''We Syrians have become pretty fearless''
Some people may think the Arab world is not ready for democracy. Let's take a look back first: Arab history is also the history of tribal societies with patriarchal structures – an essential, if not the only prerequisite for the emergence of autocratic forms of government. The fact that we Arabs have allowed ourselves to be ruled and suppressed by dictators for so long probably also has something to do with this socio-historic legacy. But this is not the only factor.
After all, the survival of these dictatorships has as much to do with the influence of other nations as with Arab leaders' greed for power and resources. And as usual it is we, the people, who have to foot the bill.
Breeding ground for radical change
Even though the Assad regime and other authoritarian rulers have occasionally pursued a cautiously open approach: these efforts never had any real depth. Corruption continued to be rampant. The economy appeared to be booming. But the rich became richer, the poor became poorer and the middle class shrank. And the demographics?
In a region where 60 percent of inhabitants are young, often jobless people connected the rest of the world via the Internet, it was clear what was going to happen. Together, these factors form a breeding ground for radical change. And the fear of dictators? It has gradually dissolved.
In the meantime, we Syrians have also become pretty fearless. Millions of people in cities and rural areas are expressing their political views – actively, courageously and without regard for the losses they might incur. Their tribal affiliations often play a decisive role in this, also when it is a matter of mobilising political and armed opposition against Assad or organising paramilitary forces in support of the regime.
A bloody transition
Regardless of their tribal affiliations, the Syrians yearn for change, for dignity, democracy and freedom. But can we bring about real changes? Since March 2011, more than 30,000 people have given their lives so that we, the living, can make the right decisions.
But will we be in a position to do this? Will we elect the next dictator – following the "example" of the Islamic Revolution in Iran? Or will we opt for a Lebanese-Iraqi mix – inclusive of religiously and ethnically motivated violence? Will post-Assad Syria disintegrate into its separate parts? When it's all over, will we install a Muslim Brother at the helm of the nation à la Egypt?
If a nation decides to liberate itself after years of repression, then there are many conceivable scenarios. In Syria's case few of these inspire confidence. No, the transition will not be easy for Syria. It will be a bloody process employing the "trial and error" method.
The ousting of a regime is not the end of the story. And the question is not whether the Assad regime will fall, but when. When it falls, it will do what it can to take Syria down with it. The longer the Assad regime survives, the greater the damage left behind in its wake: a traumatised society deeply divided by the civil war. It will be years before the wounds have healed, and before reconciliation and a new beginning are feasible.
What we need now is a politically unified opposition – both internally and in its dealings with others. A clear vision, strategic planning, political awareness and effective internal, regional and international support are essential for a free, democratic Syria when the conflict has reached its end.
The vision of a strong, free, civilised Syria
In a stable political system, which is the foundation for the democratisation process post-Assad, there must also be room for secularists and moderate Islamists, for Syrian-Arab clans and religious and ethnic minorities.
A new Syria can emerge from a fundament such as this – a strong, free, civilised Syria that opens itself up to the world and the global economy.
Let's not forget one thing: there's a reason why for millennia, Syria was the cradle of a variety of civilisations. Fifty years of authoritarian rule may have robbed us of dignity, decency and freedom. But they cannot rob us of our roots, our history and our identity.
Optimists are predicting that the new Syria will emerge within a decade. Less confident observers believe we are facing decades of instability. Pessimists even doubt whether Syria will ever be stable again. I don't agree with the pessimists at all.
Whether or not it takes 10, 30 or 40 years: I have absolute confidence that the Syrian people will eventually be able to hold their heads up high again and breathe in the scent of Damascene roses and jasmine blossoms. Reality always begins with a dream. And with the resolve to realise that dream. And resolve is not something the Syrian people are lacking.
© ZEIT ONLINE/Qantara.de 2012
Until early 2012, Honey Al-Sayed presented a popular morning radio show on Al-Madina FM, Syria's first independent radio broadcaster. Eight months ago she decided to leave Syria, and currently lives in the US.
Translated from the German by Nina Coon
Qantara.de editor: Lewis Gropp