For the last several days, Syrian workers have gathered in front of their embassy here to demonstrate on behalf of the embattled regime in Damascus. Pity those poor wage laborers who have no choice but to wave the flag, lest they lose the privilege that entitles them to piece together a measly living in a country where they’re largely condemned. Virtually any sexual attack or even harassment of Lebanese women is blamed on Syrian workers, and it’s something of a sport for bored young Lebanese men, sometimes even those loyal to Syria’s Hezbollah ally, to chase down these workers and pummel them. And then of course the embassy in front of which they’re compelled to demonstrate is located in the same West Beirut neighborhood where Hezbollah and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party conducted a murderous campaign in the spring of 2008, and residents of that neighborhood will not soon forget the bloodshed.
Who knows what side those Syrian workers would take if they were back home across the border, or how many of them would’ve risked their lives to rise up against the regime as have so many other young Syrian men, as Arabs across the Middle East have taken to the streets in protest? Having caught parts of several uprisings in the region over the last few weeks, I’m still having a hard time telling what, if anything, unifies them. From Tunisa to Libya, and Egypt to Bahrain and Syria and everywhere else the Arab masses have braved their lives against the region’s hydra-head of security apparatuses, they’ve called for democracy. But it’s far from clear that the desert tribes of Libya, the urban youth of Deraa, Cairo’s young middle-class rights activists, or the middle-aged Baharna deputies of Al Wefaq all mean the same thing when they call for democracy—unless they’re all trying to signal to Washington and the rest of the West that they want the international community’s attention, if not always its direct assistance. Maybe the answer is somewhere amidst that crowd of Syrian workers demonstrating in West Beirut.
“We are only now starting to see how dearly losing Lebanon hurt Bashar al-Assad,” says March 14-affiliated political analyst Elie Fawaz of Lebanon. While most of the attention these last six years since Syria withdrew its troops in April 2005, after a 29-year-long occupation, has focused on the loss of Syrian prestige, Fawaz is speaking strictly in economic terms. “You had maybe 40,000 Syrian troops in Lebanon,” says Fawaz. “Then maybe another 20,000 mukhabarat officers from the various branches of Syrian intelligence. Let’s say there were at least 50,000 state employees drawing their salaries directly from the Lebanese treasury. It’s not a ton of money maybe, especially for the conscripts from the army, but now the Syrians have to pay them out of their own resources.”
In addition, Fawaz adds, “there were all the Syrian workers who found jobs in Lebanon.” While during the years of the occupation the number of Syrian laborers was usually believed, and likely exaggerated, to be somewhere around one million, there is little doubt the numbers have shrunk dramatically in the last six years.
And these sums are a pittance compared to the deals once struck between senior members of the Syrian regime and Lebanese officials in all sorts of businesses and industries, from real estate and construction to tourism and entertainment. In effect, Beirut was the Damascus regime’s ATM machine, and once that wellspring dried up, the only way to keep top officials loyal to Assad was for the regime to strip mine Syria’s own financial resources.
“But Syria’s economy has gotten worse over the last six years,” says Fawaz. “The little bit of oil they produce is dropping off and then there’s a drought in the eastern desert that along with the regime’s foolish agricultural policies—grains that require lots of water—has destroyed livestock and diminished produce harvests. Those people are starving. Many of them left the eastern part of the country and are living in tent cities in the Damascus suburbs. The regime simply cannot afford to provide for them, no matter how many subsidies they promise.”
I am skeptical of any political analysis that privileges the role of homo economicus, for as rational as man may sometimes act when his financial interests are at stake, ideas matter. This is nowhere more true than in the Arabic-speaking Middle East, perhaps the world’s richest ideological soil. And yet as it turns out, ideology may be a luxury item available only to those who can afford it. Perhaps the question is not whether the Islamists will come out on top after all the dust has settled in the region but whether or not anyone will be able to feed those millions of un- and underemployed young men who have taken to the streets these last three months. Yasser Arafat and other regime chiefs used to see these young men simply as useful numbers, strategic depth in any future war with Israel; instead they turned out to be the regime’s demographic suicide bombs.