Syria’s first lady calls for civil activism

Asma Al-Assad has urged citizens to be more active in civil society organizations.

’sfirst lady has called for the country’s citizens to play a more active role inthe country’s social and economic life.
Syrian First Lady Asma Al-Assad encouraged her fellowSyrians to become more involved in non governmental organizations (NGOs) duringa recent conference in the Syrian capital ,according to local media outlets.
Civil society organizations are relatively rare in due tothe lengthy and difficult process involved in securing permission from thegovernment to establish an NGO.
“There is a maturation of the whole trend in Syria towardsthe empowering of what we call civil society,” Dr Samir Al-Taqi, Director ofthe Orient Center for International Studies in Damascus, told The Media Line.
“Previously the use of civil society in Syria has been usednot as a link to empower [social or environmental] aims but rather used on apolitical basis,” he said. “Syrian society is now elaborating on a new trendtowards the formation and multiplication of civil society bodies.”
“It would help to bring about new tools for social andeconomic development at the grassroots level,” Al-Taqi said. “This has reallybeen lacking in our political and social life, and it would become a veryimportant channel in the communications between those who are ruling and thosewho are ruled.”
“[Al-Assad’s comments] will definitely encourage those NGOstargeting empowering rural women in our society or abused children,” he said.“This will bring about very important social dynamics.”
Nadim Houry, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, disagreed with Al-Taqi.
“It’s part of a public relations campaign,” she told TheMedia Line, arguing that the government has talked about the importance ofcivil society before but have been unwilling to relinquish control.  
“There are zero human rights NGOs in Syria,” Hourycontinued. “What happens is that especially for human rights activists, theyask to form an NGO and they are then either denied or never given an answer.”
“If they start meeting and for some reason upset theauthorities, then they are charged with membership of an illegal organization,”she said. “It would be an encouraging step if her comments were followed byconcrete action, specifically the introduction of a new associations law andthe permission for independent organizations to actually exist.”     
During the latest report by Freedom House, an American NGOwhich monitors the state of freedom worldwide, was rated as Not Free, dueprincipally to an absence of basic political rights and the systematic denialof many civil liberties.
The parameters Freedom House looks at to determine thestatus of any given country include the electoral process, the functioning ofgovernment and political pluralism and participation.
“Leaders of unlicensed human rights groups have frequentlybeen jailed for publicizing [Syrian] state abuses,” a report by Freedom Houseread.