Syria’s Democratic Past: Lessons for the Future

January 07, 2010
12:00 am - 12:00 am


Radwan Ziadeh
Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow

With comments by:

Steven Heydemann
U.S. Institute of Peace

Moderated by:

Karen Farrell
National Endowment for Democracy

About the Event

Despite perceptions of Syria as an entrenched authoritarian state, the country has had experience with democratic rule and its history has been punctuated by periods of political and social liberalization. Between 1949 and 1958, the country was governed by liberal democratic institutions, despite four military coups. Political culture thrived with over 270 newspapers and magazines in the country and, in 1951, Syria became the first Arab country to grant women suffrage. When the Ba’ath Party rose to power in 1963, the Third Republic swept away these democratic institutions. 

Under this regime, freedoms have been suppressed and the pretext of national security has been used to extend emergency law. Yet even in the midst of this brutal repression, there have been hopeful signs and democratic openings: the 2000 “Damascus Spring” and the 2005 “Damascus Declaration for Democratic and National Change.” 

In his presentation, Dr. Radwan Ziadeh provided an overview of the ongoing struggle between democratic and authoritarian forces in Syria and considered useful lessons for fostering a democratic transition, including a recommendation that Syrian society come to terms with its authoritarian past through a truth and reconciliation commission. His presentation will be followed by comments by Dr. Steven Heydemann.

About the Speakers

Dr. Radwan Ziadeh is founding director of the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies and executive director of the Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies. He was most recently a visiting scholar at the Center for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University and a 2008–2009 Visiting Scholar at Harvard University’s Carr Center for Human Rights. He is the author of numerous publications, including, most recently, Power and Policy in Syria: Intelligence Services, Foreign Relations and Democracy in the Modern Middle East (forthcoming in 2010). During his fellowship, Dr. Ziadeh is examining democracy promotion during the “third wave,” in an effort to develop an effective model for democratization in the Middle East.

Dr. Steven Heydemann is vice president of the grant and fellowships program and special adviser to the Muslim World Initiative at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

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