A Syrian man walks past campaign posters for the upcoming parliamentary election in Damascus, May 1, 2012. / Getty

A Syrian man walks past campaign posters for the upcoming parliamentary election in Damascus, May 1, 2012. Photo credit: Getty

By Patrick Lamson-Hall

Free Syrians held elections March 3rd to choose twenty-five representatives for the newly formed Aleppo provincial and city councils. Aleppo, which has been torn by bitter fighting between rebels and the government of President Bashar Assad, has not seen free elections since the ascension of Assad’s father in 1973.

Because of the danger involved in organizing an election in a city at war, approximately 240 electors traveled to the Turkish city of Gaziantep to cast their votes. The electors were local opposition leaders, tasked by Aleppo residents with organizing the vote.

Democracy in the Middle East is a fickle thing. Syria’s brutal civil war was sparked by peaceful pro-democracy protests during the Arab Spring. In Tunisia, where the transition from dictatorship to popular rule was swift and almost bloodless, civilian leaders are struggling to build effective coalitions and resist Islamic extremists. Egypt, which toppled thirty-year dictator Hosni Mubarak in 2011, has also struggled to remove his allies from government and to implement full civilian rule. In both Tunisia and Egypt, street protests and growing unemployment have accompanied the transition.

In the United States, right wing pundits idly speculate that Islam may be incompatible with democracy. The same dirty idea is echoed in a recent British law that limits Islamic immigration, anti-burqa legislation in the Netherlands, restrictions on headscarves in France, and a ruling by the German Supreme Court banning Muslim prayer in schools. To whit: pluralism is the bedrock of our democracy, and these people don’t fit into a pluralistic, democratic society. Freedom does not include the freedom to restrict the freedoms of others.

This is intellectually lazy at best and racist at worst. For a real analysis, I prefer to look at Middle Eastern democracy in terms of definitions and sequencing.

First, does democracy mean “liberal, secular, Western democracy,” or does it simply mean, “rule by the people?” I live under the former, and I like it. But not everyone is liberal, Western, or secular. Yet that’s the kind of democracy Western nations tried to build in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the kind our leaders have hoped, prayed, and finger-crossed will emerge in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and other newly free states.

The latter definition of democracy, “rule by the people,” simply posits that the most effective and just form of government is one that derives its authority from the votes of enfranchised citizens. It’s a definition that lacks the kind of cultural baggage that can derail its implementation in non-secular, non-Western states.

Iran is a good (if uncomfortable) example of a non-secular, illiberal democracy. It has regular voting periods and multiple candidates from parties with conflicting interests. Despite voting fraud and suppression of speech, much of the day-to-day operation of the country is controlled by democratically elected representatives who are expected to deliver to their constituencies. However, the ultimate authority in Iran rests with the Ayatollah and his Supreme Council, in keeping with the public religious views of the society.

In 1997, the election of the reformist Mohammad Khatami as President of Iran brought about real and significant social change, for women especially. Women voted for Khamati by an overwhelming majority, showing that democratically elected leaders can dramatically change Iranian civil society.

It’s always perilous to draw comparison between countries, but advocates for secular, liberal democracy in the Middle East might remember the history of voting rights in the United States.

From 1787 to 1870, only white male property owners had a universal guarantee of voting rights. In the 19th century the property rights requirement was gradually removed, and in 1870 the 14th amendment extended the right to vote to black males. Women got the right to vote in 1920 and Native Americans got it in 1924. Minority voting rights were protected in 1965. The voting age was lowered to 18 in 1971. These changes both drove and were driven by changing legal interpretations of our founding documents and shifts in the society at large.

A similar process of evolution takes place in all democracies. The ability to define what it means to be a citizen using the popular vote and the courts is an enormous part of the democratic process. The current Western, secular, liberal definition of the electorate is (as far as I can tell) a high water mark for enfranchisement, and the result of hundreds of years of negotiation and political brinksmanship. Demanding that new democracies adopt the same standard assumes that all that jockeying was unnecessary to reach our current political consensus. Democracy has to evolve from the needs and desires of citizens.

That’s why I think the Syrians might make it. The election in Gaziantep was risky, and it was organized with limited help from the rest of the world. It demonstrates that Syrian political consciousness has evolved in the last two years of fighting for freedom from Assad, with widespread recognition that military and civilian leaders have separate functions and that civilian government should be representative and elected.

The first job of the leaders of Aleppo is to deliver bread, medicine, sanitation, and water. The symbolic importance of their election is secondary to their ability to deliver the basic necessities of life. In doing that, they’ll learn to compromise, distribute resources, and make decisions based on the needs of their constituents.
The West should start getting used to the fact that Syria may not ultimately have a secular, Western, liberal democracy. In the meantime, let’s thank god that they may at least get one that works.

Patrick Lamson-Hall is a Research Associate at NYU Stern’s Urbanization Project. He writes for the website Sourcing Journal Online, and is also a Masters of Urban Planning Candidate at NYU Wagner. He was most recently featured in the New York Daily News, following his arrest for riding his bicycle on a sidewalk.