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.

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Blow-dried and supplicant, Ivanka shows the limits of the power women are allowed in Trumpworld

A new book by the US President’s daughter has surpisingly strong echoes of medieval royalty.

Exactly 500 years ago this month, the apprentices of London rose up, ­angry with Flemish immigrants and the bankers of Lombard Street. The race riot was quelled only when a couple of dukes sent in their private armies. Hundreds of looters were arrested and some were hanged, drawn and quartered. But some rioters were as young as 13 and the city’s residents felt sorry for them.

Henry VIII wanted to look magnanimous, but not weak. And so, at the trial in Westminster Hall on 7 May, ­Cardinal Wolsey first asked for mercy on the youngsters’ behalf. He was refused.

And then three women came forward: Henry’s queen, Catherine of Aragon, and his sisters Mary and Margaret, the widowed queens of France and Scotland. Faced with three women on their knees, the king relented. “It was a scene straight from the pages of chivalry,” writes Sarah Gristwood in her history of Renaissance women and power, Game of Queens. “An intercessory function, of course, had been traditional for queens, from the biblical Esther and Bathsheba to the Virgin Mary.”

Whenever contemporary politics gets too depressing, I take refuge in history. I always hope I will gain some perspective from people whose problems are very different from my own. Yes, climate change is terrifying; but at least I don’t have scrofula! Yet modern life has a way of creeping back. Late-medieval Europe was full of resentment for “aliens”, for example, who were felt to be prospering at the expense of native populations, even if those tensions were often expressed in religious rather than nationalist terms. It was Catherine of Aragon’s parents, Isabella and Ferdinand, who expelled all Jews from Spain in 1492.

Nonetheless, I was surprised to find such strong echoes of medieval royalty in Ivanka Trump’s new book, Women Who Work. I won’t waste your time by attempting to review this seminal tome, especially as it’s largely constructed out of bits of other self-help books. The advice boils down to: be “multi-dimensional”; don’t be afraid to use “architect” as a verb; feel free to turn down Anna Wintour, when she offers you a job at Vogue straight out of university, because your true passion is real estate. If it’s a busy time at work, as it was for Ivanka on the campaign trail, go into “survival mode”. (“Honestly,” she writes, “I wasn’t treating myself to a massage or making much time for self-care.”) Something for everyone.

Still, Women Who Work gave me the chance to contemplate the point of Ivanka Trump. I’ve seen her far more than I have heard her, which is no surprise, as her role in the administration is largely symbolic. What is Ivanka if not a Renaissance queen, tearfully pleading with her lord to show mercy? She is, we are told, his conscience. When his daughter’s clothing line was dropped by the US retailer Nordstrom in February, Trump tweeted: “My daughter Ivanka has been treated so unfairly by @Nordstrom. She is a great person – always pushing me to do the right thing! Terrible!”

Two months later, her name was invoked again. The First Daughter was distraught – “heartbroken and outraged”, she tweeted – at the sight of Syrian children gassed by the Assad regime. This prompted her father to bomb an airbase to atone for the slaughter of what his statement referred to as “beautiful babies”. “Ivanka is a mother of three kids and she has influence,” her brother Eric told the Telegraph. “I’m sure she said: ‘Listen, this is horrible stuff.’”

This is the power that women are granted in Trumpworld: softening, humanising, empathetic. Their tears moisten the oak-like carapace of great leaders, showing them that sometimes it’s OK to be kind – but obviously not too kind, because that’s a bit soppy and girly and gay. Women are naturally prone to emotion, of course, unlike sturdy, ­rational men, who get so cross about the way TV news is reporting their firing of the FBI director that they start sending unhinged tweets implying they have incriminating “tapes” of White House conversations.

In this structure, however, the limits of women’s power are sharply circumscribed. The tears of both Ivanka and Catherine of Aragon only provided cover for something that their lord and master wanted to do anyway. (As New York magazine urged acidly on 13 April, “Someone Please Show Ivanka Pictures of Starving Yemeni Children”.) Ivanka’s whole book is designed to render female power unthreatening by making it “feminine”; merely a complement to male power instead of a challenge to it.

To reassure us that she isn’t some frumpy bluestocking, Ivanka has crafted an image of expensive, time-consuming perfection: perfect white teeth, perfect blow-dried hair, perfectly toned body. Her make-up, clothes and home are all styled in unobtrusive neutrals. Together it says: let me in the room and I promise not to be a nuisance or take up too much space, even on the colour wheel. It’s noticeable that no woman in Trump’s orbit has “let herself go”, even though his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, has the complexion of a body that’s been found after two weeks in the water. I somehow doubt he ever makes “time for self-care”.

And don’t come at me with all that garbage about a nice frock and a manicure being “empowering”. Look at Donald Trump, the one with his own military: he has a fat arse and uses Sellotape to hold his ties in place. A president is allowed to have appetites – for women, for food, for power. His supplicant daughter gets to peddle platitudes about how you should “bond with your boss”. (Being a blood relative helps, although, sadly, Women Who Work is silent on what to do if he also fancies you.)

Is this how far we’ve come in 500 years? Ivanka Trump might try to sell herself as a modern woman, but her brand of female power is positively medieval.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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