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Syrians ask: why not give democracy a chance?

Last Monday, Syria’s Interior Ministry announced the results of a referendum on a new constitution. Of the 57.4% of eligible voters who went to the polls on 26 February 2012, 89.4% agreed to pass the new…

Syrians want democracy, but not at gunpoint. EPA

Last Monday, Syria’s Interior Ministry announced the results of a referendum on a new constitution.

Of the 57.4% of eligible voters who went to the polls on 26 February 2012, 89.4% agreed to pass the new Constitution, 9% disagreed, and 1.6% cast invalid votes, presumably in protest.

It is quickly apparent that Syria’s long-ailing economic situation combined with the current unrest and international sanctions effectively disenfranchised a large portion of the eligible voting population.

Syrians working or travelling abroad were unable to vote because the government could not ensure the timely arrival of required documents at Syrian Embassies.

The referendum came at a time of intense unrest. EPA

In Syria many stayed away from voting centres in locations where opposition fighters engage in sporadic but often fierce fighting with the Syrian army. Some of my friends in Homs report being stopped in the street on referendum day by the “Free Army” who confiscated their identity cards so they could not cast a vote.

Many are asking why, in a state of near civil war, the referendum was not postponed until after a cessation of violence. The answer must lie, at least in part, in the effects of intense internal and external pressures on both government and citizens.

Internally, the armed opposition presents as a disparate and ever-splintering collection of local “big men”, Salafists, defected military opponents to the Assad government, and Al Qaeda, along with the inevitable opportunists. They terrorise the Damascus countryside, Homs, Idlib and surrounding roads with roadblocks, kidnapping, and killing at several points along the Damascus-Aleppo arterial road. They destroy key infrastructure, causing heating fuel, petrol, electricity, and food shortages.

According to official Syrian sources, which are seldom cited in the media, armed groups regularly attack hospitals, health centres and ambulances.

Until recently a close friend of mine worked in a health centre in Damascus countryside. Months ago she saw her clinic trashed and robbed by armed men who later told her that she would not be harmed as long as the centre continued to stock medicine.

As a Christian who commuted daily from Damascus to this regional town, my friend realised the odds were against her when the militia began to boast that those who did not act in accordance with their cause were killed, along with their wives and children. Since no-one had the courage to transport medicinal supplies to her clinic anymore, her family finally convinced her to stop going to work.

With this sort of opposition posing as the alternative to the current government, some Syrians are anxious to contribute to political reform. Others, like the under-employed taxi driver who drove my friend in Damascus two days ago, ask “What’s the point?”

A building burns in Homs. EPA

The physical and psychological hardships now endured by most Syrians, and the biting poverty of many, are a direct consequence of the travel and economic sanctions and threatened militarily intervention by the Western and Gulf Arab governments that have effectively halted most business activity in and out of Syria.

Western and Gulf Arab governments call for President Bashar Al Assad to step down, but at the same time sanction and even support a dissident “army” and violent insurgency which no government, nor citizenry, would countenance within its own borders. Some are lately even considering a call to arm the already militant opposition directly.

Syrian army and civilian deaths are mounting, although the inordinately high death toll of soldiers and police is somehow of least concern in the West.

When we add to this the fact that not all opposition fighters are Syrian, with Libyan, Egyptian, and reportedly even French fighters captured by the Syrian government, and the several Western journalists who “sneaked into Syria illegally” and “found themselves trapped inside the besieged Homs neighbourhood of Baba Amro”, Syrians say it becomes apparent that the Western world is unified against a democratic solution for Syria.

The Syrian Red Crescent in coordination with the International Red Cross report making three failed attempts to retrieve the bodies of Western media killed in Baba Amro. The opposition’s claim that the government deliberately killed them is scarcely credible given that the foreigners were smuggled into Syria and therefore unknown to authorities, but their corpses and the tragic deaths of activists assisting some of the reporters to flee certainly became items of propaganda for government and opposition.

The combination of all these pressures, and their intense distaste for the failings of the government, has galvanized the resolve of the Syrian majority, regardless of their differing political views, to protect Syria from outside interference and to plough onwards with political reform.

Like it or loathe it, the referendum was the result of several months of consultations in a “national dialogue” that took place all over Syria. Given the turnout on polling day, against so many odds, it seems safe to say that Syrians for whom Syria is home generally support the political reform process and accept the Referendum as a first step in Syria’s political evolution.

Within this, many opponents of the Assad-led government consider a seven-year term for presidency too long (Article 88 of the new constitution), fearing the incumbent will stand for, and win, a general election.

Others are less concerned, believing President Bashar plans to hand over control as soon as is practicable. Many find Article 3, stating the President shall be a Muslim, problematic in a country that cherishes its secular government and encompasses the rights and obligations of all faith groups. One party of political agitators staged a sit-in outside the People’s Assembly in protest of this specific Article. But not all accept this as a sticking point, particularly in the face of such dire alternatives. And they are willing to say so.

There is a plurality of voices in the political discussion in Syria, not just the violent fallout of armed opposition in a few locations in Syria, as the Western media would have us believe.

The liberal democracies of the West present two opponents – the Syrian government and “the opposition”. The latter are characterised by our government and mainstream media as peaceful and brave pro-democracy protesters. More recently, in recognition of their extensive armory, they are described as “rebels”.

Arabic speakers and those knowledgeable about the region notice the call of “Allahu akbar” before every shot that is fired by the “rebels”. They notice that acquiescent residents in the few locations held by the Free Army, examples of whom can be seen in Associated Press photojournalist Rodrigo Abd’s portraits of life in Kafar Taharim, are highly conservative Sunni Muslims.

They know the rebels in villages and suburbs seeing the greatest fighting against the Syrian army refer to their strongholds as “Islamic Emirates”. No-one who knows or has visited Syria, even fleetingly, could see any of this as a reflection of broader Syrian society.

Contrary to popular Western reporting, the Syrian National Council (know in the Syrian street as the “Istanbul Council”) is not the main opposition group in Syria. In fact the opposition movements in Syria are many and varied, and the heretofore-silent majority of Syrians are both exhilarated by the new freedom to talk politics and disenchanted with what has been, and is, on offer – particularly from violent insurgents and long-term expatriates. Surely this diversity of voices is what makes a democracy, and a majority have voted to give it a chance.