Resistance to armed groups and fatigue with ineffective government have propelled a bottom-up civil movement.
Saraqib has for the first time in Syria since 1953 held a direct election in which voters chose their representatives to the local council.
That alone is remarkable, but it is even more striking given that the town sits in eastern Idlib, a governate that has been described by Brett McGurk, spokesman for the international anti-ISIS coalition, as ‘the largest al-Qaeda safe haven since 9/11’: Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS, formerly Jabhat al-Nusra and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham) controls most of the governorate militarily.
But Saraqib has experienced a significant shift in dynamics between armed groups, local communities and their representative institutions.
The performance of the local council, which used to be appointed by the town’s senate, composed of family notables and other elites as well as those connected with prominent armed groups, was abysmal, and there were accusations of corruptions and nepotism. This pushed Saraqib’s activists, union and civil society members to demand direct elections of council members.
Saraqib’s residents also sought to keep the town neutral in the face of the struggle over power between HTS and Ahrar al-Sham, which has a presence in Saraqib and has been trying to win the support of local armed groups there. In the run up to the elections, HTS attacked Ahrar al-Sham in Saraqib, but this led to protests against it by the town residents that eventually caused HTS to withdraw its attacking fighters from the town.
The election process
The process of preparing for the elections revealed the growing awareness of the necessity of demonstrating candidates’ ability to answer to residents’ service needs, as opposed to relying on their social status as a primary measure of appeal. The candidates put forward electoral programmes and took part in public debates a week before the vote in response to a call from the Engineers’ Syndicate and the Idlib Gateway Forum. The debates were broadcast live on the local radio station, Alwan, and on social media.
The Saraqib elections came after two and a half months of preparation, consultation and constant work among various political and civil forces. They appointed an electoral committee of 92 observers as well as an appeals committee made up of three judges and lawyers. Also involved were representatives of the Syrian Interim Government’s Ministry for Local Administration, the political panel of Idlib governorate, the provincial Council of Free Idlib, civil society organizations and dozens of local journalists.
In early June, Saraqib’s senate charged the elections committee with preparing for direct elections to the local council. It invited anyone with a high school diploma to run for the office of council president and said anyone over 18 and on the civil registry would be allowed to vote. The electoral law used was based on a self-administration law passed in 2011 as the basis for the operation of local councils.
After a nominations and appeals process involving candidates and voters, the electoral committee agreed on a list of candidates, including four presidential candidates and 15 candidates for the council’s eight executive offices.
Barriers to participation
The elections were marked by high participation by women in the electoral process. Women’s votes made up around 36 per cent of all votes cast, well above their 23 per cent share of the electoral cards, clearly showing that a greater proportion of eligible women took part than men.
But although women took part in the elections as observers, voters and treasurers, they were totally absent from the list of candidates. This is despite the high level of competence among women in the town working in training, education and various administrative jobs as well as the hundreds of women working in the health sector, organs of the local council, the land and civil registries and civil society, such as the two women’s centres –Women Now and the Basamat Social Centre – and the Rainbow Centre for psychological support to children, which is run by female caregivers and specialists and looks after 450 children.
Women’s reluctance to stand for election or take part directly in public affairs can be traced back to the persistence of a rural mentality against their political participation that still dominates local society, and has done so since before the 2011 revolution. It is also partly due to the harsh criticism of the performance of the local council by Saraqib’s residents, which has put off women who did not want to be subjected to such public criticism in a traditional society.
Another barrier to election candidacy is the modest salary received by local council workers, at best falling short of $100 a month, which is just half the salary paid to NGO staff, who receive from $200 up to $1,200. This has made many qualified experts including engineers, lawyers and administrators, both men and women, reluctant to stand for executive positions on the council. Furthermore, such organizations in opposition-controlled areas have vast financial resources, in contrast to the council, whose financial woes are reflected in the services it provides. Local administrative organs and the political sphere are therefore deprived of many skilled personnel.
Relations with armed groups
The elections and their aftermath underlined the importance of civil society influence in Saraqib. The election for the previous council in 2016, where the electorate was a 200-member senate that represents every single family in the city, was seen as a first step towards broadening public participation in decision-making and the selection of representatives.
This was in response to accusations against previous local councils that armed factions had installed council presidents under deals among factions and other revolutionary actors. The election was held through a candidacy mechanism and public presentations of electoral programmes in front of the senate’s general authority, and saw the president of the council selected by a vote.
After the election of a new senate, it charged the electoral committee with organizing preparations for new council elections aimed at strengthening the democratic experience and broadening public participation by giving all citizens the right to a direct vote, without discrimination.
The two armed factions that are present in Saraqib, the Free Syrian Army’s Saraqib Revolutionary Front and the Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham, supported the elections demanded by the senate and political activists and largely adhered to the rules of the electoral process. Each supported a different candidate, but as soon as the results were announced, both accepted the victors.
Despite a violation at one of the women’s centres, the election was deemed free and fair. This can be attributed to the great momentum of the civil movement, which left its impression on the process and persuaded the armed groups to accept the results peacefully.
New social dynamics
Another important shift that the elections highlighted is greater pragmatism at the expense of traditional social relations. In contrast to the norm in rural Syria, where political affiliations are adopted and dropped on the basis of family decisions and loyalties, some families in Saraqib were divided during the electoral campaign. Siblings voted in opposition to one other. Electoral preferences took precedence over family interests for the first time in the town.
The vote count revealed that the poor and lower middle class generally supported technocratic candidates at the expense of those who were more involved in the revolution and civil movements. This can be partly explained by the large amount of publicity directly targeting those classes during the campaign, as well as the previous council’s failure to provide sufficient services or opportunities to the poor.
This unique experience was a clear expression of the enthusiasm Saraqib residents still feel for the values of the revolution, and their desire to manage their own affairs and not be controlled by extremist Islamist groups. That alone is a worry for HTS and the like, who want to control people according to Islamic law. While HTS has left Saraqib after conducting a deal with locals, it is not likely to continue to tolerate Saraqib’s neutral stance for long.
This puts the town’s civil movement at risk of a crackdown by HTS in the near future, and underlines the urgency of the need for international support for civil society in Syria to keep this movement alive.
Manhal Bareesh is a Syrian journalist. He writes for many Arabic e-newspapers such as Al-Quds and Almodon.