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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 April 2014


This article reads Bashar al-Asad's rule through the prism of social activism and, in particular, through the field of charities. The sociopolitical transformations Syria experienced between 2000 and 2010—the shift in state–society relations, the opening of the civic arena, and economic liberalization—are explored through the activities of charitable associations, including their interactions with other Syrian actors, and we argue that they reflect the unraveling of the old social contract. The Syrian leadership outsourced important state welfare functions to charities while also creating nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) under its own control and supporting developmental NGOs loyal to the regime. These NGOs differed from the existing charities in terms of their social base, financial backgrounds, motivations, modes of institutionalization, and public relations strategies, and enabled the authoritarian regime to pursue a new strategy of divide-and-rule politics. At the same time, subcontracting poor-relief measures to charities eroded the regime's political legitimacy and helped sow the seeds of the 2011 uprising.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2014 

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Authors' note: We thank Raymond Hinnebusch, who showed us, while editing the book Civil Society and the State in Syria: The Outsourcing of Social Responsibility (Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2012), to what extent our research findings merit systematic comparison, as well as Hamit Bozarslan, who has inspired some aspects of our analysis. Finally, we thank Paul Randles for his diligent proofreading as well as the four anonymous IJMES readers, and, above all, our Syrian interviewees for sharing their insights with us.

1 Mine Ener's expression “managing the poor” fittingly describes a situation characterized neither by “policing” and “controlling” the poor nor by the “provisioning of [enough] assistance” to the poor. Ener, Mine, Managing Egypt's Poor and the Politics of Benevolence, 1800–1952 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2003), 15Google Scholar.

2 Laville, Jean-Louis, “Associations et société,” in Sociologie de l'association, des organisations à l’épreuve du changement, ed. Laville and Renaud Sainsaulieu (Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1997), 317. Authors’ translationGoogle Scholar.

3 Singer, Amy, Charity in Islamic Societies (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008)Google Scholar.

4 Ibid., 2–3.

5 See, for example, Thomas Pierret and Kjetil Selvik, “Limits of ‘Authoritarian Upgrading’ in Syria: Welfare Privatization, Islamic Charities and the Rise of the Zayd Movement,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 41(2009): 595–614; and de Elvira, Laura Ruiz, “Christian Charities in Bashar al-Assad's Syria: A Comparative Analysis,” in Syria from Reform to Revolt: Religion, Society, and Culture under Bashar al-Asad, ed. Steinberg, Leif and Salamandra, Christa (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, forthcoming)Google Scholar.

6 Le Saux, Mathieu, “Les dynamiques contradictoires du champ associatif syrien,” Revue des Mondes Musulmans et de la Méditerranée 115–116 (2006): 193209CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Chatelard, Géraldine, “ONG environnementales arabes et gestion des aires protégées: des acteurs entre histoires nationales et paradigmes mondialisés,” in Le développement, une affaire d'ONG? Associations, États et bailleurs dans le monde arabe, ed. Abu-Sada, Caroline and Challand, Benoît (Paris: Karthala-IREMAM-IFPO, 2012)Google Scholar; Zintl, Tina, “Modernization Theory 2.0: Western-Educated Syrians and the Authoritarian Upgrading of Civil Society,” in Civil Society and the State in Syria: The Outsourcing of Social Responsibility (Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2012), 3163Google Scholar.

7 Pierret and Selvik, “Limits of ‘Authoritarian Upgrading’ in Syria.”

8 Selvik, Kjetil, “CSR and Reputation Building in Syria: Contextualizing ‘the Business Case,’” in Business Politics in the Arab World, ed. Hertog, Steffen, Luciani, Giacomo, and Valeri, Marc (London: Hurst, 2013), 133–58Google Scholar.

9 Heydemann, Steven, “Social Pacts and the Persistence of Authoritarianism in the Middle East,” in Debating Arab Authoritarianism, ed. Schlumberger, Oliver (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2007), 25Google Scholar.

10 After general disillusionment with transitology, since Middle Eastern states did not undergo democratization, a strand of literature developed over the 2000s that was devoted to explaining why authoritarianism was so resilient. See, among others, Brumberg, Daniel, “The Trap of Liberalized Autocracy,” Journal of Democracy 13 (2002): 5668CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Hinnebusch, Raymond, “Authoritarian Persistence, Democratization Theory and the Middle East: An Overview and Critique,” Democratization 13 (2006): 373–95CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Heydemann argues that establishing a nationalist-populist social contract was typical for Middle Eastern countries and helped to make their authoritarian political system more adaptive. Heydemann, “Social Pacts and the Persistence of Authoritarianism,” 21–38. Advancing this argument, Heydemann and Leenders denote the regimes in Syria and Iran as “recombinant authoritarianism” because they are capable of proactively altering their governance structures and possess an “institutionalized flexibility.” Heydemann, Steven and Leenders, Reinoud, “Authoritarian Governance in Syria and Iran: Challenged, Reconfiguring, and Resilient,” in Middle East Authoritarianisms: Governance, Contestation, and Regime Resilience in Syria and Iran, ed. Heydemann and Leenders (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2013), 7CrossRefGoogle Scholar. The present article shares Heydemann's more critical conclusions in his seminal analysis of authoritarian upgrading techniques that “[s]tates are unlikely to resume the redistributive role that anchored the populist social pacts of the 1960s to 1980s across the Arab world. . . . [but] are gambling that the economic and social payoffs of upgrading for some segments of Arab society will exceed the costs that are imposed on those it excludes and marginalizes.” Heydemann, Steven, Upgrading Authoritarianism in the Arab World, Saban Center Analysis Paper 13 (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 2007), 2728Google Scholar. Thus, this article aims to emphasize that the adaptability of authoritarian regimes should not be overestimated and to highlight its limits.

11 In the Syrian context, the terms “regime” and “state” became increasingly blurred, because the regime usurped state functions and state institutions were rather weak, so that policy changes were often perceived as introduced by regime figures rather than by these institutions.

12 Historical works on the Syrian associative sector are not numerous, but see, for example, Boukhaima, Soukaina, “Le movement associative en Syrie,” in Pouvoirs et associations dans le monde arabe, ed. Nefissa, Sarah Ben (Paris: CNRS éditions, 2002), 7794Google Scholar. Unless otherwise noted, this section draws on information from interviews conducted in Syria between 2007 and 2009.

13 al-Khatib, Ahmad Mouaz, “al-Tamaddun al-Islami: Passé et présent d'une association réformiste damascène,” Maghreb Machrek 198 (2009): 79CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

14 Khatib, Line, Islamic Revivalism in Syria: The Rise and Fall of Baʿthist Secularism (London and New York: Routledge, 2011), 37Google Scholar.

15 Women and philanthropy are closely connected. See, for example, Baron, Beth, “Islam, Philanthropy, and Political Culture in Interwar Egypt: The Activism of Labiba Ahmad,” in Poverty and Charity in Middle Eastern Contexts, ed. Bonner, Michaelet al. (Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 2003)Google Scholar.

16 Boukhaima, “Le mouvement associatif en Syrie,” 80.

17 Thomas Pierret, “Les oulémas syriens: La tradition comme ressource face aux défis du changement social et de l'autoritarisme” (PhD diss., Sciences Po/Université Catholique de Louvain, 2009), 342; Central Office of Statistics, Syrian Arab Republic (1963).

18 Seurat, Michel, “Les populations, l'Etat et la société,” in La Syrie d'aujourd'hui, ed. André Raymond (Paris: Editions CNRS, 1980), 122Google Scholar.

19 They included, for instance, trade, student, women, and farmers’ unions controlled by the party.

20 For more details, see Perthes, Volker, The Political Economy of Syria under Asad (London and New York: I. B. Tauris, 1995), 170–80Google Scholar.

21 Central Office of Statistics, Syrian Arab Republic (1963; 2001).

22 Heydemann, Steven, Authoritarianism in Syria: Institutions and Social Conflict, 1946–70 (Ithaca, N.Y. and London: Cornell University Press, 1999), 3054Google Scholar.

23 The infitāḥ (opening) policy of the 1990s was a result of the severe economic crisis in Syria in the 1980s. See, for example, Sottimano, Aurora, “Ideology and Discourse in the Era of Baʿthist Reforms: Towards an Analysis of Authoritarian Governmentality,” in Changing Regime Discourse and Reform in Syria (Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2009), 25Google Scholar.

24 The women's general union, the youth union, and the workers’ union held such monopolies. See Human Rights Watch, No Room to Breathe: State Repression of Human Rights Activism in Syria, vol. 19 (October 2007), 23.

25 For example, the Jamʿiyyat al-Israʾ li-l-Tanmiyya al-Khayriyya (Israʾ Association for Charitable Development).

26 This quotation has been attributed to Laozi, the founder of Taoism, but its actual origin is unknown. Authors’ interviews, Syria, between 2007 and 2009.

27 Amal al-Ghad's brochure (without date), distributed at the First International Development Conference in January 2010.

28 This fund, created in 1997, was strongly backed by middle-class Damascene merchants and by 2011 had become one of the largest and most successful projects in the city. Al-Taqrir al-Sanawi li-Ittihad al-Jamʿiyyat al-Khayriyya bi-Dimashq [Annual Report of the Damascus Charities Union], 2007.

30 The umbrella organization Syria Trust for Development, with around 150 employees, cites for all its programs a total expenditure of ca. 555 million Syrian pounds (U.S. $11.1 million) in 2007–08 and ca. 494 million Syrian pounds (U.S. $9.9 million) in 2009–2010. Figures from The Syria Trust for Development's annual report brochures, 2009 and 2010.

31 For instance, Sunduq al-ʿAfiya Damascus experienced a significant increase in revenue, from 80 million Syrian pounds in 2001 to 165 million in 2006, and the budget of the Christian Association of St. Vincent de Paul in Damascus reportedly jumped from ca. 17.5 to 19 million Syrian pounds in the course of one year, 2007–08.

32 Authors’ interview, Syria, April 2010.

33 FIRDOS, meaning “paradise” in Arabic, is the acronym for “Fund for Integrated Rural Development of Syria.”

34 Arabic for “hope.”

35 Arabic for “resource.”

36 Arabic for “destiny” and “youth,” respectively. SHABAB is the acronym for “Strategy Highlighting and Building Abilities for Business.”

37 Authors’ interview, Syria, May 2010.

38 See (accessed 5 August 2012).

39 See Hinnebusch, Raymond, “President and Party in Post-Baʿthist Syria: From the Struggle for ‘Reform’ to Regime De-construction,” in Syria from Reform to Revolt: Political Economy and International Relations under Bashar al-Asad, ed. Hinnebusch, Raymond and Zintl, Tina (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, forthcoming), 101Google Scholar. On the dysfunctions of the Baʿth party see also Donati, Caroline, L'exception syrienne (Paris: La Découverte, 2009), 153–57Google Scholar.

40 Authors’ interview, United Kingdom, February 2011; Boissière, Thierry, “Précarité économique, instabilité de l'emploi et pratiques sociales en Syrie,” Revue des Mondes Musulmans et de la Méditerranée 105–106 (2005): 109–31CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

41 Reportedly, 75 percent of FIRDOS’ funds stemmed from international donor agencies. Le Saux, “Les dynamiques contradictoires,” 197.

42 Authors’ interview (in English), Syria, March 2010.

43 Haenni, Patrick, L'ordre des caïds. Conjurer la dissidence urbaine au Caire (Paris: Karthala, 2005)Google Scholar.

44 The Baʿth Arab Socialist Party retained its full title. Only under the pressure of the uprising did Syria adopt a new constitution, by “popular” referendum in early 2012, which did not refer to socialism.

45 Examples are the laws permitting private banks, private insurance companies, and a stock market. For a good overview, see Seifan, Samir, Syria on the Path to Economic Reform (Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2010), 1317Google Scholar.

46 English original, available at (dead link, accessed 31 November 2011).

47 Authors’ interview (in English), Syria, April 2010.

48 See Guazzone, Laura and Pioppi, Daniela, eds., The Arab State and Neo-Liberal Globalization: The Restructuring of State Power in the Middle East (Reading: Ithaca Press, 2009)Google Scholar. On Egyptian charities, see Pioppi, Daniela, “The Privatization of Social Services as a Regime Strategy: Islamic Endowments (Awqaf) in Egypt,” in Debating Arab Authoritarianism: Dynamics and Durability in Nondemocratic Regimes, ed. Schlumberger, Oliver (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2007), 129–42Google Scholar.

49 The resources of Syrian charities mostly came from private donations—many of them collected via mosques or during religious celebrations—whereas regime-promoted organizations attracted money from more secularly minded businesspeople or, more often, from foreign organizations.

50 Figures from Central Office of Statistics, Majmuʿa Ihsaʾiyya (Statistical Abstract), chap. 14, 2009, (accessed 3 September 2012).

51 Oxford Business Group, “A Change of Plans,” in The Report. Emerging Syria, 2008, 29.

52 This decrease was particularly significant compared to the period 1958–85; see Steven Heydemann, “Social Policy, Social Provision, and Authoritarian Upgrading in Syria,” unpublished presentation at Sciences Po, Paris, 22 June 2009.

53 For instance, Decree 36 of 2001 allowed the establishment of for-profit private universities but precluded charities and other nonprofit organizations from creating higher-education institutions. An official at the Ministry of Higher Education commented: “We would love to establish a new law, in the Turkish style [which allows creating higher education institutions in cooperation with awqāf]. But at the moment the awqāf's influence is still confined to building mosques” (authors’ interview, Syria, 2010).

54 Hibou, Béatrice, ed., Privatising the State (London: Hurst, 2004)Google Scholar.

55 Only 5–10 percent were spent on rural development projects, which may have had a more direct impact on poor people's livelihood. The Syria Trust for Development's annual reports 2009, 61, and 2010, 31.

57 Presentation by AAMAL's executive director Rami Khalil,, uploaded on 30 January 2011 (accessed 18 August 2012).

58 Ibid., slide 4.

59 Authors’ interview, Syria, May 2010.

60 Singer, Charity in Islamic Societies, chap. 5.

61 As Clark observes, working in authoritarian contexts implies facing “alternating policies of control, repression, co-optation, and encouragement by the state.” In Egypt, for example, “because of state restrictions, only a limited number of ISIs [Islamic social institutions] have been permitted to establish nationwide institutions.” Clark, Janine, “Social Movement Theory and Patron-Clientelism: Islamic Social Institutions and the Middle Class in Egypt, Jordan, and Yemen,” Comparative Political Studies 37 (2004): 945CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

62 Trom, Danny, “Grammaire de la mobilisation et vocabulaires de motifs,” in Les formes de l'action collective. Mobilisations dans des arènes publiques, ed. Cefaï, Daniel and Trom, Danny (Paris: EHESS éditions, 2001), 101Google Scholar.

63 Cefaï and Trom, Les formes de l'action collective, 12.

64 , Élizabeth, “Les liens primordiaux, vecteurs de dynamique politique,” in La Politique dans le monde arabe, ed. Élizabeth Picard (Paris: Armand Colin, 2006), 5577Google Scholar.

65 Vincent Geisser, Karam Karam, and Frédéric Vairel, “Espaces du politique: mobilisations et protestations,” in Picard, La Politique dans le monde arabe, 210.

66 Reports that ʿAlawite villages and regions were most frequently selected as project sites, e.g., for MASSAR and FIRDOS, could not be corroborated. Authors’ interviews, Syria, 2010.

67 See Zintl, “Modernization Theory 2.0.”

68 Authors’ interviews, Syria, March 2010.

69 Authors’ interviews, Syria, March and April 2010.

70 This could be linked to the secularism promoted by the Baʿthist party and state. However, interviewees did not openly relate this.

71 Singer, Charity in Islamic Societies, 3.

72 Authors’ interviews, Syria, 2007 and 2009.

73 Authors’ interview, Syria, October 2009.

74 Singer, Charity in Islamic Societies, 131.

75 Foucault, Michel, Surveiller et punir (Paris: Gallimard, 1975), 169Google Scholar.

76 Authors’ interview, Syria, April 2010.

77 For instance, the Trust proudly pointed toward MASSAR's selection as a case study for the Harvard Business School's MBA program. See The Syria Trust for Development annual reports, 2009 and 2010. In contrast, charities and independent NGOs concealed their international linkages, if they dared to have any. Authors’ interviews, Syria, 2010; Le Saux, “Les dynamiques contradictoires.”

78 For more information, see (accessed 18 June 2010). On media coverage see, for example, the March 2010 editions of the Syrian English-language monthlies Syria Today and Forward Magazine.

79 A senior Trust executive emphasized in early 2011: “The original recruits of the Syria Trust [formed] a certain, let's say, enclave of like-minded people [and] became a bit dissociated from other partners and stakeholders in Syria. . . . If you want this organization to grow, to be sustained, [you] can no longer think in this enclave.” Yet he also stressed that good rapport with government institutions remained a key priority. Authors’ interview (in English), Syria, April 2011.

80 See, for example, Korten, David C., Getting to the 21st Century: Voluntary Action and the Global Agenda (West Hartford, Conn.: Kumarian Press, 1990)Google Scholar.

81 The “third generation” category of NGOs remained rare in Syria, which is not surprising considering the controlled and technocratic approach of reforms adopted. Especially after the Damascus Spring, most advocacy NGOs were rejected official permission to operate. Only if lobbying was used in a strictly functional sense, as it was by BASMA or AAMAL, could it gain a foothold.

82 Authors's interview (in English), Syria, April 2011.

83 Authors’ interviews, Syria, April 2010.

84 Authors’ interviews, Syria, May 2010 and April 2011. This concern was expressed by some respondents belonging to religious minorities, such as the Christian and ʿAlawite communities, but was never directed against specific Syrian individuals or charities.

85 de Elvira, Laura Ruiz, “L’État syrien de Bachar al-Assad à l’épreuve des ONG,” Maghreb-Machrek 203 (2010): 48CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

86 Ener, Managing Egypt's Poor and the Politics of Benevolence, 24.

87 On King Faruq, see ibid., 132.

88 See the National Social Aid Fund's website: (accessed 15 January 2012).

89 “There's no doubt that agriculture is the backbone of Syrian economy; and the state has made great efforts in order to develop this sector during the past decades. But the attention given to agriculture during the past few years was not adequate.” See “President al-Assad's Speech to the New Government,” Syrian Arab News Agency, 18 April 2011, This shift in priorities was also exemplified by the fact that, in the cabinets of 2011 and 2012, the previous minister of agriculture became prime minister.