“Ms. Faten” is not an individual case: Syrian citizens are treated as “customers” in government departments
Saleh Malas | Louay Rhebani| Sakina al-Mahdi
After a long wait in the queue, some citizens finally arrived at the doorstep of a Road Transport Directorate supply center in Damascus to get their rations of government foodstuffs. Before the end of the official working hours, the employees closed the door “to have their meals,” this caused a rage among the citizens waiting for their turn which led to an altercation between them and one of the female employees in the directorate.
This incident was documented by a recorded clip that went viral through social media. Syrians escalate the talk about the employee’s mistreatment of the citizens. In turn, that employee responded via the local “Sham FM” radio station, saying that she did not mean to mistreat people.
Many social media comments indicated that this incident does not reflect an individual case by a single employee. Rather, it is a phenomenon suffered by the majority of Syrians at government departments. This was consequently named the “Ms. Faten” phenomenon, referring to Faten, the employee who expelled the citizens with a threatening and challenging tone, saying: “Go complain wherever you want and tell them Ms. Faten did this!”
In this Article, Enab Baladi discusses the reasons behind the employees’ bad treatment of the citizens in the governmental institutions in Syria, including the opinions of Syrian lawyers and career development specialists, most of whom asked to remain anonymous due to their residency in Damascus.
‘The government takes its time’
The routine government transactions test the patience of the applicants
“A common saying goes ‘The government takes its time’ so most transactions in government departments go as slow as an old turtle, and this is what I go through every time I renew my home lease contract, especially in recent years. It has become more complicated to get a signature, and employee treatment has worsened.”
Abu Ayman (46 years old) uses popular proverbs and common sayings in his speech to express his annual suffering in renewing his lease contract in the Mezzeh area in the capital, Damascus. He complains to Enab Baladi, via email, about his sufferings with employees who “deliberately delay the transaction even if it is simple and devoid of any shortage of required paperwork.”
“Sometimes the applicant has to be at a good level of well-being and extreme patience to get through the maze of employee requests,” as explained by “Abu Ayman” (whom Enab Baladi kept anonymous for security reasons).
“Abu Ayman” fears the approach of renewing his lease contract, as this process requires obtaining prior security approval from the authorities, keeping him under moral and financial burden, because obtaining such approval may take a long time.
This security approval obligation paved the way for more corruption and administrative bureaucracy under the regime’s control. In August 2015, the government issued a circular numbered 4554 to the Ministry of Local administration. This regulation renders it obligatory to obtain the authority’s prior security approval for the real estate rent, sell and transfer transactions, which added more difficulties and complications to every aspect of the Syrian’s lives.
Administrative bureaucracy occurs while carrying out Syrian government transactions because of the employee’s intentional complication of the transactions to collect bribes. This is a sign of government administrative corruption, according to Abdullah Zakaria’s experience (25 years) throughout his transaction to postpone his compulsory military service in Damascus.
Abdullah Zakaria told Enab Baladi via an email that his transaction needed to be signed by an officer in the Recruitment Division. The officer asked him to buy a white paper from the library on the building’s top floor. Then Abdullah knew that the officer had agreed with the library to sell that paper as a method of collecting bribes, similar to a money laundering process. The officer used this trick to get indirect payments from the applicants and avoid the risk of being complained about.
In September 2016, Ahmad al-Bakri, the head of the criminal chamber at the Syrian Court of Cassation, told the local Al-Iqtisadi website, that “the rate of bribes increased tenfold during the crisis than it used to be before” considering that the reason is the lack of oversight in some areas.
Talking about his bad experiences with government employees, Abdullah Zakaria also mentioned the mistreatment of student affairs employees at “Al-Baath” University in Homs, where he studied Engineering. He said that “students used to procrastinate their transactions to avoid dealing with the employees, as the treatment was based on insulting and bullying students at all levels.
In its report issued in January 2019, the Berlin-based Transparency International ranked Syria 178th with 13 points. Thus Syria is ranked second to last in the list of the annual report of corruption indicators issued by the organization annually, which monitors the cases of transparency and corruption in 180 countries across the world.
There are no regular official statistics in Syria that can be relied upon to draw a well-defined picture of corruption in state institutions.
Five other people in Syria spoke to Enab Baladi about their bad experiences while conducting governmental transactions. Moreover, if there is a single citizen who has not gone personally through such an experience, that person will definitely be aware of the misbehavior of the state employees through the Syrian drama’s attempt to shed light on this phenomenon, especially in the two famous series “Maraya” (meaning mirrors) and “Buk’at Daw” (meaning light spot).
How did the concept of civil service evolve?
Being a civil servant used to be exceptional in the lives of citizens. The state was characterized by the nature of authority that allowed it to interfere in citizens’ lives as little as possible and in specific areas. These areas were the external security that lies in defense of state borders, and the internal security that lies in the police and judiciary, as explained by the law expert Suleiman Al-Tamawi in his book “Brief of Administrative Law.”
In other than these areas, individuals had to satisfy their needs themselves; in these periods, the employees were few, and they were linked to the ruler, regardless of his name or whatever the ruling system in the state, close ties based on lineage, class, or party affiliation.
However, all this changed when such occupation became a right for citizens stipulated by the constitution. Socialism also contributed by completely abolishing the state’s restrictions on entering some sectors, of which the most important is economics. Consequently, the state became broadly able to interfere in any aspect since it is not only represented by “security men,” but rather it has become required to supervise and care for the citizens at all times.
According to Article 26 of the 2012 Syrian constitution, “A public service occupation is a duty and an honor of which the purpose is to achieve the public interest and serve the people.”
Citizens have equal rights in getting public service positions as per that article. The conditions for application and the rights and duties of civil servants are specified by law.
According to the Syrian Constitutional text, the government supervises the management of the citizens’ needs and secures what helps the development in their service at government departments.
Al-Tamawi explained; Every person entrusted with permanent work in the service of one of the public facilities administered by the state, and holds a permanent position within the scope of the administrative organization of the facility, and is subject to the basic law for employees with the conditions of his appointment, work duties and rights, discipline and end of service, is considered a public employee of the state.
Can the civil servants’ clientelist mentality and economic motives be reasons behind their mistreatment of applicants?
As described by a Syrian lawyer (kept anonymous) resident in Damascus to Enab Baladi, The bullying within government departments stems from a mindset of “clientelism” by employees.
Through this mindset, the employee sees the applicant merely as a “client” to earn money as compensation for the low wages.
Lawyers are considered to be among the most people in constant contact with government employees since the core of their work lies in facilitating their clients’ work in the halls of courts and official state departments.
According to a UNESCO report, salaries in the public sector were the main income source for 58% of the Syrians in 2015 after dropping from 68% in 2013. This decrease can be attributed to many Labor-intensive institutions’ closures due to the conflict in their location areas. Hence, the percentage of families, depending on private business income, increased from 26% to 33.7% during the same period.
The employee’s economic need is the most prominent factor that causes him to engage in inappropriate behavior or to commit functional crimes such as accepting bribery on duty. Meanwhile, the decline of the Syrian pound since the beginning of last May to an unprecedented level affected the Syrian markets due to the currency’s successive setbacks. This led to a new rise in the prices of basic foodstuffs and the further deterioration of the life situation in the Syrian regime’s areas.
This economic need rendered the salaries of government employees insufficient, which forced the latter to resort to other means, including the exploitation of applicants and not meeting their requests unless they pay bribes.
The minimum wage in Syria is 37,600 Syrian pounds ($ 15), while the average wage is 149,000 Syrian pounds ($ 59).
According to a report published by the United Nations last July, the food basket price in Syria last June reached 84,000 Syrian pounds (33 USD), meaning an increase of 48% compared to last May. The average price of the food basket increased by 110% since 2019.
On the other hand, the gap between the highest and lowest average price of the food basket widened by 41% from 22 thousand Syrian pounds (8.3 USD) last May to more than 31 thousand Syrian pounds (11.7 USD) last June.
Administrative slack and poor organization
Some of the factors increasing the tension between the government employees and the applicants are when an employee procrastinates the transaction by prioritizing a friend or a person with “connections” over the queue.
Most of such arguments and bullying cases stem from the lack of organization and clarity of both the employee and the applicant’s duties and rights. This necessitates enhancing the regulations in the administrative departments. Even though such regulations for rigorous inspection in government departments do exist theoretically, these are not abided by in reality.
As explained by the lawyer, the existent administrative slack, government corruption, and lack of oversight resulted in the common bureaucracy corruption in Syrian civil departments. Each department has two managers, an administrative employee, and another from the ruling party (as in the governor and the department secretary case).
The Director of the “Justice for Life (JFL)” organization, lawyer Jalal al-Hamad told Enab Baladi that the administrative bureaucracy corporation controls most government transactions in Syria, causing aversion in the relationship between the employee and the applicant.
Corruption in bureaucracy is more common but not limited to dictatorial regimes only, but developed countries try to enhance their administrative systems and laws to provide more comfort to government departments’ citizens.
Al-Hamad explained that dictatorial regimes benefit from bureaucracy corruption by distracting people from political affairs, the democratic change of power, and human rights.
Despotism is considered to be the basis of corruption. Absolute power is absolute corruption. Similarly, the lack of accountability necessarily results in more corruption and favoritism in the state.
Neglected laws of administrative control
Employe discipline rules are absent in public administration policies
A civil servant occupation is one of the foundations on which the state’s development and the extent of its trust in respecting the citizens’ life and dignity are built. People who occupy such positions must be at a certain level of honesty and honor to achieve the public interest.
According to an anonymous specialist in career development and governance who spoke to Enab Baladi; The morals of a civil servant are critically essential at government departments since these departments’ purpose cannot be achieved without absolute reliance on the person on duty. Consequently, civil servants get extensive privileges required to carry out their duties and be provided with the necessary environment that guarantees their free and independent work within the administrative and legal system that governs the public office.
The human resources that work to ensure the public office’s continuity at the citizens’ service must be of diverse, adequate, and effective specialties. After all, HR employees represent the state. They are the focus of everyone’s attention, and their public behavior affects the reputation of the department they work at, as stated by a specialist in career development residing in Damascus.
Among the most important characteristics that must be in a public servant are integrity and good behavior: The requirement for this condition is that the public office candidate should be free from suspicions regarding ethics and integrity in state representation in the public office.
However, in Syria since the beginning of the eighties, these conditions were not adopted most of the time when a person was appointed to the civil service, but rather remained an academic subject to be taught in public administration colleges without any concrete application in practical life, according to what the specialist mentioned.
According to the same specialist, the conditions for appointing employees to the civil service in Syria have changed, so only those who are loyal to the state’s policy and not exercising any political activity that opposes the state’s views on governance or expressing any opinions in public affairs are accepted.
According to the Freedom House Index, the rate of guarantees against government corruption inside Syria is zero out of four.
A report by the same organization in 2019 stated that institutions in the Syrian government have regularly dealt with priority advantages as public resources and implemented policies for the benefit of preferred industries and companies. Government contracts and business deals have also been awarded to foreign allies such as Russia and Iran, even basic state services and humanitarian aid are provided or blocked based on the beneficiaries’ clear political loyalty to the Syrian regime.
According to the report, the government has been operating with the minimum level of transparency and public accountability in its official departments, and conditions have worsened during the last nine years amid the rise of the influence of armed factions loyal to the regime. These factions often exploit the population’s interests in the areas they control by requesting bribes to allow them to conduct their governmental transactions without any judicial oversight or accountability.
Government officials have wide discretionary power to withhold government information, and they are not obligated to disclose their financial assets. This comes in conjunction with the brutal suppression of independent civil society groups and the media that became unable to influence or shed light on state policies in government institutions.
According to the career development specialist; there is a disciplinary system linked to the job system, which constitutes an important part of it, but it is pointless to have such a system without any oversight over the public employee in case they abandon the duties or behavioral rules imposed by the general administrative system.
The disciplinary system protects the position from being abused by the public servant without affecting the protection provided by other legal systems.
The disciplinary system for the public employee aims at the necessity of coordination and convergence between the individual activities of public employees, intending to establish a system of justice and reassurance in the public office based on legitimate and equal links, in addition to the necessity of practicing all measures aimed at establishing the foundations of the system of public office and its confirmation, by deciding on preventive measures aimed at preserving and protecting the system from any defect.
The basic law of workers in the Syrian state numbered 50 of the year 2004 defines behavioral crime components in public office and the rules governing public administrative discipline. This law covers the investigation of every behavioral crime committed by a public employee towards his public office or against applicants or colleagues.
Disciplinary punishment is the public administrative means of deterring and reforming the perpetrators of disciplinary offenses within the functional community, intending to preserve order.
The career development specialist says that the disciplinary punishment doesn’t seek to cause moral or financial pain to the employee but rather seeks to reform and correct to enable government institutions and public utilities of all kinds to fulfill their mission.
The disciplinary authority must be aware of the various circumstances in which the error occurred upon inflicting the punishment. The defect in the administrative apparatus can be fixed, as recommended by the specialist.
The career development specialist is concerned about the continuing deterioration of government institutions’ work in light of the deterioration of accountability by “a political authority that is unable to complete any administrative work in any field in public affairs.” This fear cannot be considered an exaggerated theoretical fear but rather represents a real danger on the civil service course and the entire administration of state affairs in Syria.
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