The Pesky Middle Classes of Syria’s Regime: The Paradox of a Caste that Must Shape Syria’s Post-Revolutionary Future

Commentary by Tamer Mallat – July 18 2011

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It was on March 15, 2011, in the heart of the Syrian capital Damascus, that the spark of a protest attended by no more than a few dozens ignited a revolution that would engage millions. It is in Damascus where, symbolically, and then structurally, the Syrian Revolution will bear fruit and finally end. Symbolically, because the capital represents, with the northern city of Aleppo, one of the last autocratic havens for the regime. Structurally, because the fall of these fortresses will not be the work of the countryside revolutionaries, but by those who today constitute the last bastions of regime support: the urban Syrian middle classes.

Paradoxically, these same Syrian middle classes will also be those responsible for building the post-revolutionary future of the country; a revolution is a work in progress completed once all segments of a socio-political, economic and institutional order are changed. In modern times, it has always been the middle classes that have led successful reform. Revolutions devoid of this intermediary caste resulted in totalitarian chaos, as the examples of Mussolini’s Italy, Hitler’s Germany, Maoist China and Stalin’s Russia have shown.

The support the Syrian regime enjoys today from the urban middle classes can be linked to a change in the strategies employed to maintain autocratic rule following the transition of power from Hafez to Bashar al-Assad over ten years ago. Throughout Hafez’s reign, the use of force to vehemently quash contestation represented the most effective strategy to maintain rule. Terror tactics and violence proved their worth during the 1979-1982 period of revolts, where all insurrections were successfully subdued.

With the arrival of Bashar, the elaboration of a new, more subtle strategy was in order, as the age of mass media prevented the use of indiscriminate violence from going unnoticed. Economic infitah (opening), illusionary reform and democratization, and the establishment of a new middle class marked by cronyism and dependency on the regime, illustrated an evident evolution of the authoritarian modus operandi. Morocco under Mohammad VI, Algeria’s Bouteflika, and China after Tiananmen saw similar strategies adopted, while in Egypt, a failed infitah facilitated the de-legitimization of the Mubarak regime and its eventual demise. In Syria, Bashar understands the importance of middle class support; hence the energy spent to fortify the capital and the north’s first city. Today, in the face of a failing strategy, Damascus and Aleppo have been barricaded.  One cannot walk ten steps in these cities without crossing paths with a security agent. As long as Damascus and Aleppo remain pro-Assad, by force or by free will, the regime will not fall.

Another aspect, largely intertwined with the middle class dynamic, is the confessional factor. Bashar al-Assad has, under his rule, managed to create a symbiosis between Syria’s minorities – namely the Alawites and Christians – and the country’s economic distribution. A few loyal Sunnis were granted similar privileges. This sectarian-economic amalgam resulted in the molding of a caste loyal to the President and his entourage. These loyalists constitute today the most important obstacle to regime change. Pro-Bashar protests, unlike similar staged events in other Arab countries, are distinguishable by the sincere support they arouse. By blending the economic with the sectarian, material dependency on the regime is re-enforced with the fear amongst minorities that the fall of the house of Assad would have dire repercussions on them.

The paradox is that of the paramount role which the middle classes could play in a potentially free Syria. The urban middle classes represent the only force that is capable of leading a transition to democracy and the rule of law the day after the Assad regime falls. By creating this caste, Bashar al-Assad inadvertently created a solid group of well educated, cosmopolitan, economically stable, and secular-minded Syrians. Historically, the French Revolution occurred when the bourgeoisie of the Enlightenment, the “middle classes” of the time, aligned themselves with the third-estate, and then led the transition from an aristocratic order, to one where rights were progressively accorded to all citizens. It took a hundred years for the French Revolution to bear fruit, but without this intermediary caste to lead it through, an evolution towards the III Republic, which stabilized democracy in France, would have been far more difficult.

With more Syrians mobilizing for regime change, it has become apparent that notwithstanding a few towns and the capital, the entire country has joined the revolution. The last element standing in the way of freedom and the revolutionaries remain the disoriented middle classes of Damascus and Aleppo. Today, time is running out for this caste to assume a role that only it can fill. Without the middle classes of Aleppo and Damascus, Syria cannot hope for a smooth transition to democracy and the rule of law after the fall of the regime. Lastly, if these classes do not muster the courage to fulfill their duty to their less fortunate and oppressed country mates, they risk losing all legitimacy in the eyes of the latter, and become permanently ostracized from a new Syria.

Tamer can be contacted on tamer.mallat@arabsthink.com.

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Filed under Arab Spring, English, Lebanon & Syria

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