Syrian scholar explores deterioration from democracy to dictatorship

Post by IU Newsroom intern Annie Brackemyre

While consolidated authoritarian rule and devastating civil war color the Levant’s modern landscape, Syria’s history offers a glimmer of what could have been. “The democratic years,” 1954 to 1958, exemplify the easily forgotten reality of a Syria enjoying free speech, free press and free elections.

The consolidation of authoritarian power and the deterioration of the state was anything but predestined, Kevin Martin argues in his book “Syria’s Democratic Years: Citizens, Experts, and Media in the 1950s,” published in 2015 by IU Press.

Syria: The Democratic YearsMartin, assistant professor of Near Eastern language and cultures and adjunct assistant professor of history, introduced students and faculty to his publication Feb. 16 in a talk outlining the book’s fourth chapter, “Punishing the Enemies of Arabism.”

He also discussed Syria’s prescriptive 1950s history through three Syrian figures: lawyer Najat Qassab Hasan, doctor and activist Sabri al-Qabban and, in particular, military man Adnan al-Malki.

“The Syrian elite and institutions attempted to craft an ideal citizen from post-independence up until the 1990s,” Martin said.

This organized effort through the press and government programs to model the ideal Arab citizen pledged modernity.

“Citizenship since devolved from the citizen as defined by rights to that of ‘objects’ for the Syrian government,” Martin said.

The 1955 death of al-Malki, the deputy chief of staff of the Syrian army, marks the abortive move from modern citizenry toward authoritarian rule in Syria.

Despite his high position in the army, al-Malki was relatively unknown to the Syrian public. But the army capitalized on his assassination to both raise al-Malki to the level of a secular martyr while also vilifying the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, the party blamed for al-Malki’s death.

The army mobilized al-Malki’s death as a platform to dampen political discourse, attempting to polarize Syrian worldviews as Syrians versus the SSNP and all other enemies.

Immediately, al-Malki became a Syrian household name; magazines and newspapers featured him as the epitome of heroism, upstanding character and what it means to be Syrian. The Syrian army used this carefully crafted narrative to direct Syria’s future, consolidating its increasingly authoritarian control. The perfect citizen and heroism narrative dovetailed with the army’s message that any fringe political organizations posed a risk to both Syrian safety and the very core of what it means to be Syrian.

“The narrative tried to turn Syrian history into a monochromatic scheme,” Martin said. “It wanted to say that Syrians are good and enemies are bad.”

The narrative following al-Malki’s death lacked the nuance necessary for successful democratic processes, Martin said

Although international factors, such as Syria’s relationship with Israel and the CIA, increasingly nudged the Syrian regime toward authoritarianism, “Al-Malki’s death is the single most prominent example [of the push toward authoritarianism], if you survey the press,” he said.

In the book, Martin points to the state-constructed narrative around al-Malki’s death as one locus of Syria’s democratic deterioration.

“By giving people alternate examples from the past, how Syrians on their own volition were able to create democratic governance, this model may offer some hope,” Martin said of Syria’s future stability and governance.

Despite the promise of Syria’s democratic years as a positive history lesson and al-Malki’s death serving as a preventive example of how authoritarianism may guilefully evolve, Martin is not optimistic that a recognizable Syria will re-emerge during his career.

Modern Syrian politics have devolved to a zero sum game, he said. At best, he expects a recognizable and independent Damascus may re-emerge.

“Amidst the ongoing peace talks, what can happen?” Martin asked. “Even if they are successful tomorrow, how many refugees will go back and how? Everything has been severed.”

Tags: , , ,