From Syria to Germany – the unifying struggle for democracy

Repression and despotism takes many forms. Yet as varied as these phenomena are, they all share a common core, argues Tarek Azizeh. Revolutions accompanying the struggle for democracy – wherever they occur – are all different manifestations of one and the same fight

By Tarek Azizeh

In 1989 the winds of democratic change buffeted most Eastern European countries. All the signs pointed to a new awakening, heralding the collapse of the Soviet Union, where the system had long since begun to crumble. The international political climate at the time offered fertile ground for civil protests in East Germany, officially known as the German Democratic Republic (GDR).

The citizens there rose up in a "Peaceful Revolution" and called for the overthrow of the single-party system and the State Security Service's (Stasi) reign of terror. And they met with success, the fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification after 40 years of division marking the end of a grim era. But peaceful revolutions are not always granted such success, as the Syrians have been forced to realise after rising up against the tyranny of the Assad regime.

The peaceful revolution in Syria, which began in March 2011, gradually spiralled instead into open warfare in which unfortunate domestic circumstances set the stage for sweeping regional and international conflicts. The main drivers for the devastating escalation of the conflict include interference by external stakeholders and the excessive use of force by the Assad regime, under which the Syrian people are still being killed, locked up and expelled even today. What's more, terrorist groups that closed ranks in the course of the conflict ended up augmenting the regime's tyranny with their own religious terrorism. And it all happened and is still happening to the detriment of the people in Syria.

Syria's ruler, Bashar al-Assad, casts his vote during 2016 parliamentary elections, with his wife Asma on his left (photo: Reuters/SANA)
انتخابات برلمانية صورية: أجريت ثاني انتخابات تشريعية في سوريا في ظل الحرب المستمرة منذ أكثر من تسع سنوات. هذه الحرب نتجت بعد قمع النظام السوري للثورة السورية السلمية ودفعها إلى العسكرة وهو ما خلق أسوأ أزمة لاجئين في العالم وسمحت بصعود تنظيم "الدولة الإسلامية" وتحويل سوريا إلى ساحة حرب لقوى إقليمية ودولية.

There is no doubt that there are numerous differences between Syria, its society and revolution, and the situation in East Germany before reunification, including in terms of their administrative, economic and educational systems, as well as the living standards in the two countries. Other distinguishing features are the variety of different ethnic groups and denominations in Syria, the role played by religion in society, and the structure of families and social relationships.

The differences between the two political systems are likewise impossible to ignore. Among the specific characteristics of the Assad regime is its background in a gradual evolution from despotic rule to a dynastic autocracy. When the clan gained control of the country, it was already firmly installed in the country's power centres, and it is still pulling the strings in Syria today.

Common features of authoritarian regimes

Despite all the disparities in the details, however, commonalities can be identified in authoritarian systems at certain stages of their development. By ostensibly adopting modern ideologies, a facade is built up behind which, on closer inspection, a rigid police state is in operation. This is true of both the German Democratic Republic and Syria under the rule of the Assad regime and the Ba'ath Party.Authoritarian systems are usually shored up by two main pillars: a political ideology and the general spread of fear and terror, in other words, organised terrorism perpetrated by the repressive state apparatus against its own citizens. The chosen ideology, in the guise of the regime's supposed identity, is what appears on the surface and forms the shell of a repressive system, which then reveals itself at its core as authoritarian, restrictive and violent.

Ultimately, the Assad regime used the ideology of "pan-Arabism", along with "socialist" slogans and the appellation "people's democracy" merely as a propaganda tool, in order to polish its own image and give it the sheen of ideological legitimacy. The same can be said of the alleged "democracy" and "socialism" in the German "Democratic" Republic.

All power emanates from the people and is exercised by their elected representatives – this is how it should be in a democratic system. However, the real power – whether in Syria under Assad or in the GDR – lies in the hands of the respective regimes. Behind the scenes of the single-party regime with its ideological slogans, and under the direct gaze of its autocratic leaders, whether Honecker or Assad, and their henchmen, a security structure holds the reins of power tightly in hand, controlling everything by means of its secret services.

Omnipresent security apparatus

The omnipresence of the security apparatus and the official ideology extends down from the government to its organisations and society as a whole. Perhaps it is worth recalling at this point that when children start school in Syria they automatically join the "Ba'ath Pioneers" organisation.

Every morning at school they sing songs of praise for Assad, Syria's eternal leader, whose family has ruled the country since 1970, while also honouring the "Arab Socialist Ba'ath Party", which came to power in Syria in a military coup on 8 March 1963. Pupils in middle and upper school then automatically become members of the "Revolutionary Youth Union", which is affiliated with the Ba'ath Party.

Our childhood was therefore filled with ideology and grand phrases, the true meaning of which remained unclear. We were attended always and everywhere by diffuse feelings of fear. We absorbed the anxieties of our parents, their chronic insecurity and constant uneasiness.This atmosphere of suspicion prevailed even in our homes – where our parents chose their words carefully and nothing was discussed that could get us into trouble, because "the walls have ears". As we grew up, our reality gradually revealed itself to us and we recognised the repression and tyranny of the system that governed us and in which we lived.

Once we had tended to think that this form of despotism was limited only to our backward countries, to "developing countries" of the "Third World", as it was known back then. But as our interest in reading about politics and history grew, so did the realisation that the advanced industrialised countries of Europe themselves suffered what we are still going through today.

In fact, many patterns can be seen that our countries have even adopted from European models, including the prison of ideologies and iron organisations that put society in chains, just as the "socialist camp" and in particular the "German Democratic Republic" demonstrated for us. We can see now that, at least in terms of ideological hegemony and a climate of fear and, the children of the GDR did not fare any better than we did, and their parents' lives were dominated to the same extent by dread and caution.

Syrian secret service agents take action against demonstrators in March 2011 (photo: picture-alliance/abaca/Balkis Press)
At the mercy of the system: we absorbed the anxieties of our parents, their chronic insecurity and constant uneasiness. An atmosphere of suspicion prevailed even in our homes – where our parents chose their words carefully and nothing was discussed that could get us into trouble, because "the walls have ears"

To come back to the developments surrounding the revolution and war in Syria, we can observe that ties of a completely new kind are being forged today between Syria and Germany. Germany welcomed many Syrians with open arms during the war. Recently, though, we have been seeing a gradual decline in the initial "welcome culture" which has gone hand-in-hand with the rise of the extreme right with their anti-migration stance. Those on the far right cultivate a racist and exclusionary discourse of closed borders, which, like any authoritarian discourse, rejects pluralism and diversity.

It is arguably one of the paradoxes of history that the East German states, whose people took to the streets thirty years ago to rise up against the tyranny of despotism and authoritarianism and struggle toward a free, democratic society, are today the hotbeds of these new reactionary leanings. Representatives from right-wing parties do not even shrink from using the slogans of the peaceful democratic revolution of 1989, although these words de facto stand for the opposite of their own aims.

Quest for freedom and democracy

The danger emanating from this violent ultra-conservative current is not limited to refugees and people with a migration background. More than that, this attitude poses a threat to our freedoms, our diversity, our democracy and to German society as a whole. It seems that more and more members of German society have come to this realisation, as was evident from speeches made by representatives from the major parties and the media rhetoric following the racist attack in Hanau. They not only expressed sympathy for and solidarity with the victims, many of whom had a migration background, but also voiced a clear political and moral commitment against right-wing terrorism and the threat it poses to society as a whole.

The democratic struggle to foster an open and pluralistic society that can stand up to the extreme right is a major challenge that must now be taken up by all sides: by German civil society in general and by people with a migration background and Syrians in particular. It is time to stand together and join forces in a common quest for freedom and democracy. Because repression and despotism are one and the same thing, however varied their manifestations may be.

Revolutions in the name of democracy, whether in Syria, Germany or elsewhere, are not separate phenomena.  However diverse the circumstances may be from country to country and from society to society, their common cause remains, at its core and in its legal, political and moral ramifications, a universal and humanist striving on a global scale.

Tarek Azizeh

© 2020

Before coming to Germany in 2014, the Syrian journalist and writer Tarek Azizeh was a lecturer in contemporary history and research assistant at the French Institute for the Middle East (IFPO) in Beirut. From 2013 to 2018 he worked as a research assistant at the Democratic Republic Studies Center, a Syrian centre for political studies based in France.