by Terry Tait

Syria is currently embroiled in a Civil War that will soon enter its seventh year. Despite the horrendous state of violence that has befallen the country, the initial calls for reform were largely peaceful and demonstrations did not take on violent characteristics until several months later. Such popular calls for reform have a long tradition in the region, as individuals and movements sought to improve the quality of life within their countries by taking political action. Debates on the reformation of the existing structures of state have included a wide spectrum of beliefs ranging from leftism, Islamism, nationalism, and any combination thereof. This is an ongoing conversation, with contemporary opposition groups being influenced by figures such as Colonel Ahmed Urabi and Akram al-Hourani. The legacy of these activists inspired subsequent generations throughout the modern Middle East to call for reform and challenge the status quo of socio-economic inequality and injustice present throughout the region.

During the Ottoman Empire and colonial period, “constitutionalism inspired the largest political movements across the region.”[1] This was particularly true in Egypt as a form of “popular constitutionalism” had begun to take root as a reaction to social, political, and economic inequality which had been exacerbated by the recent rise in foreign investment from Europe. This investment was seen by most Egyptians to have solely benefited the ruling aristocratic elite, who had increasing power over the average citizen as a result of the centralizing Tanzimat reforms that gave more power to the Ottoman Empire. Popular recognition of injustice and inequality grew dramatically in the 1870s due to discrepancies in pay between foreign workers and local Egyptians, and as the prices of crops fell during a global recession, forcing the largely rural Egyptian population further into poverty. Constitutionalism was seen as the solution to these injustices, creating a more equal system where all citizens would have the same rights and protections under a uniform rule of law.[2]

Ahmed Urabi and other influential Egyptians embraced constitutionalism as a universal model of justice that could be found within the Islamic tradition to promote equality and the rule of law within Egypt. Urabi became a leader in the constitutional movement in 1881, when he and a number of other Egyptian officers wrote a petition to the Ottoman Prime Minister in protest of discriminatory troop cuts against Egyptians.[3] Their calls for a more just administration that provided more rights to the local Egyptian population were perceived as a challenge to the regime. Urabi led a popular revolt that pressured the regime into making several concessions to the local population, including the dismissal of the prime minister, the expansion of the army, and the reconvening of the Chamber of Deputies. Urabi would later be remembered as a champion of constitutionalism and as an Islamic hero who promoted the rights of the Egyptian people.[4]

The constitutional regime that emerged in Egypt following the revolt would later fail due to the resistance that it received from landed elites who had allied themselves with foreign powers. In spite of these limited gains made by the 1881-82 revolt, the Islamist and constitutionalist movement inspired many later Middle East reformers following decolonization. As the region gradually attained independence from European powers, a new wave of reforms was initiated that aimed to solve many of the same problems that existed in late-19th century Egypt: economic dispossession; repressive social and political systems; and a sense of injustice, stemming from a loss of political power to foreigners.[5] In Syria, a spectrum of rival programs competed and cooperated with one another in the parliamentary debates of the mid-1940s that aimed to reform Syria and challenge the traditional elites in the country.[6]

Two movements from the post-mandate period deserve our attention: Akram al-Hourani’s Arab Socialist Party and the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. The former was a grassroots peasant movement that aimed to promote an egalitarian economic and leftist model for Syria while incorporating Sufi Islamic elements. The latter was a more liberal Islamist party incorporating many leftist elements into its platform, arguing (as Urabi had done) that socialism could be located within Islam, and that a Marxist model did not need to be imported from abroad.[7] Hourani was also inspired by Urabi’s movement and called for full inclusion of all citizens in the political and justice process on the basis of human rights.[8] In order to promote their platforms both of these movements joined larger coalitions; the ASP allied itself with the Ba‘ath Party (the two later merged to form the Arab Socialist Ba‘ath Party) and the Muslim Brotherhood’s larger Islamic Socialist Front. Both of these blocs aimed to improve economic and political equality within Syria by promoting the rights of the peasantry and by challenging the traditional landowning elites in Syria.

These attempts at reform only resulted in incremental change, however, as military coups stalled democratic processes. The unstable political environment in Syria following independence in 1946 produced three successive military coups in 1949 that established the firm control that the military and security services would have in the country. At this time, the country’s multiparty system was closed until another coup in 1954 reestablished the parliament. Yet the military’s growing presence in politics paved the way for Syria’s merger with the Pan-Arab government in Egypt and the creation of the United Arab Republic. The talks that established this merger between the two countries was presented as a fait accompli to members of Syria’s Parliament and the country more generally. Though Arab Nationalism was a dominant force in Syria, President Gamel Abdel Nasser of Egypt was seen as an autocrat by Syrian politicians because of his repressive policies towards opposition groups.

The merger of Syria and Egypt and the establishment of the United Arab Republic had the largest impact on politics in Syria. Leftist parties were forced from civil society by Nasser, who wanted to exercise greater control over Syrian politics, and Syrian politicians who remained were forced to play a secondary role to their Egyptian counterparts.[9] Additionally, the Muslim Brotherhood recused itself from politics in Syria in 1954 in order to avoid taking a stance on Nasser publicly. The Brotherhood feared that any condemnation of Nasser’s brutality against the Egyptian branch would make it appear ignorant of his popularity in the Arab street.[10] Nasser’s successes in challenging colonialism and Egypt’s corrupt elite made him a central figure throughout the Arab world. Despite Nasser’s popularity, his autocratic policies severely damaged Syria’s attempt to establish a democratic system with socially minded reforms.

Though Nasser’s movement promoted the same land reforms and socialist programs of the Arab Socialist Ba‘ath Party, its Arab Nationalist model left little room for democracy. The emphasis of the nationalist movements of the 1950s and 60s was on unity rather than democracy. This movement “gave the Arabs political independence, enhanced their self-esteem, and improved the lot of the poor.”[11] However, it did not promote institutions that would include a greater portion of the populace in the country’s political processes. Politics under Nasser (and following the Ba‘athist coup of 1963 in Syria) marked a shift away from constitutionalism towards patrimonialism, wherein the institutions of the state were centralized around an individual rather than the legal code of a constitution.

This shift to patrimonialism prevented the list of existing grievances, which Syrians had previously advocated for during the post-mandate period, from being addressed under the Asad regime. “Equity, dignity, and equality”–a slogan heard in Syria during the Arab Spring[12]–closely resembled the calls for reform made by Hourani and Urabi’s petition to the Ottoman administration.[13] These demands for justice and equality have remained constant throughout the region’s history. Despite efforts to promote equality under both Nasser and Hafez al-Asad, the patrimonial systems that they established have ensured the continuation of economic, social, and political stratification. In Syria, the Asad regime produced a new economic, political, and military elite in order to support the government. The members of this new elite, including Asad, were largely drawn from the Alawi community, a small religious minority in Syria that originates in the poor rural areas of the country. This new group of elites became the center of the Asad Regime’s patrimonial structure and often used its power to impede efforts of change, preserving a status quo in Syria in the same way that the old aristocracy resisted policies of land reform.

Calls to address the underlying issues that reformists in the Middle East have been trying to resolve throughout the region’s history—economic dispossession, political inequality, and injustice—have often gone unanswered. This lack of reform coupled with severe political repression sparked two events that have shaped modern Syrian history: the Muslim Brotherhood Hama uprising of 1980-82 and the Arab Spring. As with the 1881 revolt in Egypt and the 1950 peasant revolt led by the Arab Socialist Party, these uprisings were conceived in a stagnant economic, political, and social environment in an attempt to improve the living conditions in the country. These movements mobilized with the intent of addressing popular concerns, but in looking at Syria today it would be hard to point to any enduring successes. However, although issues of inequality and injustice have persisted, so has the tradition of activism and the aspiration for reform. For as long as politics in Syria have seemed stagnant, there have been individuals who advocated for change.

Terry Tait is a Senior at Miami University studying history with a focus on Middle East studies.

[1] Thompson, Elizabeth F., Justice Interrupted (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013), pg 62

[2] Ibid, 63

[3] Ibid, 68

[4] Ibid, 70-72

[5] Dawisha, Adeed, The Second Arab Awakening (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2013), pg 54

[6] Lefevre, Raphael, Ashes of Hama: The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), pg 27

[7] Ibid, 34

[8] Thompson, pg 207

[9] Ibid, 232

[10] Lefevre, Raphael, pg 39

[11] Dawisha, pg 65

[12] Sawah, Wael and Salam Kawakibi, “Activism in Syria : between non-violence and armed resistance,” in Taking to the Streets: the transformation of Arab Activism, ed. Lina Khatib and Ellen Lust (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014), pg 150