Syria: Cutting out the Middle Man

What hope for democracy after Assad?

As the Assad regime nears its end, Syrians are facing an uncertain political landscape. Transcending Sectarianism and establishing democratic institutions are probably their biggest challenge. Syrians are expected to graft democracy on to a bodypolitik used to authoritarian rule. Hardly fair, considering it took Britain a civil war and centuries of trial and error.  

It is especially difficult, when some like the late Prof. Elie Kedourie, believe that the Middle East do not have a genuinely Democratic tradition as understood by the West. Arguably, that is not the problem; with education, social media and advertising campaigns it can be learnt quickly. The problem that Syria faces and indeed the region, is the culture of Wasta.

Often Wasta is loosely translated as "cronyism" but it is more than that. One thing Wasta is not; is the corruption you might see in Damascus’ passport office, where a mustachioed officer blatantly accepts bribes for his services.  Rather, it is a way of behaving. For instance, if a man wants to marry, the last thing he should do is to approach the family directly and ask for the girl’s hand. Respect requires that he employs a Wasta or a Wasit, usually a family friend of standing, to go and have an informal ahwe, coffee, to sound the family out.  It protects both sides; it shows the suitor to be earnest, honourable and chivalric whilst deflecting any doubt about the girl’s virtue.

In the Middle East, Sharaf or honour still plays a role. Whilst these lines are certainly blurred in the city, in the provinces where kinship ties are strong this mode of behavior is still prevalent.  In some parts particularly where tribal affiliations play a role it is used to avert blood feuds and conflict which otherwise can last years as Rafik Schami in The Dark Side of Love, shows. Wasta then, has its uses. However, it is by no means unique to Arab culture, read Carlo Levi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli, to see its effect in southern Italy. Dove Izraeli points out in Business Ethics in the Middle East, that it is known as Protektzia in Israel. As Cunningham and Sarayah, in Wasta: the Hidden Force in Middle Eastern Society, point out it occurs in cultures with strong kinship ties.  

When Wasta enters the political domain however, it is problematic. Although there are few studies on how Wasta works in Syria. Anyone who has worked in Syria knows that Wasta is the best method of cutting red tape. However, there is enough on Jordan and Lebanon to give us an idea of its effect on political culture. An idea of its prevalence can be had from a study commissioned by the Jordanian Royal family in 2006. 86 percent of civil servants stated that Wasta was useful. 56 percent admitted to using them and 77 percent said it was useful for recruitment.  

In the Syrian context the culture of Wasta has been employed masterfully. The regime has favoured its own and not just Alawites.  The Tlass, a Sunni family from Rastan with strong links to the Assad family, grew rich owning Syria’s largest publishing house, agri-business and swathes of real estate. The Assad regime deliberately promotes families loyal to them to keep power. It has created an inefficient bureaucracy designed to keep large number of Syrians in employment and beholden to the state as well as promoting party loyalists. In such a system, one has no choice but to resort to kinship ties and informal channels to achieve one’s ends. Moreover, the absence of a free press that cannot scrutinize appointments and the fact that the economy is closed means that Wasta in Syria flourishes. The consequences of Wasta then, reinforce patron-client relationships inimical to the democratic process.

In Lebanon which is ostensibly a democracy, Wasta has evolved into such sophisticated heights that it has become part of the political landscape. The Zu’ama system as it is known circumvents democracy. Leading patron families treat their local powerbase like little Medici landlords, they mobilize the support of their communities to further their political and thereby, their communal interests. Walid Jumblatt, inheritor of his father’s "socialist" PSP party, serves the interests of the Druze community. Saad Hariri, from a prominent Sunni family inherited his role following his father’s assassination. Fouad Siniora, the former Prime Minister owes his position partly to being chairman of Hariri’s holding company Group Mediterrané.   

Wasta relationships not only distort political process but can subvert the law. The money laundering scandal of the Madina bank in 2003 is a good example; everyone from Syrian and Iraqi Ba’athists, Islamic banks to leading Lebanese families escaped the judiciary partly due to family networks consigning the whole affair to oblivion. It also results in unfair business advantage. In Syria, Rami Makhlouf a cousin of Assad, according to Reuters, dominate the Syrian economy with vast interests in oil, gas, real estate and telecoms. He exercises immense power and influence and anyone wanting to do businesses goes through Mr. Makhlouf. It begs the question in a country where such cronyism has become the modus operandi how could Democracy flourish even if it was established?

Any post-Assad government can, if the political will is there, change attitudes. Education, public broadcasting campaigns must continue. The provinces must be given a real stake in the country. There has to be a genuinely free press where transparency is demanded. At government level, the bureaucracy must be more streamlined. Employees must be qualified with hefty penalties for corruption. This combined with economic liberalization where companies inculcate corporate values, transparency and professionalism rather than the old boy network will certainly go a long way.

Whilst solutions are there, policy makers must also realize that the democratic project takes time. Democratic institutions don’t just end with parliament but requires investment, nurturing and a holistic approach. There also have to be an acceptance that Syrians are not going to break their cherished kinship ties, Wasta at some level may be around for a long time. And whatever democracy that does emerge may not be the sort that the West expects. The end result may not be a Western style democracy but one with its own peculiarities and traditions. Overall though, not combating Wasta in the political sphere could result in Syria becoming another Lebanon or worse; where another leading family comes to power and governs for decades promoting their supporters followed by another cycle of violence and instability.

Young Syrians demonstrate in Aleppo on 24 August. (Getty Images.)

Tam Hussein is an award winning writer and journalist specialising in the Middle East. He spent several years in the Middle East and North Africa working as a translator and consultant. Tam also writes for the Huffington Post.

Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko
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Ruin porn: the art world’s awkward obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture

Deserted fairgrounds, disused factories and forgotten military bases may look cool, but are we fetishising the remnants of such a cruel history?

Armenia, where one side of my family is from, was one of the first members of the USSR, annexed by Russia in 1922. A few years ago, when I visited this little country that perches precariously in the south of the Caucasus, I was struck most by its Soviet architecture.

Although its landscape is a hotchpotch of medieval Orthodox churches, a smattering of Persian-era domes, and brutalist concrete, it was the latter that particularly stuck out. From unfelled statues of Stalin to giant tower blocks spelling out the letters “CCCP” from a bird’s-eye view (well, half spelt-out – construction stopped partway through, with the fall of the Soviet Union), I’ve never forgotten it.

Perhaps it was so compelling because such stark physical symbols make recent history all the more tangible. A history still profoundly affecting the country of my ancestors (and all post-Soviet and communist states). But also, it just looked really cool.


Mixed air corps, Mongolia. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Eric Losito

It’s a bit passé now to mock the hipster obsession with reclaimed industrial detritus, exposed pipes and bare concrete. An aesthetic – that of a post-industrial wasteland, but a chic one – which has gripped western cities for years, and crept worldwide.

But it could be this tendency to find disused stuff visually intriguing, and a morbid fascination with cruel regimes, which has led to the art world’s obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture. A whole wave of artists and photographers have been poking around the eastern bloc’s architectural graveyard in recent years.

Late last year, we saw the hugely popular disused Soviet bus stop series by photographer Christopher Herwig, echoing photographer Sergey Novikov’s equally absorbing collection of abandoned Soviet cinemas from 2013.

Following Russian filmmaker and photographer Maria Morina’s “Atomic Cities” project four years ago, London-based artist Nadav Kander explored the “aesthetics of destruction” in his exhibition, Dust, in 2014, snapping “radioactive ruins” of secret cities on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia. The same year, Moscow photographers Sasha Mademuaselle and Sergey Kostromin travelled to the disputed region of Abkhazia, capturing fragments of its deserted infrastructure.


Fighter aviation regiment, Mongolia. Photo: Eric Losito
 

And photojournalist Anton Petrus’ now iconic pictures of Chernobyl’s abandoned amusement park have long been an internet favourite, as have numerous haunting images of Pripyet – the city famous for lying deserted following the nuclear disaster.

Jamie Rann, a lecturer in Russian at Oxford University, has written that the quality and technical accomplishment of most of this photography make the style more “ruin erotica” than “ruin porn” (the tag being used by some critics), but argues: “The enormous online popularity of this genre . . . combined with their voyeuristic, almost exploitative feel, certainly has something porny about it.”

The latest exploration of Soviet society’s skeletons can be found at the Power & Architecture season at London’s Calvert 22 Foundation. In an exhibition called Dead Space and Ruins, we see abandoned military bases and formerly mighty monuments, forgotten space ports freezing in the tundra, the ghost of an entire unused, unfinished city in Armenia lying derelict.



The unfinished "ghost city" built in Armenia to house earthquake survivors (water added by artist). Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Vahram Aghasyan

The works are beautiful, but do they feed in to this zeitgeisty lust for Soviet ruins?

One of its curators, Will Strong, laments this trend. “I was keen that this didn’t become like a kind of ‘ruin lust’, ‘ruin porn’ thing; this slightly buzzwordy term that there is at the moment, this kind of fetishisation of dead space,” he tells me.

“This history is incredibly loaded, and it did not end in 1991. To sort of fetishise it in the very bourgeois western way of, ‘oh yeah, look at all this wonderful Soviet architecture, isn’t it fantastic?’ Obviously a lot of people who lived in that time hated it . . . a lot of people were very miserable under these regimes, so it’s important not to forget that.”


Gym at the Independent Radar Centre of Early Detection, Latvia. Photo: Eric Losito

He adds: “It’s more a point of reflection on how buildings were designed, what their legacy is, what their narrative is, and who the people are who live with that story. This show looks at the aftermaths of when utopia hasn’t been delivered.”

This view is echoed by the Moscow artist, Danila Tkachenko, whose work is featured in the exhibition. “It is rather a metaphor for the future, not the past,” he says. “It represents an image of a possible future. When there is a visualisation of this issue [utopia], it evokes a response in people; they see this utopia in their lives . . . There is disappointment in all utopias.”


The world's largest diesel submarine, in Russia's Samara region. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko

His Restricted Areas series explores great behemoths of European communism left to lie forgotten in the tundra of remote regions in and around Russia and Kazakhstan: the world’s largest diesel submarine, like a beached whale in the snow; a giant satellite, thatched with antennae, built to communicate with Soviet bases on other planets some day; the deserted flying saucer-like communist headquarters in a region of Bulgaria. The structures hover in blank, white space, making the photos appear black-and-white.


Deserted observatory, Kazakhstan's Almaty region. Photo: Danila Tkachenko
 

Anton Ginzburg is an artist who grew up in St Petersburg in the Eighties as the Soviet Union was disintegrating. He believes studies like his film, Turo, of disused modernist constructions in the post-Soviet bloc, appeal to people’s connection to history. After all, picking through the architectural carcasses of former societies isn’t exactly a new thing:

“Russian culture is still haunted by its Communist past, and constructivist architecture is a decaying shell for its ghosts. It is an active reminder of the recent history,” he reflects. “Perhaps [its appeal] is a mixture of memento mori, with its thrill of beauty and destruction, along with a Romantic tradition of contemplation of Greek and Roman ruins.”

(Anton Ginzburg Turo teaser from Visionaireworld on Vimeo.)

The Power & Architecture season is on at the Calvert 22 Foundation, London, from 10 June-9 October 2016. Entry is free.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.