A state of emergency: comparing Syria and Egypt

Daily News Egypt
8 Min Read

For some reason, there is a popular assumption that within the boundaries of Middle Eastern politics, every internal factor is related to an external one. Although such popular assumptions only attempt to provide simple answers to complicated questions, the Syrian government persistently traces a pattern of relations between external factors and the internal political conditions in the country. Over the last four decades, what has been perceived as the external threat from Israel has been the prime justification for reshaping the domestic political mechanism in Syria.The state of war with a country that Damascus does not recognize as a legitimate state has deeply affected the political dynamics of Syria. Accordingly, the country has been under a “state of emergency since 1963. In theory, a state of emergency is declared when the state has to suspend its normal functions in order to respond to extraordinary incidents such as war, civil unrest or natural disasters. Often, the drastic measures that are taken by the state in such cases have significant implications for civil society. In that light, in Syria the activities of civic agencies have been largely suspended and a meaningful public participation has been denied in order to enable the body of central decision making to address the “problems effectively.However, the intensity of the state of emergency and its side effects has been part of every day life for over four decades now. In accordance to that, for about 45 years the rulers have securitized all possible dimensions of political life in order to legitimize extraordinary means to “respond to a perceived threat. Yet foreign policy for domestic political consumption is nothing new in the region. Time after time states have used the notion of national security to maintain authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. For example, except for an 18-month break in 1980, Egypt has been living under an emergency law since 1967. The Law was imposed during the Six Day War with Israel. But the peace treaty with the Jewish State did not immune Egyptians from living under an ongoing state of war. The law was forcefully re-imposed following the assassination of President Sadat in 1981. The domestic political conditions have been significantly affected by this law and there is no sign of possible termination for this so-called “emergency situation. Ironically the Egyptian parliament recently extended a decades-old state of emergency by two more years, despite previous promises that the law would be replaced by new anti-terror legislation.Similarly in Syria the notion of national security has been on top of the agenda at the expense of public accountability for many decades. Despite the original slogan of the Ba’ath Party, which is “Unity, Freedom and Socialism, there is little tangible political freedom in Syria, particularly when it comes to scrutinizing the president and the security-oriented agencies which influence major decisions in the country. There are multiple security services operating independently of each other to maintain the stability of the Ba’athist regime. Such a political framework enabled former President Hafiz El-Assad to maintain his power for about 30 years. Apart from the so-called “Damascus Spring, a relatively short period of relaxation after his death, everything has remained generally the same under the rule of his son Bashar. Now after many indecisive years of “no war, no peace it seems that Syria is reconsidering its relations with Israel, a move which may finally bring an end to the historic antagonism between the two states. Although, the bilateral negotiations are complex, the demands seem to be straightforward. It is as obvious as the fact that in return for the Golan Heights, Israel would not expect anything less than peace. Nevertheless, for Syria peace with Israel is not only a matter of reshaping foreign policy, it is an external transition with possible internal implications. In other words, Syrian attempts to shift foreign policy towards Israel may have an affect on Syrian domestic political conditions. Hence, one can question whether the Syrian internal political climate will remain the same in the absence of the external threat from Israel. Can Syria maintain the securitized political climate without an external enemy? Although there are no definite answers to such complex questions, it is more than likely that Syria will follow the same route as Egypt, that is, the securitized monopoly over power will remain the same even without an ideological enemy such as Israel. Although, the “state of war has been the main justification for the lack of accountability, there will be no guarantee that peace can pave the way for more political transparency in Syria. It is very unlikely to expect that peace with Israel can coincide with the termination of the “state of emergency. Although officially the state of war with Israel might end, the existing security-oriented conditions will remain the same. Israel may no longer appear as the external threat, but there will be a shift of attention from the threat of the Jewish State to the homegrown opposition. The Syrian opposition consists of Muslim Brotherhood members, Kurds, liberals and communists. However, they are ideologically incompatible and often they unilaterally pursue their own agenda. The only political objective that they may have in common is to overthrow the existing order in Damascus. Some measures have been taken by some of the prominent dissidents such as former Vice-President Abdul Halim Khaddam to unite the opposition. But still the dissenting parties and movements either outside or inside remain fragmented. For that reason, they cannot constitute collective opposition against the government of Bashar El-Assad. Thus despite the weak nature of the opposition the securitized climate will remain the same and no unorthodox voice will be tolerated in the name of “national security. Although, the external threat from Israel has served the consolidation of authoritarianism, the state machinery will persistently excuse the ongoing emergency law even in the absence of the unfriendly Jewish State. As in the case of Egypt, the political by-products of the state of war will persist in Syria even at the time of peace.

Afshin Shahiis a Cairo-based British Iranian PhD candidate of political philosophy specialized in Middle East affairs.

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