When the Syrians Presented Their Democratic Culture... The First Syrian Constitution

Wednesday 22 July 202011:56 am
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من التجربة الديمقراطية في تاريخ سوريا الحديث... هذا هو الدستور السوري الأول

Exactly, a century ago, in March 1920, a group of 85 men assembled regularly in Damascus till the middle of July, some of which came in turbans, some in tarbooshs, and others in head scarves, while a group of others remained hatless. Their assembly took place in a chamber inside Al- Abed building, where the first modern constitution in the history of Syria was drafted (Syria includes today’s Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine).

These men were the first members of a Syrian congress (al-Motamar al-Souri al-Am). But why are we interested in their choice of hats? Well, because those hats resembled people from religious, bureaucratic, liberal, tribal, and sectarian backgrounds, who all reached a coalition back then to establish an independent democratic state in the Arab world.

What happened to that draft? What did the intention of establishing a democratic state reflect about the political, religious and social scene back then? And how did the destiny of that draft lay the future of modern day separate Arab States?

A Brief Independence After WW1

The first World War was marked by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, which, for Syrians represented a chance to build an independent state. Inspired by American president Woodrow Wilson’s 14 Points and the fear of occupation by France, Prince Faisal claimed the state in 1918 to govern the territory of Greater Syria. He also proclaimed that the state should be a constitutional monarchy, where all Arabs, Muslim or not, would enjoy equal rights.

In February 1919, Wilson presented the covenant of the league of nations, and in article 22, the covenant guaranteed the recognition of a provisional independence for Syria, under what was to be a temporary mandate. And afterwards, Wilson sent an American commission to survey Syrians among their preferences concerning that mandate.

Against the British and French claims of a mandatory period in the Syrian territories, the Syrians refused under any condition the British and French mandates, because they knew that they wanted to colonize the region. They rather preferred to have a minimalist American mandate, which consisted of a very brief period of guidance by advisors who will be chosen by the Syrians themselves.

However, after the U.S senate voted to refuse ratification of this treaty on their side, the Syrian Congress declared independence and forged, then, what can be considered a historic alliance between liberals and conservative Muslim leaders, who immediately began to draft the Syrian constitution.

After the Syrians felt abandoned by the Americans when the refused to ratify the American mandate in Syria, they decided to declare independence, nevertheless, and forge alliance between liberals and conservatives to draft the first Syrian constitution in 1920 

The First Syrian Constitution (1920)

The American historian and Mohamed S. Farsi Chair of Islamic Peace, professor Elizabeth Thompson, last week’s guest in the first of a series of webinars hosted by Dr. Rim Turkmani, (a senior research fellow for Legitimacy and Citizenship in the Arab World research project at LSE) to mark and celebrate the centenary of state building attempts, saw that the 1920 draft of the Syrian constitution was very much like the American constitution that was drafted by the American constitutional congress at Philadelphia in 1787.

The language of article one of the 1920 constitution was pretty much secular, for it didn’t establish Islam as the religion of the new state, as was the case under the rule of the Ottomans. And while the king of Syria had to be Muslim, he didn’t swear to uphold the Islamic law

In her recently published book, “How the West Stole Democracy from the Arabs”, Thompson argues that the language of article one of the 1920 constitution was pretty much secular, for it didn’t establish Islam as the religion of the new state, as was the case under the rule of the Ottomans. And while the king of Syria had to be Muslim, he didn’t swear to uphold the Islamic law.

Furthermore, article 6 of the constitution, also fully ratified by congress members, required the king to “swear before the congress to the respect for divine laws and to the loyalty to the nation and adherence to its constitution”. Thompson realizes that while Mustafa Kemal Ataturk disestablished Islam in Turkey in 1928, Syrians did that in 1920, contrary to most Arab constitutions at the present.

What is more surprising, though, is that the Syrian congress disestablished Islam under the presidency of the famous Muslim Sheikh Rashid Rida. Thompson notes that Rida explained that equality is a fundamental principle of Islamic governance and thus, to make Islam the source of legislation would violate this principle since up to 1/5 of the Syrian population was non-Muslim.  

The 1920 Syrian Version of Democracy  

The democratic spirit of the constitution was explained in further articles: the freedom to believe and of speech, freedom of assembly, the right to privacy and secure property rights, and the right to free public education. The constitution also confirmed that sovereignty lay with the people.

King Faisal was, then, elected as Syria’s first king, and did not rule by dynastic or divine rights. Furthermore, it was the prime minister who was responsible of the congress not the king. Finally, the right to vote was extended to all Syrians aged 20 or older, and a majority of deputies in the congress supported women’s right to vote, the congress secretary Muhammad Izzat Darwazeh among them.

This shows, as Thompson argues, that The Syrian Congress was not a theatre of puppets controlled by either Faisal or secularists from Fatat organization as the French claimed. It, rather “represented many Syrian interests in the Syrian society: rural and urban, conservative and reformist, religious and secular”.

The Aborted independence and the Loss of Democracy

While the birth of a democratic independent state was taking place in Damascus, the European leaders of the Paris Peace conference gathered in San Remo, Italy and rejected the independence of Syria, the authority of the congress, and also the choice of Faisal as the king. They, instead decided to divide Syria into mandates according what is known as the Sykes-Picot Agreement.

These leaders were: the French premier Alexandre Millerand, British prime minister David Lloyd, Italian prime minister Saverio Nitti, and Japanese delegate Matsui Keishiro. Thompson mentions that only a Hejaz delegation, represented the Arabs in this conference with the absence of representatives of Democratic Syria.

In his memoirs, Rustum Haydar, an aide of king Faisal, who later served as the Defense and Finance Ministers of Iraq, mentions that the Syrian congress members were in fact at the other side of the door, while the decision was being made of the division of Syria.

Although, the original league covenant announced by Wilson in 1919, and later ratified by the British and the French, declared Syria’s independence and confirmed that power be invited by the people of the country as their own choice, the French and British mandates in the Arab world were imposed by gun power.

Millerand justified this saying that the claims of independence were illegal, and thus, saw the need to dissolve the congress which members he described as “extremists”. He consequently, gave orders to the French army, built earlier on the Lebanese coast, to invade Damascus.

And because the Syrian army was weak back at 1920 due to the prohibition of arms purchase, imposed by Britain and France, it was quickly defeated at the Battle of Maysalun outside of Damascus during the morning hours of July 24th in 1920.

Although, the original league covenant announced by Wilson in 1919, and later ratified by the British and the French, declared Syria’s independence and confirmed that power be invited by the people of the country as their own choice, the French and British mandates in the Arab world were, nevertheless, imposed by gun power

The Destiny of Syrian Congress Members

In Damascus, most of the congress deputies rushed to jump on trains, cars, carriages which fled them to Jordan, Palestine, Egypt, Iraq and even Hejaz.

Faisal himself, sought refuge in Italy, “the one European power that had shown any sympathy for Arabs demands for independence” as stated by Thompson. Later, the British decided to compensate Faisal for breaking their promise of independence to him and his father, by crowning him as King of Iraq in 1921 in an undemocratic manner with a weak parliament.

Exiled in Egypt, Rashid Rida turned against his liberal allies in despair of the western liberalism after travelling to Geneva to make an upheaval to the league of nations in the summer of 1921, the same time that Faisal was being crowned. Only when the league voted to ratify the mandate and uphold with it, Rida began teaching his students in Cairo to seek justice within Islam not at Geneva and through the league of nations.

A Century Old Cleavage

It was very difficult to replicate what happened in the spring of Damascus in 1920. And under the French mandate, the Islamo-Liberal coalition, formed in the congress, now disappeared.

Ezzat Darwazeh in Palestine tried to revive this coalition in 1931 by organizing meetings, to which Faisal was invited to plan subsequent meetings in Baghdad. The British however clamped down on all those efforts and prevented any further projects until Faisal died.

In Syria, secular leads eventually formed the National Bloc in opposition to the new populist Islamic parties. Hashim al-Atassi, who was the first Syrian prime minister in 1936, confronted the opposition of Islamic leaders like Mohammad Kamil al-Qassab who had adopted the association of Olama in Damascus late 1930s. Ironically, this was the same Qassab that rallied to the cause of independence and the 1920 secular congress. He, who was once al-Atassi ally, was now his political rival.

In 1939, Qassab and other Islamists started demonstrations that brought down the National Bloc Government on the eve of WW2. Under these circumstances, secular elites and Islamic populists parted ways, opening a political cleavage between Islamists and liberals that will continue to weaken struggles against dictatorship a century later.

Political rivalry, distrust and suspicion caused the secular elites and Islamic populists to part ways, opening a political and social cleavage between Islamists and liberals that will continue to weaken struggles against dictatorship a century later

Paradoxically, secular military dictators adopted constitutions which enshrined Islam as the official source of legislation in opposition to the democratic objectives in 1920. Thompson believes that “this division between Syrian liberals and Islamists and the mutual distrust and suspicion that grew between them, has ever since continued to weaken opposition to dictatorships in the Arab world”.

In her new perspective on the history of democracy in the Middle East and reasons for its weakness today, Thompson denotes that the future of democracy in Syria and elsewhere in the Arab world “may well depend on repairing this century old cleavage”, which she thinks originated from the European colonists’ fear of Arab democracy as a threat to their rule in North Africa and to their access to oil in Iraq and the Gulf.

Leaders of the Paris Peace Conference, with the cooperation of the new League of Nations, therefore, decided to destroy the democratic regime at Damascus. The discredited liberalism in the Arab world, Thompson believes, could be attributed neither to secularists nor to Islamists, rather it was the French occupation of Syria, which consequences, are still haunting the Arab world now after a century. 

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