x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Syria's promises of reform ring hollow as protesters rage

The rationale in the Arab world has been that you can't change political systems in countries like Egypt and Syria, but you could subvert them – liberalise the market, invest in human capital, plod forth with incremental change and hope for the best.

As Syria's first lady lectured a ballroom filled with the Arab elite on the virtues of civil society last week, protesters were setting fire to cars in the streets of Deraa. Speaking about the Arab region at a Harvard conference in Damascus, Asma al Assad stressed: "We are an inherently open society, and no more than in Syria."

At the time, Mrs al Assad may have won admiration among her audience for a progressive outlook, but after her husband's lacklustre speech on Wednesday, there are few other ways to describe both speeches as more than lip service to reform.

This year's Harvard Arab Alumni Association conference was focused on the future of Arab youth across a variety of sectors - economics, education and civil society. Remarks by figures such as Mrs al Assad at these events are often received with tempered enthusiasm. In lieu of political reform, economic and technocratic solutions trumpeted by leading regime figures have often seemed the only path of progress.

The rationale was that you couldn't change the political system, but you could try and subvert it - liberalise the market, invest in human capital, plod forth with incremental change and hope for the best.

But as events have shown, the technocratic solution has its limits. It was at the same Harvard conference in Cairo several years ago that Youssef Boutros Ghali, the MIT-graduate and former Egyptian ministry of economy, assured the audience that his country was hurtling towards economic success on a rocket of reform. These days, he's wanted by Interpol.

As cities throughout Syria erupt in protest, questions of key-performance indicators, market liberalisation and other economic quandaries have taken a back seat to the basic refrain heard in chants throughout the country: "Allah, Suriye, Hourria, wa bas." God, Syria, freedom - that's it.

It's not hard to see why Syrians haven't been convinced by the technocratic solution. In the years following Hafez al Assad's death in 2000, economic reforms undertaken by his son have yet to trickle down, despite steady GDP growth.

The country has attempted to shake off its isolated image of past decades despite lingering sanctions. Banks have been privatised, a stock market is now open and foreign investors have sought to capitalise on Syria's potential.

Conventional free market theory holds that as the economy opens, so too does the political space. "They're creating an environment that's going to be increasingly difficult to control," says Line Khatib, a PhD researcher on Syria based in Dubai. "These people who you're reforming have political attitudes, and at some point they'll say: why are you [the current regime] here?" Increasingly, that question is being cast in terms of defiance on the streets.

The country is beset by the same problems that plague much of the region, including corruption and nepotism. The example of Rami Makhlouf, a prominent businessman who is also the president's cousin, proves the point. As one Syrian engineer observed at the conference last week: "How can you speak of economic reform when Rami Makhlouf owns a third of the economy?" Protesters seem to agree: they torched Syriatel in Deraa, one of the companies in which Mr Makhlouf carries a majority stake.

Reform on the whole remains a contentious issue. Some who experienced the brutal repression of Hafez al Assad believe that his son, constrained by the Baathist party, is truly a reformer at heart. "The bureaucracies are pulling two different ways: one is trying to keep the status quo, and one is trying to change it," says Fadi Salem, a Syrian programme director at the Dubai School of Government. "This is the main reason that reform attempts have been slow."

Mrs al Assad, peddled by Vogue and other publications as a progressive face in a desert of despotism, has also lent credence to the idea of Syria's gradual transformation. "As the president said a few weeks ago, if you're thinking of reform now, it's too late," she said at the conference.

And those wary of rapid change, which include Syrians who have benefited under the regime, believe it is better for the regime to stay in power so that Syria does not become another Iraq and risk collapsing into sectarianism.

Yet repression has overtaken reform as the label of the Assad regime, placing the president in the ossified camp of the old guard. In his stage-managed speech on Wednesday, Mr al Assad showed few signs of expected concessions or an openness to dialogue. On Syria's streets, bullets have replaced words, and his disappointing speech did little to stir hopes for change.

Last week, Mrs al Assad pitched an audience of technocrats the idea that Syria was an open society intent on reform. Yet the 12 million youth under the age of 20 in the country need only look to Deraa, Latakyia and Homs to see that for the moment, their leaders' actions speak louder than words.