WASHINGTON—Ammar Abdulhamid’s views on modernizing Syria sound more like revolutionary solutions for most of the Arab world. Not surprisingly then, the activist, democracy spokesperson, and scholar hasn’t been allowed in his home country of Syria since 2005.
He was forced to leave after establishing the Tharwa Project with his wife in 2001. Though only 400 people strong and fueled by volunteer foreign interns, it became one of the most successful platforms for dialogue on modernization and democracy in the totalitarian state. Eventually Ammar and his wife were forced to relocate to Washington, D.C. The Syrian government, and President Bashar Al-Assad, apparently do not like to be criticized. The Tharwa Project continues in the U.S. capital, promoting democratic principles in Syria and throughout the Middle East.
In a forum at the Middle East Institute in Washington D.C. on July 20, and in a following interview, Abdulhamid spoke about how protests in Iran have globally affected the greater Arab world. He also spoke at length about Iran’s off-and-on ally, Syria.
Capturing the world’s attention for weeks, the pro-democratic outburst in Iran was unprecedented for the Arab Middle East. That the protests were unprecedented relates to the status quo in Arab countries, Ammar explained: “We do not see mass protests because people do not expect central authority to be present. In fact, when it is present it leads to problems. People want the central authority to be absent.”
He believes the international scale of the Iranian protests have had a positive psychological impact on the Arab community. It became evident that “there is no genetic indisposition among people in the region against challenging the system and calling for change,” he quips.
In Arab communities, central government is often an afterthought. Though people acknowledge it and send in their complaints, long held corruption and ineffectiveness has taught many to find solutions for themselves.
When thousands of displaced Syrians needed new homes, they improvised by bribing local authorities and using their own cash to built concrete housing on the outskirts of Damascus. Though impoverished, the settlements became homes to tens of thousands, a large scale example of how an Arab community can work around the central government that fails to provide a solution. Later on, when the Syrian government tried to raze the same houses to build highways, clashes occurred.
Even so, those in Syria and throughout the Arab world are coming to realize that they can’t improvise everything, like schools and hospitals, for example. “The ability of the civil society to improvise and invent solutions has been exhausted,” Abdulhamid says.
At the same time, what they face is an oppressive regime not shy about spilling blood. Syria’s human rights record ranks among the worst in the world, according to the U.S. State Department. “We need to press the central government and we need to have it be more accountable,” Abdulhamid said, adding that he suspects the stage is set for a revolution.
Such a revolution should not be violent, however: “The regime would be very happy to see us go down violent roads because they can out bomb us anytime. They do not have a problem with killing people.”
The key to a nonviolent revolution is through building networks, he says, through listening to people, and hearing the complaints of communities. Real efforts along these lines are happening underground in Syria right now; small teams are being established so if one is compromised, the entire network stays secure. Community leaders and activists are listening to the needs of people, building support bases, and slowly getting ready to take it to the next level.
The protests in Iran show that unification is possible. They were a result of people connecting with each other through smaller communities, up to a larger network.
The Internet, with its blogs, Facebook, and Twitter’s compact mass messaging, plays a major role for a new generation of young activists, says Abdulhamid.
Facebook’s group “100 Million Facebook Members for Democracy in Iran” has about 233,800 members. The “United For Iran” Web site (united4iran.org) played an instrumental role in organizing worldwide protest rallies in 110 cities on July 25.
For Syrian activists, the goal is to build networks at a grassroots level, similar to those which the world saw go into effect after the failed election of Mir-Hossein Mousavi in Iran. For Abdulhamid, these networks should include everyone: whole households, farmers, and professors.
“We want to build on trust with the communities and for that we really need to listen,” he says.
Syrian activists need to be even more low-key than their Iranian counterparts, however. For example, mosques, which typically serve as places for reflection and conversation, were a key meeting-point for pro-democracy Iranians. In Syria, however, they have already been infiltrated by the Mukhabarat (secret service agents). Despite this, “unofficial networks” can form, they will just take time, Abdulhamid says.
Improving the Activist Elite
Listening to Ammar Abdulhamid, it becomes clear that Syrian activists have learned from past mistakes. “We do not want to impose an urban elite on people, but rather have people develop their own leaders,” he says. In the past, the liberals, intelligentsia, and educated urbanized classes would speak for the Syrian people but not trust them. It was a reflection of their fear and inability, he says, to communicate with the common population.
In the past, top down imposition by intelligentsia led to leftist coups d’etat such as that of the Ba’ath Party in Syria in 1963, which paved the way for the rise of the current Assad regime, and similar leftist and Ba’athist coups in Iraq, Yemen and Algeria. What’s needed instead is democratic accountability, says Abdulhamid.
The diversity of Arab nations presents a challenge for large scale unification. Abdulhamid says that democratic change depends on how sophisticated the dissident movement is, and how the country’s wealth is distributed. The general guideline should be to engage everyone, not only the privileged. “We have to be less snobbish and give leadership to the people,” Abdulhamid says.
Though revolution carries its own set of risks, as an activist Ammar says he would rather people challenge the system and learn from their experiences than see the country slowly crumble under corruption. “I am hoping for [a] nonviolent series of Arab revolutions to sweep across the Arab world,” he says.
Though Abdulhamid thinks democracy is good for everyone, “What we are really calling for is reciprocity,” he says—something that Syrians can immediately relate to.
After a four year absence, an American Ambassador has been reinstated in Damascus. But according to Abdulhamid, U.S. representatives cannot move around freely in the country, and can’t meet with dissidents without them being interrogated or tortured.
The Syrian Ambassador to the U.S., on the other hand, enjoys the freedoms of U.S. law. He also holds a PhD in computer science and keeps a personal blog discussing personal artistic endeavors; a modernized face in Washington political circles, but an unrealistic representation of conditions in Syria.
“We all fall short from the ideal we aspire to, but we all should aspire to the Declaration of Human Rights.” Countries should strive for the ideals in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, says Abdulhamid.
“We want reciprocity,” says Abdulhamid “and to de-mask them as the totalitarian state that they are.”