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Source: Syria Studies (Vol 3 No 2 (2011)) PDF / Website: Syria Studies

Foreword: Urban Divergence Under Neoliberalism

by Raymond Hinnebusch

In 2011, Syria descended into crisis, an uprising against the regime which, arguably, was a manifestation of its unbalanced version of authoritarian upgrading. “Authoritarian upgrading” denotes the techniques by which formerly populist authoritarian regimes in the Arab world have sought to retain power while marginalizing their former plebeian constituencies in parallel to “post-­‐populist” policies of economic liberalization, privatization and welfare reductions; in compensation, regimes sought to tap new resources, diversify their constituencies and re-­‐regulated state-­‐society relations (Heydemann 2007). However, what has since become clear from the Arab Uprising is that corresponding to each short-­‐term gain for regimes from such techniques of rule were also cumulative long run costs that have led to the overthrow of presidents in Egypt and Tunisia and collapse or near collapse of regimes in Libya and Yemen, with a similar outcome possible in Syria at the time of writing.

Bashar al-­‐Asad inherited an authoritarian state with built-­‐in vulnerabilities which he set about “upgrading”: The need to trim a state overdeveloped on declining external rents and to foster the private sector and inward investment required a restructuring of the regime’s social base away from its initial populist alliance. It may be that these changes were inevitable, but their management proved inadequate. While Asad went relatively far toward restructuring the regime’s social base he failed to undertake a corresponding political adaptation. The overconcentration of power and patronage in the ruling clan debilitated the clientele networks that connected the regime to society while the new co-­‐opted classes were not politically incorporated, by, for example, some pluralization of the party system; parallel to the debilitation of the Baath party which had connected the regime to its former constituency, the too rapid jettisoning of social services and legal protections for the regime’s less well-­‐off, rural and periphery elements created the seeds of rebellion (Hinnebusch 2012).

Syria’s recent political trajectory is reflected in its housing and urban policy, and specifically the polarization between the luxury accommodation and profit opportunities for the new rich and the deteriorating provision for the lower middle and lower classes. In a recent article, Robert Goulden used urban and housing policy to trace and demonstrate the differential changes in outcomes for social classes as Syria moved form a populist to post-­‐populist era (Goulden 2011). The 1960s-­‐70s established, he argues, a near universal provision of social services and low poverty rates (with only 10% under the ($2/day) poverty line compared to 20% for the region and 40% globally); over this period, life expectancy rose 28%and literacy by 40% while infant mortality fell by 76%.

Reflective of this in the field of housing was the near absence of slums. Even though 35-­‐50% of Syria’s housing is informal, only 10% of Syria’s housing stock was rated by UN-­‐HABITAT as slum housing compared to 40% in Egypt, 44% in Iran and 50% in Lebanon (UN-­‐Habitat 2003). Since poverty was shallow, most squatters could afford to build acceptable quality housing (from sturdy material, usually concrete blocks) and, although illegal, informal communities were connected to many utilities and by law could only be demolished if alternative housing was provided. In 2008 formal property rights began to be extended to some of this housing stock.

A housing crisis became apparent in the 2000 although [its] roots go back some way. Decline in the welfare state began in the late 1980s. The population boom far exceeded the modest provision of public housing, which was hugely oversubscribed. Private owners, constrained by ceilings on rent, ceased to rent their property. Today slums are expanding. Poor construction led, e.g. to a 2002 building collapse, killing 52; conditions are unsanitary and health facilities absent in much informal housing. Some informal housing has been illegally cleared without authorities providing alternative housing. In parallel, investment of up to $20 billion was channeled into luxury housing for the new rich and luxury tourist projects. State-­‐owned land was sold cheaply to investors and scarce public funds spent on extending infrastructure to these developments. This made land less available to low income people while the influx of investment drove up property prices 300% in the 2004-­‐06 period. When rent controls were lifted on housing in Hama, costs soared 7-­‐10 times. The lack of affordable housing generated a crisis described as a “time bomb.” And indeed anti-­‐regime disturbances have been notable in such informal housing areas as Douma near Damascus.

Goulden’s account of polarization is taken further by the papers in this issue. Balsam Ahmad examines informal housing in Aleppo, in many ways illustrative of the downside of urban, welfare and housing policy under “post-­‐populist” development. The decline in public funding for education and a halt to the building of state schools has left informal communities without such facilities and forces reliance on private tuition, hence, for the poor, lack of access to education. Educational attainment is the main determinant of health among women. When they acquire education, they can overcome the conservative patriarchal social norms that prevent them from seeking health care; education also goes with employment opportunities, which give women more power in the family especially in times of financial need: by contrast, illiterate girls, married off young by the parents to save expenses, have the opposite life chances, with partner violence and self-­‐harm identified in one, not untypical, case in Ahmad’s account. Unfortunately, 80% of women were illiterate in informal Aleppo neighbourhoods.

Yannick Sudermann exposes the reverse of the coin in his examination of the gentrification of the old city of Damascus. He shows that gentrification was a function of and paralleled class polarization. In the seventies, Damascus was a middle class city, but thereafter differentiation began as the middle class was impoverished and a new rich emerged. In turn, gentrification, in driving up property prices and reducing affordable housing even for the middle class, itself increases polarization. It was also, however, a manifestation of the authoritarian upgrading by which the regime used access to profitable opportunities in the old city to co-­‐opt investors who cut across networks composed of crony capitalists, the old bourgeoisie and external investors. This story well exemplifies both the risks and advantages of “authoritarian upgrading” for regime resilience.

These two analyses expose the peculiar features of the Syrian uprising. While for example, in Egypt, the urban centre was the site of the uprising, in Syria, the urban centres have been quiescent, a function in part at least of the influx of investment and tourism from which the well-­‐off have benefited, enabling the regime to co-­‐opt them, as Sudermann shows; conversely, the periphery, deprived and neglected, as Ahmad shows, has been the site of rebellion among the deprived, once the regime’s constituency, now its enemy.


Continue reading via (PDF): Syria’s Contrasting Neighbourhoods: Gentrification and Informal Settlements Juxtaposed