(Idlib) Many rebel-held areas in the north of Syria have managed to partially administer their affairs and fill the gap left by withdrawn state institutions. Amid endless challenges and transformations on the political, economic and military levels, local councils serve as mini-governments concerned with the provision of public services.
But these councils have shown some forms of disorganization, undemocratic practices, representation of families and underrepresentation of women. They have also failed to win the trust of the citizenry.
The idea behind these councils has evolved among activist groups within the coordination committees, which took the initiative to engage administrative affairs and follow up relief efforts in collaboration and coordination with supporting organizations based outside of Syria. Their efforts soon crystallized and were directed towards providing services to the population of rebel-held areas, including water, street cleaning and electricity.
The first local council was established in early 2012 in the town of Sarmada, Idlib countryside, before other local councils followed its lead in all of Idlib regions. According to the media officer in the Kafranbel Local Council, Abdul Rahman al-Bayush, they have reached a total number of 118 councils in Idlib province.
Based on the capacity and other characteristics of each council, the internal structures vary from one council to another, but they generally consist of one executive office that includes the head of the council, his deputy, and the secretary, as well as the heads of twelve offices, such as medical, financial, media, support and follow-up, project management, relief, and others.
Elections vs. Family Representation
As for membership, the head of the Local Council of Kafranbel Ahmad Barhum Al-Hosni (33) told SyriaUntold that a council has up to 28 members.
Regarding the criteria of selection of members, Al-Hosni said that they vary from one year to another, but generally focus on those “who have at least a high school degree, are competent and have had good experience in humanitarian work, enjoy good reputation among locals, are revolutionary and have no prior felony convictions.”
Al-Hosni added that families are represented according to their size. “The Sheikhs, for example, are represented by two members, the Khatibs by three, the Bayushes by two, and so on.”
Members are selected by consensus among families, city dignitaries and activists. When asked about the inconsistency of democracy with familial and tribal mentality, Al-Hosni justified the current reality by stressing that “there is a combination of both, family representation and competence.”
Local councils have faced criticism for this method of selection of members, which does not include any elections or popular engagement. “The composition of the local council is not contingent on popular support,” said civil engineer Hamdo Raslan (39) resentfully. “We need to move away from favoritism, communal allegiances, and to promote merit-based public action.”
As for teacher Omar Bakur (41) he proposed that elections be held in a certain public place or square so that everyone has an opportunity to participate, such that directly elected members avoid any criticism in the future. Husam Abido (25) shouted one concise sentence: “We took to the streets and struggled for freedom; freedom is our demand and we demand that elections be held!”
Speaking about the selection ofthe heads of the offices within his council, the head of the Saraqib Local Council Ibrahim Barish (50) explained that the selection is based on consultations made between the president of the council and civil and political blocs and assemblies. The outcome of these consultations is then presented before the executive office for approval.
With regard to the manner in which staff are recruited, Barish added that competitive examinations for semi-steady positions are advertised for first, second and third-tier jobs, while staff for fourth and fifth-tier jobs are directly appointed.
Selection of members by elections has recently found its way to the local councils in Idlib, as happened in the local council of Khan Shaykhun. The head of that council, Mohammed Saleh Maarrati (30) said that the elections that took place on May 28, 2017, lasted for several days, and that 25 members were elected. Then ensued two days of election contests, but there were no objections to any of the candidates by the populace.
Elected members meet and vote for the head of their council, before the heads of the offices are selected according to both past experience and member votes.Women Are Present, But…
Al-Hosni points out that the most important feature of the Kafranbel Local Council is its women's presence, especially after the creation of a new office, the Women's Welfare Office, which consists of two female members.
But this number remains relatively small compared to the number of male members. A member of the preparatory committee for the formation of the local council, Afif Amur (48) justified the scant number of women’s representatives by the lack of candidates, despite the fact that anyone can run for elections. The deep reason, he explained, is the conservative nature of society in the first place, as women often feel uncomfortable working in offices full of men.
Although women do not contribute to the local councils in an optimal manner, as Amur put it, this does not negate their essential active participation in the Syrian revolution, whether in the media or field activities.
Suheir Al-Jaaar (37) a widow who frequent the council for relief aid, spoke highly of the recent inclusion of women in the council of Kafranbel. “I used to feel embarrassed as I had to encounter men and ask them for help, but now it got better. I can talk to women just like me, and they can better understand my pain and suffering, and listen freely to the difficult conditions I am going through.”
Misdistribution or Gratuitous Criticism?
On the other hand, Radia Shaaban (37) complained of the council’s unfair distribution of relief aid. She angrily said: “I, a widow, spent the last winter without heating, and I had to endure bitterly cold conditions along with my children, while well-to-do families received large quantities of coal and heaters from the local council. What an injustice!”
“Citizens are used to criticism, especially in the form of shallow complaints that refrain from delving into the root causes of the issues,” commented Afif Amur, the preparatory committee member. “The aid that reach the council are often too scarce, and are allocated for bereaved and disadvantaged families. Supporting organizations usually take responsibility for supervision and distribution of such aid kits.”
Amur does not deny the numerous complaints against the council members, but he points at the lack of proof or evidence. “Just doubts,” he said, before emphasizing that he is not defending the Council. “It is not infallible, and there may be mistakes, but they are individual ones that no organization or institution is insusceptible to.”
Although some criticize the biased, exclusive and undemocratic process of selection of members, many appreciate the activities and services local councils offer their towns and villages.
“These councils have extended power lines in the cities and towns, replacing the old worn out wires that were destroyed by the bombing,” said pharmacist Mohamed Hallak (28). “They have also provided the region with power generators, paved the main roads and restored water supplies to the homes after drilling boreholes. Their activities in the rehabilitation of sewage systems and waste disposal are well known as well.”
Hallak added that the local councils are playing a crucial role in the afforestation and awareness-raising campaigns, not to mention their role in supporting education and the reconstruction of demolished schools.Councils and Civil Society
As for the relationship between the local councils and civil society and relief organizations, it is characterized by mutual collaboration and coordination, according to Obeida Dandush (35), public relations officer at Syria Relief & Development. “We rely on the councils’ database to distribute our relief aid to the families of martyrs and the disabled. We on the other hand may take care of some centers whose funds might be insufficient to cover their proper functioning; for example, we took care of the clinic and the central pharmacy in Kafranbel, and secured some funds for them lest they go out of service.”
Yet these councils face many difficulties, which media officer Bayush summarized with “the lack of funds, the increased expenditures, the unstable revenues; the lack of financial allowances for the council members, who work as volunteers. As competencies are attracted by good financial returns, many members may withdraw from their councils, which results in further institutional weakness.”
According to Kafranbel Council President Barhum al-Hosni, “We are going through a war situation, life is full of hardships, and men need to work to be able to spend on their families, so we do not blame those who resign.”
Bayush stated that the most painful thing to the council members is the mistrust of citizenry. “We often need a lot of education and awareness-raising campaigns for citizens to trust our public service institutions. We also lack the executive power, so we are unable to ensure the rights of the aggrieved or persecute the wrongdoers, especially those who abuse public property, power lines or water supplies.”
There is no doubt that local councils have filled a huge gap following the retreat of the state. But there are still many obstacles that challenge their work, some stemming from limited support, others from the lack of experience, and from traditional and anti-democratic patterns of thought.
[Main image: A drawing depicting opposition local councils (Comic4Syria/SyriaUntold)].