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Wael Sawah is a researcher, activist and author focusing on civil society in Syria.

He is a board member of The Day


After, the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, and founding member of the Syrian League for
Citizenship. He has also worked as editor of The Syrian Observer, and a political analyst at the US Embassy in
Damascus.
DW: How would you describe the civil society landscape in Syria before 2011?
It fluctuated between being active and idol. The Baath regime suppressed community initiatives when it came to
power in 1963, and although we had a kind of civil society, it was in concept rather than in name. After that it went up
and down, but in 2003 a large number of human rights groups started to work semi-publicly defending prisoners of
conscience. At the same time, environment and womens NGOs emerged and this started a new phase of society.
But when the government cracked down in 2006, sentencing many activists to prison, the movement shifted from
advocacy and human rights to other domains such as culture, environment, disabilities, health and children. So in the
second half of the last decade a good number of organizations flourished in these areas - although human rights
groups were still repressed.
There appear to be several Syrian civil society groups working outside the country at the moment, are these largely
organizations set up in response to the current situation?
Yes. There are now more NGOs working on Syria outside the country than inside it. After the revolution, the state
withdrew from many villages, small towns, and even big cities, and it left a big gap that the opposition was not
prepared to fill. So in the first year of the revolution, Syrian civil society jumped in to collect rubbish, clean the streets,
distribute bread, safeguard houses and shops and take care of running water and electricity. We saw new groups
springing up on the ground every day, and it was all voluntary.
And where are they now, these groups?
Some disappeared quickly, some remained, but now Syria is divided between areas where the regime is in power
and areas where the opposition is in charge, which means some places are controlled by radical Islamists and others
by moderates. We also have local councils, which are regarded as state agencies rather than civil society, as well as
armed groups, and religious commissions, which play the role of the judges and judiciary in their areas. So I would
not say that civil society is now filling the gap as it did in 2011, but it is still working - especially in the fields of relief,
education, transitional justice and civil peace.
What kind of civil society work is happening for Syria outside the country?
I am aware of dozens and dozens of NGOs in Turkey, possibly even hundreds, that have been established in the
past 18 months, and they all work on different issues for Syria. The big difference between the NGOs formed inside
Syria in 2011 and those that have emerged outside in the past 18 months, is that the former existed to fill certain
gaps and do certain duties imposed on them by the needs of the people inside the country. The new NGOs, however,
dont necessarily do things because they are trained to do them or because it was their original mission, but because
of market demands. If the demand is for transitional justice, you will find a big group of NGOs working on transitional
justice. Now the current trend is on security sector reform and we see many organizations move from other domains
to security sector reform. It is civil society la carte.
Do you consider that to be a good thing?
In a way it is, but in a way it is not. This new generation of activists is made up of young men and women being
trained to lead society and civil society and maybe political life in Syria in the future, so this is good. They are dealing
with transitional justice, rule of law, security sector reform, drafting constitutions, relief, gender and empowerment of
women, capacity building, networking, building political programs, so although it is la carte, they are good things to
be working on. The less good thing is that the spirit of voluntary work is diminishing.
Do you think the people of Syria have a sense of trust in civil society in the current situation?
I work with people inside Syria and talk with them and they sometimes hate us and sometimes praise us. We are
talking about the same people, who praise us one day and tell us we dont understand their needs the next. I think
they feel some sense of admiration - especially for those working on relief and medical assistance and education, but
they think we are doing what we do as a hobby. I would say there is very little trust.
Trust in civil society must be an imperative in post-conflict Syria, and that being so, how do you envisage gaining it?
This will not happen until we have a transition that enables us to go back to Syria and live in the same conditions as
everyone else, and to work with them together in order to build the country. But now, as long as there is this divide of
Syrians living inside and outside the country, I dont think it will be easy for us to regain their trust.
How important will civil society be in the efforts to rebuild the country when the fighting finally comes to an end?
I think very, very important. We spoke about trust and contradictory feelings, but at the same time, there is no way to
ignore the role of civil society during a transitional period, because neither the state, nor the political movement can
fill the gaps. When it comes to transitional justice, rebuilding trust among different communities, gender issues and
human rights, it is civil society that has the know-how, and it is civil society that will build the necessary bridges.