Towns in rebel-controlled Syria experiment with open democracy

Borzou Daragahi reports: The leaders of the council governing Souran, a town in rebel-controlled Syria, decide to hold an impromptu meeting right on the footpath along its main street, a gesture of open government that would impress Canada or Sweden.

They draw together some plastic chairs and a table, pour tea and, as pedestrians listen in, explain the workings of the government they have set up to replace the Baath Party and the security officials who ran the region with an iron fist under President Bashar al-Assad’s rule.

“This is a new thing for us,” says Faez Hamsho, a businessman and one of 11 members of the town’s governing council. “But when Bashar’s men fled, we had to solve the day-to-day problems of the area.”

A commotion suddenly erupts. Word trickles in that a missile fired by one of Assad’s fighter jets has struck a nearby village. There are numerous injuries. Drivers on motorcycles and cars full of children and loaded with suitcases zoom past, fleeing in fear of further bombs. Aircraft can be heard circling overhead. A minor panic erupts.

The experiment in open democracy is adjourned and the men rush indoors.

As a ferocious war pits Syrian rebels against Assad’s regime, a self-rule experiment has begun to take root in the parts of the country under the control of the opposition. Much of the country’s north is under rebel control. The regime still controls Damascus, but parts of the capital city remain contested. Elsewhere there are rebel enclaves.

Under the shadow of Assad’s fighter jets, shelling and helicopters, the self-described revolutionaries manage local affairs such as refuse collection or food distribution, house the many displaced by war, mete out justice and resolve potentially cataclysmic disputes between clans before they get out of hand.

Syrians have little democratic experience. They lived for decades under the tight-fisted, centralized rule of Assad and his father, Hafez. But many of those now leading their communities took part in the peaceful protests last year, a time of intense political education and dialogue infused with the democratic spirit that ignited revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. [Continue reading…]

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