Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Syrians Break the Barrier of Fear: Is Assad Capable of Enacting Major Change?

Elza S. Maalouf

“May you rise with the sun to a new Coup D’etat”. This was a common greeting heard on the streets of Damascus during the 1950’s and 60’s. Although politically satirical, this phrase symbolized the frailty of institutions of a fledgling Syrian republic before Hafez Assad became President. Forty years on and the Assad family like no other in the region is poised to leave its indelible mark on a power base that stretches from Iran to the East and Gaza and Lebanon to the West. Today Assad the son under pressure from the uprising in many cities in Syria announced the lifting of emergency laws that have been in place since 1962. Will he be successful in implementing the changes needed before it's too late? Syrians who lived in paralyzing fear for more than four decades might have reached the point of no return.

On a recent visit to Syria while working on an EU project, I met with the now ousted governor of Daraa, Faisal Koulthum who was a high ranking official in the Baath Party. A professor with two PhD degrees from the West, Koulthoum represented the promise of the new leadership under Bashar Assad. I wondered why such an important Baath party figure so close to the president could be appointed to a remote area like Daraa? I suspect now that Assad wanted a loyal ally with a common vision for reform to lead that region. Obviously the problems were beyond poverty in a drought-stricken region, it was more of a political power struggle for leadership between the Old Guard of Assad the father and the educated class of the son.

The uprising that started in the impoverished city of Daraa on March 20th unexpectedly crept into the psyche of freedom loving Syrians all throughout the country and has the potential of toppling the regime and tipping the delicate balance of power from Iran to Israel. Political observers in the West who might have been skeptical of whether real change will come to the whole region, held their collective breath until Syrian youths took to the streets of this drought stricken farming Governate of Daraa. World Leaders who have been very vocal about Libya and Egypt have been unusually silent about Syria. What does the political world know about Syria that the rest of us don’t know? Would a strong condemnation from the West and the Arab League trigger the awakening of the powerful Shia Crescent --Iran, Syria and Hezbollah -- and would such an awakening trigger a region-wide conflict?

Syria is one of four major sphere-of-influence nations in the Arab world. Morocco, Egypt and Saudi Arabia are the other regional powers to which Arab masses gravitate. All the remaining Arab countries are considered client- nations according to Soheil Kash, author of In The Beginning was the Objection: An Introduction to Arab political thought. These four power centers were the ones who manipulated the Arab street and influenced Western interference in the region. Now, it is these four power poles the are leading change in the Arab World. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia announced $40 Billion of economic stimulus to quell any potential uprising. King Muhammad VI of Morocco responded to the demonstrations with a timetable for constitutional reforms. In Egypt the political tug of war between the military establishment and the reformists which include the Muslim Brotherhood leave the country with an uncertain political future. In the last week the wind of change has broken down the door to Syria.

“Our political evolution will be different” tells me an aid to the Governor of Daraa. “ Hafez Assad brought stability to Syria by oppressing the people and enriching the Baath Leadership. The son is trying his hand in reform without the political and military clout that his father had.”

Syria’s regional dominance started when Assad the father came into power in 1970 through a bloodless coup and after the death of Jamal Abdel Nasser the most charismatic politician in modern day Middle East. Assad immediately aligned himself with the Russians to reach strategic parity with Israel which was an ally of the other superpower, the US. His initial ambition had the potential to develop Syria politically and economically, but as things evolved he failed to deliver on his promises. This failure steered much internal unrest but the shell of social secularism he created kept the Alawite minority in top positions of the Baath party. The military became the sole tool that Assad used to make his local and regional presence known from crushing the uprising in Hama to the meddling in Lebanon’s civil war and helping Iran cement Hizbollah’s role as the front line resistance against Israel. These policies stayed in place until Bashar Assad came to power in June 2000. The son was hailed as the reformer, but was unable to break the barriers to the network of high corruption and the economic monopolies that his father’s inner circle had created. Bashar coundn’t even deliver on his promise to eliminate the notorious Mazze jail -- the thought of which still sends shivers down the spine of every Syrian and Lebanese political descendant.

Mohammad, a Syrian archaeologist working on the restoration of one of the most preserved Roman coliseum outside Italy was very outspoken about the current regime. We met when I was in Daraa working on a development project with the EU. Mohammad caught the freedom bug while studying in Italy and he frequently joked about the number of times the Syrian Mukhabarat (secret service) picked him up and hauled him to jail in the middle of the night only to be let go a few days later after his mother begged local authorities for his release.

Criticizing the regime was off limits. Even though Bashar Assad set out to be more progressive than his father, he had to adjust his vision to how much he can do in light of the opposition from the old guard. Many Syrians I met praised him and his educated wife Asma for their approach on Syria’s transition to modernity. Bashar implemented mandatory education for all young people, brought computers to schools and community centers, renovated libraries and more recently opened up the banking system and started the first stock exchange in Syria. While all these changes were happening, they were not met by corresponding inclusion of opposition parties and political reforms that would enable their long-term viability. During a recent interview with al-Arabiya TV network a high ranking supporter of Assad’s reforms was pressed by the interviewer about the lack of progress on the reforms that were promised by the President. When he was pushed to change his standard answer, the truth about what was preventing real change from taking place came out of his mouth in a barrage of repetitive phrases “it is the Old Guard...its the Old Guard..”

Based on my past work in Syria and the study of its value-systems, religions, power structures, and the dynamics of polarity, the chances of the country falling into a sectarian civil war are high. The most pressing issue is the possible defection of powerful Sunni generals who now have orders to shoot at their Sunni brothers.Should this happen the Alawite high command of the Syrian Army could seek the help of Iran and Hezbollah turning an internal conflict into a regional one. In such complex situation the fall of the regime in Syria has far reaching ramifications between the Sunni and Shia crescent and the potential of tipping the balance of power in the region.

In this still unfolding dynamic two scenarios could emerge: the first one would call on Assad to prove worthy of leading his people by immediately curtailing the power of the old guard in any way possible; introduce a specific timetable for reforms and lift emergency laws that have been in effect for 48 years. In this scenario Assad would need to bring the opposition leaders in Syria and abroad to the table, and establish structures and milestones to be achieved by a Syria-specific formula for power sharing. The second scenario, sees the failure of Assad to embark on real reforms where the old guard continues their monopoly over the country’s institutions and economy leading to a prolonged civil war with rippling effects in the region. This will play well into the hands of the Iranian regime that has been pumping billions into Syria. Iran will not sit quietly watching its investment into the Shia crescent go to waste.

The Western world's reluctance to interfere in the affairs of Syria might be well justified right now. However, the US and its allies have to have a systemic strategy that can meet the different scenarios and outcomes of the Syrian uprising.

While in Bosra Al-Sham a village on the outskirts of Daraa, I met many promising high school girls who had a good understanding of what their generation needs to do to help build Syrian society. Learning English was on the top of their list tells me Dalia a young woman who teaches at the girl’s school where most courses are taught in Arabic. Growing up in such a poor region learning English is a ticket out of poverty as it will provide a tool to communicate with tourists and to connect with the world on the Internet. Throughout my travels in Syria, I did not meet a young Syrian who does not exhibit a sense of nationalistic pride.In spite of the political conflicts that seem to hover as a dark cloud over their ambitious minds, they still keep their resolve to build Syria to a 21st century standard.

Tomorrow, Bashar Assad will speak to Syrians, in what his spokesperson called “A very important speech.” How important would this speech be to the heroic Syrian activists who risked their lives --many of them were jailed for several years-- to afford their fellow Syrians freedom of speech, the right to have an attorney defend you before they throw in jail, and the right to have descent jobs. What kind of vision Assad will present to the nation to move it to the 21st century, and what is his time line to implement reform and awaken the capacities that are waiting to burst in young Syrians?

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Sunday, March 27, 2011

Arab-Style Democracy: The Answer to the Post Dictatorship Era

Elza S. Maalouf

This article appeared first in the Huffington Post on March 8,2011


When the twenty-six year old college graduate, Mohammed Bouazizi, set himself on fire in Tunis, he sparked a revolution that was more than 40 years in the making. Sadly, he did not live to see the change. “Revolutions do not cause change they confirm the change which has already happened,” wrote Dr. Don Beck, a complex systems strategist. Typically, this happens more to societies, which are already changing, as the raised expectations put pressure on existing leaders and structures, like the geologic tectonic shifts that will rise to the surface as earthquakes.

As a once second generation Arab Nationalist who now works on emergence and geopolitical reform in Arab cultures, I have longed for this day to come. Since the end of colonial rule we in the Middle East have taken several shots at defining ourselves and our nations. We haphazardly embraced Marxism and Socialism, copying ideas that did not fit our cultural values. My generation believed that the roadmap to democracy in our region should not come from bloodshed but rather from building capacities in Arab people and institutions in the culture. Unfortunately, our political --clannish leaders who were embroiled in the history of the region were not interested in making our vision a reality. We were defeated. Our aspirations were crushed as we left our homeland in droves seeking opportunities in other parts of the world. For those who couldn't leave they watched the oppression fester for years as it took the lives and the freedom of hundreds of thousands of people.

For the Arab world, this is just the beginning.

To help shape the newly liberated Middle East, we must look at what type of institutions must be created to harness the dreams of the people demonstrating on the streets and co-design for their emergence. Unfortunately, because of the effects of past repression and the historic absence of democratic institutions, the Arab street lacks the depth of political maturity required to create a full picture of democracy with viable and sustainable institutions. The Arab street never had effective leaders who concerned themselves with building the foundations for democracy. From Nasser to Assad to Saddam Hussein, leadership in the last fifty years in the region has lacked vision and capacities. It has too often relied on the rhetoric of empty promises. These men were leading as paternal leaders with impassioned speeches rather than pragmatists with a developmental road map for their countries.

This revolution is one that is toppling the old patriarchy and has little chance of succeeding if women are not given a voice as an equal partner in society. “Arab women will no doubt change the world” tells me Dr. Jean Houston, one of the founders of the Human Potential Movement who consults with the UN and advises on our projects in the Middle East.

It has been my experience through numerous projects I start in the Arab world that women emerge as natural leaders in these projects, their community and beyond. They are the power that is moving the Arab world forward, and are creating their own version of feminism that does not look anything like the Western feminist revolution. Theirs is one that empowers their daughters to get the best education and gain the autonomy needed to be a true partner in Nation building. In doing so they have been fostering and practicing their own brand of Arab and Islamic feminism that fits the value-systems within their cultures.

Dr. Suleiman, a charismatic woman in her 40s, is the former psychologist of the Dubai Police Department who acquiesces women’s role in Arab culture: “We now have two generations of women who obtained advanced degrees from Western countries and came back home and yet we’re still veiled by society and not by the veils on our heads. We are working to change this unhealthy attitude towards women, and will not rest till our daughters have the same rights and social standing that our sons.” Demanding equal rights for women has to be an integral component of the new Arab identity that is being shaped, and must be recognized under the law and enforced by authorities. Adding this evolutionary piece will serve as the catalyst for this monumental change.

With such an explosion of repressed potential, how can the Arab world prepare for true democracy? What will be the ideal form of governing that works for the Middle East? And how can we in the First World understand and support the emergence of Arab-Style Democracies?

The crucial insight here is that one style of democracy does not fit all. The Myth that Western democracy, if given the chance, can spread throughout the Middle East has proven to be a false doctrine. We need not look further than the Western coalition’s experience in Iraq and Afghanistan to recognize the failure of this thinking. Tom Barnett in his book The Pentagon’s New Map states that Arab-style democracies will resemble more those of India, Malaysia or Singapore rather than Western Europe or the US.

Ayman, a young Egyptian national who holds a business degree looks and sounds much like the protesters in Tahrir Square. He says that there has to be a system for the older people to retire with a pension that honors their past contribution. This will be the only way for the younger educated generation to have careers and participate in the socio-political development of their country. He is one of millions of Egyptians who couldn’t find work

in Egypt and settled for being a waiter at a Kuwaiti restaurant. We’ve seen many intelligent men and woman like him demonstrating in Tunisia, Bahrain and Libya who are well aware of the processes and the themes of democracy but lacked the comprehensive view of what it takes to build a viable nation.

Maysa, a Gen Y activist for Palestinian women in the West Bank reiterates the view about Arab patriarchy providing her pragmatic solution “to the Palestinian people, Arafat was the father figure. To the Arab street, Nasser was the father. But, now it’s time to move on. We must build civil and government institutions that lead to nation building.” From where will the determination and leadership emerge to accomplish this monumental task? Would a benevolent autocrat provide that interim role that will support the establishment of structures and systems that will lay down the foundation for this Arab-styl

e democracy?

“The pathway from tribalism to democracy has to pass through autocracy” wrote professor Clare W. Graves, founder of psychology at the large scale. In these tumultuous times can the intelligence of the masses elect a benevolent autocratic leader without him becoming another Qaddafi or Mubarak? A benevolent autocrat is someone who recognizes the frailty of the infant stages of democracy and has the best interest of his/her people in mind and has their respect. Someone who has the power to quell the disruption caused by zealots and extremists, while promoting robust institutions and development prone societies. This is where the West has to rise up to the challenge and balance its interests with those of the Arab street.

If the West aggressively focuses on creating innovations in green technologies, then the Middle East will be relieved of an exploitative economic relationship and left with no choice but to focus on developing its most underutilized resource and that is women and GenY. This has to be coupled simultaneously with a layered and culturally fit development program that addresses the most nagging issues in the Middle East. In a town hall meeting with young Fatah leaders in Bethlehem, I asked the audience to come up with a future vision for Palestine and the Arab world. In compelling Arab emotional outburst, they all said they want to have world class hospitals and universities where Westerners choose to come.

Democracy Arab-style is one where everyone is equal under the law-- women, men and children regardless of their riches or political or tribal affiliations. This has to spread and be enforced at a systemic level. New governments along with the private sector have to embark on robust and fully integrated development programs that go beyond the reach of a typical World Bank strategy. These programs cannot stop at ad-hoc projects that build the infrastructure of highways, power and sewer systems without building the supporting societal and civil structures that can sustain nations. Since religions plays a crucial role in the Middle Eastern identity, religious institutions have to be regulated to preach tolerance and supported, as they play a vital role in society. Schools have to become institutions that build autonomous individuals not followers of clan leaders. This should happen in quality public schools that are available to the masses. Financial pressure on parents has to be alleviated by creating good paying jobs that fit their capacities. This list is merely the beginning of the changes that are needed to establish the new Arab nationalism within the unique boundaries of each Arab nation. The Arab league has to come out of the shadow of dictators and become a functional body that includes a trade organization to benefit the region’s human and natural resources.


The values of the industrial age are just emerging in the Middle East under the umbrella of the age of technology and knowledge. Arab cultures have no choice but to advance in this global world, this has to be a systemic, holistic approach that will ensure the future of Arab Gen Y and stop the brain drain from the region. This is the time where the Arab intelligence can empower individuality, a quality that has long been the catalyst that helped the developed world thrive.

Elza S. Maalouf is an Arab-American futurist and cultural development specialist focusing her work on cultural and political reform in the Arab world. She is the President of the Center for Human Emergence Middle East a think tank that emphasizes the scientific understanding of cultures. http://www.humanemergencemiddleeast.org One of foremost experts on the Memetics of the region, Elza is the co-founder of the Build Palestine Initiative a movement that started in 2005 and calls on Palestinians to build capacities, institutions and infrastructure through the framework of Natural Design ©. She has worked extensively with women and girls in Syria, Palestine, Kuwait and many parts of the Arab world to help them realize their fullest potential and become agents for change in the region. She can be reached at emaalouf@CHE-Mideast.org

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Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Breaking the Cycle of Failed Peace Negotiations

Elza S. Maalouf
Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Breaking the Cycle of Failed Negotiations

This post was initially intended to be on the Build Palestine Initiative blog of our sister website for the Center for Emergence Middle East

We are experiencing technical difficulties with the blog section on the website, but wanted to inform followers of our work of this important upcoming event.


For many reasons US Middle East policy has failed to make lasting peace a reality. Early on in his administration, President Obama sent a message to the world that things will be different. By granting his first media interview to Al-Arabia Network based in Dubai and delivering a powerful speech in Cairo to the Muslim world he set the tone for things to be different. But, how much beneath the tactical surface would policy makers need to go in order to achieve a different, sustainable outcome. At the Washington summit this past August with President Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu, Secretary Clinton and President Obama set a one year deadline for both parties to come up with a workable peace treaty. Is this approach any different than that of previous administrations and would it work?


These are questions that Dr. Don Beck, Said Dawlabani and I will be discussing during Peace Week this coming Wednesday September 15, at 5:00 PM (PST). Click here for details and to sign up.

  1. Are the two parties ready to step fully into these negotiations, or is this Washington's own timing leading to mid-term elections?
  2. It is true that Prime Minister Fayyad is doing a good job with making sure that Palestinian security forces in the West Bank are well trained, but is that enough for Israel to pull back its 10,000 troops?
  3. With all right wing opposition in Israel opposing the settlement freeze, can the Palestinians trust that Israel has good intentions at the table?
  4. Most importantly, are all parties, including the US, looking at these negotiations from a Natural Design perspective? From a value systems perspective? Do they take into account the memetic contours and the lay of the land in both cultures? Or, are they coming to it from the traditional negotiations processes that failed to achieve tangible results in Madrid, Oslo, and Camp David.

The truth is, whoever is at the negotiations table does not represent the full spectrum of value-systems and mindsets of their respective cultures. Why isn't there a bottom-up referendum on the future of their respective countries? Who's really addressing what the moderates in both countries are looking for? This is something that the Center for Human Emergence Middle East has been deeply involved in for the last five years. We have uncovered and informed, through our field-tested framework, the thinking of over 200,000 in Palestine who are of the mindset that in order for negotiations to be successful and have collective support, the negotiators must be informed by real-time data from the trenches of the culture.

Below is a reposting from a year ago of our call for a "Design Conference" and not a "Peace Conference". Not much has changed in calling for the building blocks that form the foundation for a lasting peace.



Israel Palestine Regional Map


Design Conference for Palestine/Israel
To Break the Cycle of Failed "Peace Negotiations"

The Israeli/Palestinian conflict is a collision of “tectonic plates” — deep values system codes — that have created a logjam. It is this underlying logjam that generates continual surface-level blockages that erupt in conflict.

We propose a problem-solving methodology with the power, precision, and complexity to create a scaffold for human groupings to construct the unique economic and political structures that support the healthy evolution of those groupings.

We need to see the patterns as through a prism — where all the various colors of worldviews are made visible, each with a different “tint” on the world. The goal is to understand the needs of all the mind-sets, so as to begin to craft “full-spectrum” solutions which are fundamentally different from those that a single perspective would offer. This would:

  • Develop the capacity to uncover the deeper dynamics within each society, as well as between societies.
  • Craft decisions and measure priorities not against the past, nor based on who is responsible for what.
  • Avoid the typical problem resolution systems such as majority rule, rule by the elite or by the wealthy, or rule by the so-called experts, or those that have military strength.
  • Defuse the ideologies that produce “us vs. them”.
  • Avoid raising expectations which can be faulted.
  • Focus on who the people are who live in the region and what their resources are.
  • Design a strategy to mesh people, geography, and resources together into a workable solution for all who live in that region.
  • Draw upon all of the solutions which are currently available (as well as many that haven’t been thought of yet) to create a scaffolding of solutions for the whole region.
  • Generate solutions that involve the whole region: Israel, Syria, Jordan, Palestine, and the other players who have influence in the conflict.

"The issue is less about democracy, rather the question is to design the best structures for meeting the needs of the people as they develop through the stages that are most natural to them; open, adaptive systems appropriate to their life conditions."




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