This paper analyses social, economic and political factors during the years between Syria’s independence (1946) and its unification with Egypt (1958) that led to the fall of democracy. Despite the achievements of hardwon sovereignty and the establishment of liberal institutions following 1946, the country faced numerous obstacles to democratic consolidation. Bitter social conflicts, aggravated by a deep sense of insecurity among the Syrian population, in combination with economic disparities and military intervention, led to the destabilization of the state. During its formative years, the country was not immune to anti-colonial and social unrest and Cold War rivalries. As a means to overcome these challenges, the young democracy embarked on a path of defensive modernization elevating the army to political power. In order to identify the reasons behind the fall of Syria’s democracy, this paper analyses factors such as: social conflict, institutional weakness, the rise of radical parties, the politicization of the military and the role of an unfavorable external environment. The essay draws attention to changes in class such as the weakening of Syria’s liberal elites whose legitimacy diminished as they failed to meet the challenges posed by late industrialization and foreign competition. Particular importance is attributed to the birth of a new middle class, radicalized by political parties directed against oligarchy and imperialism. This paper assumes that the democratic breakdown in Syria can be seen as a consequence of both internal developments and external pressures.

Key Words

Democratic breakdown, post-independence Syria, United Arab Republic, defensive modernization, political legitimacy.


In the late 1940s, Syria’s newly gained independence showed that establishing a viable state is an enormous challenge. After centuries of colonial domination, the government was expected to efficiently perform its function of providing territorial and social security. As Linz and Stepan point out:1 a democratic system, in order to be sustainable, has to provide a minimum provision of economic resources. Foreign economic competition, regional conflicts end and Cold War rivalry added further strain to the already arduous task of forming a stable and responsive government. Bitter conflicts provoked by social disparities led to the destabilization of the state. Diverse concepts of the shape of the country caused rivalry among authority representatives in Syria’s definition process. Post-independence elites, pan- Arabs, Nasserists and socialist parties – all competed to shape the pathway of Syrian political and economic development. This paper will examine the factors that led to the undermining of Syria’s democratic system and caused the transition to authoritarian rule. After a brief introduction to the question of identity in the newly created state, the paper will analyze the determinants that allowed the disintegration of democratic structures, such as the crumbling of Syria’s liberal elites, social conflict, and the radicalization of a new class, the rise of radical parties and the influence of external factors and defensive modernization. It will concentrate on the external threat and intense social conflict that preceded the United Arab Republic (UAR). There are various interpretations of the reasons behind the democratic breakdown in Syria. Moubayed2 claims that attempts to overthrow the government led by Cold War rivals sympathizing with either of the two sides destroyed Syria’s chances for a stable democracy. Such focus on international conspiracies is criticized by Heydemann.3 Heydemann contradicts Moubayed in saying that the collapse of democracy in Syria was not caused “by intrigues of foreign powers but by the dynamics of Syria’s political economy”4 . Against this theoretical background, this paper reflects a dual preoccupation with both the endog enous and exogenous factors that caused Syria’s democratic breakdown. It argues that a simultaneous calculus of external threats and internal division brought the regime down. A combination of social factors and an unfavorable external environment had a determining role in the failure of Syria’s democratic consolidation. Its long history of colonialism, and the evidence of foreign meddling in its internal affairs, including support for military coups, shows that Syria’s domestic policies were influenced not only by internal power struggles, but also by inter-Arab relations and Cold War competition. After the West supported the formation of Israel and the Suez war, Syrian enmity towards the West became even stronger and the Soviet Union gradually began to counter Western influence in Syria. Arms deals and other forms of economic cooperation strengthened Syria’s left-wing elements and violently brought social issues back on the agenda. In this paper I concentrate on the period before Syria’s union with Nasserist Egypt, which practically brought an end the brief democratic interval, rather than on the events directly preceding the 1963 Ba’th coup. Instead, I analyze the factors that allowed for the coup to occur and that led indirectly to authoritarianism.