The current revolution in Syria took most of the country’s civil society actors and organizations by surprise. Few were prepared to lead or give direction to the mass grievances against authoritarian rule, and even fewer appear to have been instrumental to the onset of the uprising in March 2011. However, whatever the outcome of the current Syrian crisis will be –a reform process, a fundamental change of the country’s political system, or an ongoing militarized conflict-- chances are that civil society organizations will be variously called upon to aid reforms, support a transition, or help address Syrian citizens’ burgeoning needs, or all of these together. As experiences in other contexts of (post-) authoritarianism or (post-)conflict consistently show, efforts to help ordinary citizens through their plight and build a better future will ultimately depend on those courageous and resilient individuals and groups who against all odds helped to build an indigenous civil society.
It is against this background that this paper by Wael Sawah, himself a long-standing Syrian civil society activist, should be read. Wael Sawah wrote this paper in 2010 and modified in 2011 after the outbreak of the Syrian revolution. Yet despite its delayed publication, its insights remain relevant for those who are keen to know more about the development of Syrian civil society. Mapping and analyzing the achievements and dilemmas facing Syrian civil society activists just prior to the outbreak of the current uprising, Sawah identifies the key players and sketches the backgrounds of their emergence and their changing strategies in response to the regime’s hostility and their own divisions.
This publication is part of the working paper series of the Knowledge Programme Civil Society in West Asia.