In Syria, a kernel of democracy
The Iraqi refugee crisis in Syria helped open the door for aid and rights groups, serving as one catalyst in the strengthening of civil society.
Syria's one-party regime is not accustomed to vibrant public campaigns overturning government decisions.Skip to next paragraph
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But with the number of development organizations as much as tripling over the past six years, and the Iraqi refugee crisis awakening leaders to the need for outside help, Syria is gradually allowing aid and rights groups to operate more freely in the country. This has allowed such organizations to influence public discourse in ways that would have been unthinkable in the past.
One of the most explicit examples of this came in May 2009, when the Syrian government proposed draconian restrictions on women's rights. The draft law would have effectively placed a woman's right to work, study, and travel outside the home in the hands of her father or, once married, her husband.
But women's organizations and civil society activists began mobilizing against it. By July, the proposal had been shelved, and the Ministry of Justice vowed to "reconsider the subject in coordination with all parties concerned."
To date, the draft has not been reintroduced. According to Mr. Kadi, "The regime considered the power balance in the country, and determined that there was no other way but to open doors to civil society."
More than a year later, while restrictions continue, activists are building more organizations and more effective networks, with support from some surprising quarters, including the president's wife.
Civic action in Syria as early as 1556
Civil society – the realm that allows citizens to organize around shared interests – is seen by many advocates as a key to democratic reform.
But it is not new to Syria. Civic endowments to support charitable works were in place as early as 1556, and by 1870 municipalities were organizing around civil society initiatives, says Nada Osman Alaeddine, project manager at the cultural organization Rawafed.
In recent years, Syria has lagged behind other countries in the region. But in a marked change, Syria's five-year plan for 2005-10 acknowledges that development organizations can play a positive role in society, proposing "radical changes in order to activate and enhance the capabilities of the civil society role in the coming stage."
Iraqi refugee crisis a catalyst
Among the many reasons for this loosening of restrictions, say some observers, is the government's recognition that it can't meet the country's needs without help from both local and international organizations.