will replace the existing one. We have repeatedly heard that the majority of people want a democratically electoral regime, but in reality the ballot box is a neutral mechanism or system for bringing in a regime, it is not a regime in itself. As for the issue of democracy, it is nothing more than the superficial conception of what might be termed the “people’s will” or “majority rule.” There are, of course, those who know what they want with regards to any future regime, but what concerns us here is that there is no consensus in any Arab republic today with regards to the nature or form of the future political regime that will replace the existing autocratic one.

Such talk goes beyond mere philosophic self-indulgence, and rather represents the crux of the matter with regards to the current popular uprisings taking place in more than one Arab state. Some might say that the priority should not be putting forward different models of rule, but rather toppling the autocratic regimes that are confronting their own people with arms and killing them. However we must say that the popular uprisings taking place in the region should possess the bare minimum with regards to conceiving a realistic alternative to replace the existing regimes. Everybody wants democracy, but everybody has their own interpretation of what is required.

There are those who argue that the popular uprisings that have swept the Arab republics have brought together contradictory ideological currents and trends, uniting them in their opposition of hereditary rule and life-long presidencies. However the question that must be asked here is: what happens after the former regime departs peacefully or is forcibly overthrown? Will these different political entities be able to agree to a realistic political and economic mechanism with regards to establishing a modern civil state? We still don’t know the answer to this question, and it is open to a number of possibilities, some of which are good, and some of which are bad.

Arab states are political entities that have, for the most part, yet to fulfil the modern civil state model. There is no shame in acknowledging this, but rather the problem lies with those who are blinded to this fact. Let us take Syria, for example, it is today witnessing unprecedented unrest in its modern history and is on the verge of a civil war with sectarian dimensions. This country, which had been formed out of several Ottoman administrative divisions, suddenly became a state in itself, after the colonial power [the Ottoman Empire] laid the foundations for this and the establishment of the [modern] state of Syria. Some Syrians [following independence] thought of uniting with the Hashemite Kingdom of Iraq, whilst Syria did unify with Egypt during the Nasserite era [forming the United Arab Republic]. Following the collapse of this joint-state, Syria might have united with Iraq were it not for the disagreements between the Baathist parties in both countries. Over the past 40 years, Syria has been ruled by a racist ideological party that portrayed itself as a regime of “resistance” externally, whilst remained an Alawite-controlled regime internally. If you look at the divided and contradictory opposition in Syria [calling for the overthrow of the Damascus regime] according to its ideological, sectarian, nationalist and tribal loyalties, you would see that they are political entities whose adherers have no clear or unified national vision regarding the future of the Syrian state.

This does not represent justification for the existing regime remaining in power, but we must acknowledge that there are flaws and a lack of political, ethical, and moral awareness with regards to the majority of parties and individuals within the opposition across the region. In the 1920s and 1930s, some argued that the regional states priority must be to obtain independence and get rid of the foreign colonialism, and then following this our nations and states could dedicate themselves to building a modern civil state. However over the past 100 years, Arabs have failed, with a few exceptions, to establish modern civil states. Today, defenders of the “Arab Spring” argue that priority should be given to getting rid of these despotic rulers and then we can focus upon establishing modern civil states in the future. But here lies the dilemma: demonstrators in Arab squares may be able to topple the existing regimes, but it is not clear how they will create better regimes without changing the ideas, values, morals or religious systems in the Arab world.

In her book “God has Ninety-Nine Names” (1997), Judith Miller quoted Jamal Atassi talking about the Syrian state of affairs. Responding to a question about what Assad had built during his years in power, Atassi exclaimed: “Hotels, highways, statues of himself! But in terms of the human spirit, nothing—not democracy, not even real state institutions. Our state has no core. That’s why I am afraid… When [Hafez Al-Assad] dies, what will happen to us? Anarchy? Civil war? A militant Islamic state?”