Civil society – the realm that allows citizens to organize around shared interests – is seen by many advocates as a key to democratic reform.
But it is not new to Syria. Civic endowments to support charitable works were in place as early as 1556, and by 1870 municipalities were organizing around civil society initiatives, says Nada Osman Alaeddine, project manager at the cultural organization Rawafed.
In recent years, Syria has lagged behind other countries in the region. But in a marked change, Syria's five-year plan for 2005-10 acknowledges that development organizations can play a positive role in society, proposing "radical changes in order to activate and enhance the capabilities of the civil society role in the coming stage."
Iraqi refugee crisis a catalyst
Among the many reasons for this loosening of restrictions, say some observers, is the government's recognition that it can't meet the country's needs without help from both local and international organizations.
According to Joshua Landis, a professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Oklahoma University, a particularly acute crisis came with the flood of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees into Syria, straining government. The first nine European NGOs allowed into the country are all working with Iraqi refugees, he notes.
While they may still face certain restrictions, including limits on foreign staff and possible monitoring of meetings with local organizations, the climate is still improved from previous years, when most international NGOs were effectively barred from the country.
Next step: reform of laws governing NGOs
The next step needed, say many activists, is reform of the Syrian laws regulating NGOs. The current laws, enforced by the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor, can impose politicized or bureaucratic restrictions and stifle the creation of new organizations, although many organizations choose to work without a license, carefully negotiating the obstacles this presents.