One Person, One Vote in Syria?

The longer the protest continues, the worse it is for President Bashar Assad, whose claim for political legitimacy is based primarily on the assumption that his regime was the only one capable of maintaining stability in Syria.

The Syrian uprising shows no signs of an end.  It seems that the regime strategy of maximum repression aimed at frightening the peaceful protestors has miserably failed.

The sustained campaign to shorten the mayhem, in order to evade outside pressures for reform, did not work. The longer the protest continues, the worse it is for President Bashar Assad, whose claim for political legitimacy is based primarily on the assumption that his regime was the only one capable of maintaining stability in Syria. Now the devil which most Syrians and those around Syria  know behaves in a way that makes them eagerly awaiting the devil they still do not know: a new, democratic Syria.

Syria had three rounds of relatively free, democratic parliamentary elections since independence, in 1949, 1954 and 1961. While each round of elections reflected  the particular circumstances of its time, there is one common denominator of paramount significance; after each of them, Syria plunged into more instability than before. The elections of 1949 were followed by the  Shishakli coup; the elections of 1954, coming after his fall  led to four years of chronic instability ending with  the short-lived union with Egypt (United Arab Republic). Following the dissolution of the UAR, elections were held in December 1961, and in March 1963 came the Baath takeover.

With that in mind, it is clear that free, democratic elections, as desirable as they are, may not be the only possible solution to Syria’s problems, unless they are held when three fundamental conditions are being met.

First, the Syrian military, or what left of it after the fall of the current regime, will have to undergo a radical change. No more an organ of a minority regime, but an army reflecting the entire Syrian people and staying out of the political process.

Second, the entire gamut of the Syrian political forces will have to participate in the elections, and that includes also the Baath party. The Iraqi model, when the invading Americans disbanded and outlawed the Iraqi Baath party, while satisfying the well-understood desire of so many Iraqis to take revenge of the hated Baathists, led  the persecuted cadres of the party to participate in the uprising against the foreign forces.

Syria in the post-Assad era will have its load of troubles, and in this case, one can be averted by allowing  even the Baathists to participate. At the height of the

Popularity of the party, in the 1954 elections, they scored only 22 out of 142 seats They will not come close to that in any free elections, and that will be the proper end of this party. The Muslim Brotherhood will surely participate, and will definitely score much higher than their best performance of 10 seats in 1961.

Their participation turns the focus to what may prove to be the greatest stumbling block for a new, democratic Syria. I refer to the sectarian issue, a key element in trying to understand Syrian politics and society, surely after five decades of Baath-Alawite regime. The Brotherhood are those who argue that the Alawites are non-Muslims, in line with the famous Fatwa of Ibn-Tayimiyya from 700 years ago.

Yet the need to protect minority rights, that of the Alawites, Kurds, Druze and Christians is of paramount importance, and will be the make or break of a democratic Syria. This is where the straight application of a one man, one vote system will be problematic. Syria will need a system based on the much-maligned and relatively effective Lebanese system, which protects the rights of religious and ethnic minorities. In the case of Syria, the element of regionalism will have to be added to the formula, so that the Alawites, Kurds and Druze may enjoy a measure of self-rule within the united Syria.

Even as the horrors continue in Syria, it is not too early to plan ahead.

This is what hundreds of opposition leaders did in Turkey, and the good news is that a resolution to protect the rights of the Alawite minority was universally accepted. The Muslim Brotherhood was present. Time will tell if such a resolution can also become a reality. No less than the future of Syria depends on that happening.

Josef Olmert is a professor at American Univerity’s School of International Service and was a participant in the Israeli-Syrian negotiations following the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991.