Public policy professor Angela Hawken works with undercover researchers in Syria to mine public opinion about the Assad government.
By Sarah Fisher
When the Ba'ath Party of Syria staged a coup in 1970—the second in seven years—they centralized control of the country and president Hafez al-Assad began to rule the people with an iron fist. Today Assad's son Bashar continues to run the country as a police state in which dissent is not tolerated. Little has been known about how the people of Syria really feel about their government—until now.
The nonprofit Democracy Council of California partnered with School of Public Policy professor Angela Hawken to produce a landmark public opinion study of Syrian citizens. Are Assad and the Ba'ath Party feared or respected by the people? If they had the choice, would Syrians choose to stay in their home country or would they prefer to emigrate elsewhere?
Hawken correctly suspected the results might paint a bleak portrait of a disenchanted population, but what she didn't expect was the high number of Syrians who agreed to share their perspectives. "Field-workers and respondents faced enormous risks for participating," she says. "I'm much less surprised by the survey findings than I am by the fact that this data actually exists."
The covert survey operation was complicated. The Democracy Council organized a group of 60 field-workers to collect data from 1,046 Syrian adults over a period of three weeks from January 16 to February 6, 2010. Because the workers essentially would be acting as spies—performing espionage against their own government—the team had to be more than just adequately competent. "The field-workers were carefully recruited with extensive background checks to ensure they had no ties to the Syrian government," Hawken explains.
Syrian statisticians and demographers helped train the data collectors to select a variety of respondents. Although the Assad government heavily controls today's bastion of free speech—the Internet—the team used Web technology to carry out the undercover project. Field-workers were trained using the Internet video-chat system Skype.
"Skype is encrypted, so the messages could not be intercepted, and using Skype maintained the anonymity of the field-workers," she says. Since no single field-worker knew the identity of any other field-worker, if a government agent did manage to pass the background check and infiltrate the group, they would never be able to reveal who else was involved with the project.
"There is a great deal of interest in collecting similar surveys in countries such as Iran and Cuba but this may require alternative data collection procedures in order to circumvent suspicious government officials. Collecting data will be more of a challenge from now on," Hawken observes. "The results of this survey were embarrassing for the Syrian government and the security apparatus will try to block any future efforts to collect data there. We researchers will have to learn creative new ways to outsmart these governments. Luckily we have technology on our side."
While gathering willing respondents, the team found women in particular were hesitant to participate and made up just 31 percent of the sample. "If the respondents' names were disclosed or if it was found out that they participated in the study, they would have been in serious trouble. The men seemed to be more risk-tolerant in this regard."
The men were also more likely to be critical of the government, while women were more optimistic about the future of their nation. Hawken attributes this to women's limited access to information. "Our data showed that women in Syria are much less informed than men are, and have less interest in political issues in general. I expect they were also more timid about participating for fear of the consequences of what might happen."
While the right to criticize an elected government remains the cornerstone of modern democracy, the men and women surveyed by the Democracy Council truly did risk their lives to answer the survey questions. Not surprisingly, they reported lack of freedom itself as the biggest source of unhappiness; ever since the Ba'ath Party seized control of the country martial law has ruled Syria, providing the government with the excuse that a continual state of emergency warrants curbed freedoms.
"Even though economic times are tough in Syria, it was surprising that the respondents rated 'lack of freedoms' as a more pressing problem than economic woes," Hawken comments. "But in spite of high levels of discontent, there is very little mobilization. The security apparatus is very effective at keeping everyone in line." The militarized state is so effective, in fact, and the Syrian government sufficiently chagrined by the findings of the survey, that anyone involved with this study will have to be cautious. "I won't be landing in Syria any time soon!" she acknowledges.
Her fearlessness in potentially dangerous situations helped initially draw the Democracy Council to Hawken as an independent, objective public policy expert. Her "experience working in some unusual parts of the world" includes two visits to Afghanistan as the coauthor of the United Nations and U.S. State Department's corruption-monitoring system. The chance to be involved with work on another "difficult country" appealed to her. "I had never worked on a Syria project before," she says, adventurously. "And my lack of a vested interest in the outcomes was attractive; my independence added credibility to the work."
The dangers of defying Syria's strict anti-dissent laws helped shape how the survey questions were chosen; Hawken notes that the survey development was somewhat political. "Many important questions were purposefully left out of the survey because there were concerns that respondents might not participate if the questions were too 'heated,'" she says.
"For example," she continues, "issues affecting certain ethnic minorities, such as the Kurds, were left out. Now that we know the data can be collected, and that people are very willing to express their views, more sensitive topics will be included in future surveys."
All told, Hawken and the team of SPP students that assisted her—Jeremy Grunert, Lindsay Kimbro, and Sabrina Abu-Hamdeh—noted four key findings from the survey:
- A majority of Syrians believe that the political and economic situation in their country is poor, and worse than it was five years ago.
- A majority has little faith in the Assad government's ability to confront the country's problems.
- A substantial majority believes that corruption is widespread.
- A substantial majority believes that the state of emergency in Syria should be lifted.
"Many Syrians said that they would leave the country if they had the choice," Hawken adds.
The number of respondents with a college or bachelor's degree made up the largest percentage of any education level in the survey—38.4 percent. The fact that so many Syrians are well educated may be one of the reasons why they were so willing to respond to the survey and reveal their displeasure about the Assad government. "Syria used to have a strong education system," Hawken notes. "Many good scholars from other countries would flock to Syria because of the high-quality education. Now the education system is in very bad shape and Syrians are deeply disappointed with this."
While the majority of respondents believed their country was heading towards a "worse" future, Syrians under the age of 40 were significantly more optimistic that their personal situations might improve in the future. Still, the simple fact of life under the Assad government is that citizens are repressed by their government, which highlights the groundbreaking success of this survey. "I expected that Syrian citizens would be unhappy with the performance of their government, but I was surprised at how unhappy they were and that they were willing to be so critical. This survey gives a voice to the voiceless."
Angela Hawken is an associate professor of public policy at the Pepperdine University School of Public Policy. Hailing from South Africa, she moved to Los Angeles to complete a PhD in policy analysis at the RAND Graduate School. She advised a State Department-supported think tank in the Eastern European country of Georgia, regularly consults for the United Nations and U.S. State Department, and runs an experiment in Hawaii for high-risk felony probationers called HOPE: Hawaii's Opportunity Probation with Enforcement.