This week's question | 2007-07-02

Looking back, how can we give Shukri al-Quwatli his proper place in history

My original thesis at the University of Exeter was about Syrian-Jewish negotiations during the years 1914-1948. I abandoned that project early on when realizing that most archives could only be found at research centers in Israel. Being Syrian, I had no access to them. I spent six months thinking of a challenging and rewarding topic for my doctoral dissertation. In the summer of 2002, I was in Damascus conducting research on Husni al-Za?im with my friend and colleague Thuraya Ismail from the London School of Economics (LSE). We interviewed many people who had known Za?im and worked with him during his brief 137-day rule in Syria in 1949. It was a startling observation that every single person we interviewed, even Za?im?s closest advisors, cursed the his famous coup d?etat that brought him to power in 1949, which led to the overthrow of Shukri al-Quwatli. Za?im?s men surprisingly still had nothing but affection for Quwatli, and lovingly referred to him either as ?Shukri Bey? or ?His Excellency, the President.? This was 44-years after Quwatli had left office in Syria, and 35-years after his death on June 30, 1967. This was when I decided to write about Shukri al-Quwatli, and give this man his due place in Syrian history. I have been writing, preaching, and lecturing about him ever since.

The trend in post-1963 Syria was to describe everything that preceded the Baathist Era as having failed and been ultimately wrong. Instead of portraying Quwatli as a courageous, devoted, and selfless nationalist dedicated to the liberation of Syria, as had been common in the 1950s, historians began to write about him with very critical, if not hateful, eyes. He was described as a weak, egocentric, and one-dimensional aristocrat who feared real democracy and used his influence to advance his own interests, and those of Damascus, rather than those of Syria. This remained common until a trend emerged in the early 1990s to glorify the ?Founding Fathers? of Syria and rebuild their shattered reputations. The taboo of writing about the pre-Baathist era was broken by Defense Minister Mustapha Tlas, who was followed shortly thereafter by the journalist Abdul-Ghani al-Otri. Now, it has become a hot topic for academics, journalists, and historians alike, much welcomed by publishers because pre-Baathist history is a selling topic. Everyone wants to read about the pre-Baath era because it is not mentioned in schools, and until recently, not mentioned on TV. A particular interest emerged in Shukri al-Quwatli, the last embodiment of Damascene politics, resulting from many factors. The decline in traditional values, and the lack of trustworthy politicians in Syria all contributed to why the people of Damascus began digging into their past, to find one person they could be proud of. After all, both enemy and ally alike agree that the character and civil virtues of Quwatli are completely lacking among politicians in Syria today. The people of Damascus wanted a national hero to boast of, and therefore, began reaching back to the civility of the Quwatli era, hoping that by increasing public awareness to Shukri al-Quwatli, they could re-establish the discarded values of the 1940s. The fact that he had concentrated so much on creating a za?ama for himself was attributed to the difficulties Syria was facing and the need for strong leadership. Quwatli was a political innovator who created the Syrian national character. He became part of the war against the demoralization of Syrian politics, seen as part of a solution to the general problems Damascus was facing. To better understand how the Syrians used Quwatli in recent years to boost their sprits, we can look at Richard Brookhiser?s biography, Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington (New York 1996). The author claims that as morality and politics were being abused and distorted in the USA, the only remedy would be to return to the path of the founder, George Washington. In his own words, Brookhiser describes his wok as a ?moral biography? that he hopes will ?shape the minds and hearts of those who read it? and serve as a substitute to the ?contemporary failure of fatherhood.? In this light, Shukri al-Quwatli became the George Washington of Syria.

In giving Shukri al-Quwatli his due place in history, it is safe to say that only he and Hafez al-Asad single-handily transformed Syria and founded the modern republic. Had they not existed, then Syria would have never been the same without them. It is difficult to imagine Syrian history without Shukri al-Quwatli. True, the French were bound to evacuate with or without him at the presidency, and they might as well have evacuated under the veteran Hashem al-Atasi, but this evacuation would have been different, and might have taken a whole lot longer. Some of his calculated decisions, such as shifting allegiance from the Axis to the Allies in World War II, and sending his troops to war in Palestine in 1948, completely transformed Syria. Likewise, had he not been in power in 1943-1949, then perhaps, there would have not been so much agitation between the civilians and military officers. Also, had Quwatli been the dictator his enemies accused him of being, then the coup of 1949, would never have taken place. Had a dictator been in power in 1949, then he would have crushed the insurrection with force, something that even if Quwatli wanted, he had neither the means, nor the personal ability to achieve. He was toppled specifically because he had been a democrat?too civil to be a dictator.

Shukri al-Quwatli retired from political activity during the union years 1958-1961. He repeatedly clashed with Nasser, however, and accused him of having imposed a dictatorship on Syria. Quwatli was highly critical of the land distribution program and the nationalization of industry that Nasser implemented in July 1961, claiming that this would damage Syria?s economy for years to come. He criticized Nasser?s socialism and the arbitrary arrests that became common in the UAR. He also spoke out against the closure of newspapers, and the termination of all political parties. On September 28, 1961, a group of officers launched a coup d?etat and toppled the UAR regime. Quwatli supported the coup and allied himself to the officer junta that came to power, but at first, refused to comment on the disastrous union he had co-created with Nasser. After all, the UAR regime had honored him as ?The First Arab Citizen.? Quwatli felt responsible for the strife Syria was going through, however, and wanted to apologize. He was intimidated into commenting on union by Israeli Radio, that broadcasted a program about him on the day after the secession coup and addressed him saying: ?Have you nothing to say? Many are waiting to hear whether this man still posses the strength of youth and the courage of men. Get up man, and speak!? They wanted Quwatli to criticize Gamal Abd al-Nasser. He did not fail them, giving a televised speech (the first and only in his career) supporting the ?secession regime? from Switzerland on October 23, 1961. This speech, which is generally overlooked by historians who deal with Shukri al-Quwatli, is very expressive of his career and thoughts. In it, Quwatli is very harsh on himself, on Nasser, and the UAR regime, saying: ?unity does not mean an act of annexation and the presidential system does not mean the separation of the ruler from the ruled.? He then addressed authorities who administered the union and called them, ?executioners of the people,? claiming that, ?it is this system of rule that struck the foundations of unity. It is the system of rule that has 1001 spies.? He warned, ?had they (Nasser and his men), lasted longer, then the entire republic would have been divided.? He then addressed the Syrian people directly and said; ?You are responsible for determining your own future. Ranks and titles come and go but you the people are immortal! I have known you for a long time and am certain that you cannot be wrong.? Then, in a moment of reality, Quwatli expressed for the first time in public, a self-evaluation of his own career and said: ?I was able to serve your struggle as an ordinary citizen (1892-1943) and as a struggling soldier more than I was able to serve you when I was president and ruler.? He concluded, ?The most that one who has worked in the public field as a child, in youth, and in old age can expect is that the ordinary citizen continues to be satisfied with him as a good citizen.? The officers, pleased at his remarks, met to discuss whether it was feasible to call him in for a fourth round at the presidency, but due to his age (70 years old), the idea never materialized. When the Baath Party came to power in March 1963, Quwatli left Syria and took up residence in Beirut. He suffered a heart attack during the Arab-Israeli War of 1967 when hearing news of the Syrian defeat and died on June 30, 1967. At first, authorities refused to allow his burial in Damascus but agreed under pressure from King Faysal of Saudi Arabia. He received a hero?s funeral in Damascus. Summing up, his funeral answers the question about his true colors in ruling Syria. While the minorities and officers, represented by the state, wanted to refrain from even welcoming him back to Syria, the Damascenes insisted. They remembered only the ?good citizen? in him. The government unwillingly agreed to let him be buried in Syria, hoping that his funeral would be a passing event, but they were mistaken. All of Old Damascus shut down, and so did the bazaars, and the new neighborhoods, with people pouring out in thousands to bid farewell. They defied government orders and wrapped his coffin with the Syrian Flag, parading him through the streets of the Syrian capital chanting: ?There is no God but Allah, and Shukri Bey is his beloved. May God have mercy on Shukri Bey, may God have mercy on Syria!? Bitter from defeat in the Arab-Israeli War of 1967, and humiliated by the military dictatorship of Salah Jadid, the people of Damascus showed such outpouring at Quwatli?s funeral, considering him the last of great men to rule Syria. The term ?may God have mercy? is used by Arabs to lament a long lost era, and the Damascenes were lamenting a lost leader and a lost Arab nation after 1967.

Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst and the author of ?The George Washington of Syria: The rise and fall of Shukri al-Quwatli? (Beirut, 2005). He is also the co-creator of, the first and only online museum of Syrian history and teaches Syrian history 1918-1958 at the Faculty of International Relations at al-Kalamoon University.