The poet Ibrahim Qashoush captures the demands of the Syrian people with the phrase “Syria wants freedom,” the rallying cry of protests across the country. The suggestion that the absence of individual and collective freedoms is the common root of social and economic problems has become almost axiomatic and ingrained in the popular consciousness. Indeed, slogans demanding social justice and an end to corruption disappeared within a month of the uprising. This reflects the dialectic of development and freedom expressed in Indian economist Amartya Sen’s notion of development as freedom, where development is seen as the free choice of peoples and a tool for enhancing their freedom. However, protest slogans do not detract from the reality of the socioeconomic crisis that has unfolded in Syria over the past five years.
In the years preceding 2005, the Syrian regime – in efforts to justify restrictions on freedom and oppression – carefully nurtured a ‘social development’ rhetoric centred on the role of the state, the public sector, justice, and social programs. Although social programs have steadily decreased since the mid-1980s, what was left of them has been removed with the unequivocal adoption of free market mechanisms in 2005. These ‘trickle down’ economic policies and zealous liberalization efforts have only served to entrench the power and influence of a select group of politically influential nouveau riche.
This process was accompanied by the persistence of an authoritarian system that had become even fiercer. What would have been called ‘criticism’ in the 1990s had become a crime by the early 21st century, subjecting perpetrators to an array of public and private censorship measures. The government’s irresponsible dealings with thousands of Syrian families displaced by years of drought, mainly in the northeast, further sullied its image. With the start of the uprising, the rupture between protesters and the regime became apparent.
So why are we Syrians regressing and becoming poorer while others get richer? This question was not addressed by public and economic administrators of the country, who drove forward economic liberalization policies.
Syria’s social and economic crisis in recent years has also been laid bare, as economic growth has been sluggish, unstable, and unable to meet the needs of a growing population. Growth and investment has been increasingly concentrated in the trade, finance, real estate, and service sectors. Meanwhile, the agricultural sector continues to contract, with investments declining from 5 percent in 2005 to about 3 percent in 2009. Similarly, investments in industry have dwindled by half a percentage point and growth in the industrial and mining sector has been extremely weak