A Democracy of Consensus for the Sake of National Unity



After discussions with Syrian friends about the future of the country and ways out of the current problems, I decided to offer the idea of a “democracy of consensus”. This, along with prayer and fasting, is my contribution to the constructive dialogue which is necessary to escape from the cycle of bloodshed and revenge. 

I am a monk of Italian origin, but after thirty years in this country, I also feel myself to be radically Syrian. For more than ten years, Deir Mar Musa al-Habashi has held religious and intellectual debates and discussions, with participants from civil society and different religious backgrounds. We have published books (through our Dar al-Khalil Publishing House) seeking to lay the foundations of a mature democracy, selecting the model that’s most appropriate for the specific national and regional situation. I, along with many others, was hoping for a peaceful progression, a maturation towards a truly plural, secular and national democracy for our country, but, year after year, we lost hope in progress towards these ideals. Yet today, hope must be renewed. It is a constructive response to both the slide towards civil war and national dissolution and to the dangerous desire to place trust in a return to the way things were. So, instead of joining in the arguments and recriminations, I have chosen to draft a path which I believe is appropriate to the Syrian situation, which I am calling  “democracy of consensus”.

As I begin, it must be noted that the current situation has frightened ethnic and religious minorities. For example, we, the Christians, are torn between patriotic obligations, our support for national progress, and the fear of many that the current situation will cause us to suffer as happened in Iraq. Some of us tend to cling to the past. Though we cannot go backwards, this keeps many of us from participating in process of change.

We believe and pray that the beauty of the longstanding spiritual reality of our country – sharing life in peace, harmony and mutual respect – will remain a reality and provide balance as we seek to build up the nation.

Notes for the Reform of this Nation

The first step to protect the country is to provide safety and security for citizens without preventing them from seeking their freedom via peaceful means. We probably need a compromise where the charge of security inside quarters and towns is left to peaceful and unarmed citizens’ commissions, not matter their political affiliate. On the other hand, we must acknowledge the role of the army and police in the protection of public buildings, in ensuring freedom of movement within the country, in the prevention of smuggling, including the smuggling of weapons, and of allowing economic activity to continue unhindered.  

Also, there must be a wide agreement to form a high committee for constitutional reform, including representatives from all the different opposition groups and other national bodies. This committee will be responsible to set up and organize the next elections and ensure that they are free and fair. It will do all this with the cooperation of local citizen committees and a free press. This high committee will create a new national compact, laying out the broad outlines of a new constitution to insure a consultative, plural democracy without sectarian domination.


Now, I will briefly describe some of the constitutional models which exist in other nations, but which I believe are not suitable for Syria. Then I will present what I believe to be the best solution for us.

Constitutional Monarchy

This model is not suitable for our nation, because so many of us are attached to the idea of a republic, which we consider more progressive, modern and advanced. Yet, I’d like to take note of the way that a constitutional monarchy supports national unity and the development of national institutions while avoiding violence. The king rules based by right of a national agreement and ensures the rights of every member of the society and prevents the domination of any one part or faction of the society. In this way, the king oversees the diversity of opinion and dynamism which create true democracy. In some modern constitutions, the elected president has a similar role of ensuring political consensus and preventing factionalism and sectarianism, as we will also see in the final model in this brief study. (It appears the Jordanian and Moroccan monarchies are progressing slowly towards a democratic maturity and the realization of a constitutional monarchy.)

Presidential Republic

This model is built on the idea of an elected president who is the head of the nation. A simple majority, a vote of fifty percent of the people, elects the president. This model is best for societies that are largely homogenous, culturally and ethnically. Their minorities are not marginalized and join in the political process without having to make many demands for special protections or rights. This requires a high degree of secularism in the society, the state, and its institutions. Today, globalizing societies have shown the weakness of this model. It is easily influenced by local and international lobbies. In addition, it can be shaken when large, organized minorities enter the society and demand their rights from a conservative majority. This model is not appropriate for Syria because it is unable to create national harmony in a pluralistic society with strong religious and sectarian identities, where some might try to exploit sectarian feelings to take control of the entire nation.


This model is based on the independence of each region or canton. It is very inappropriate for Syria because of the danger of national disintegration. Also, the demographic situation in Syria is such that ethnic and religious minorities are distributed throughout different regions.

Lebanese Confessionalism

This model is a poor choice, firstly, because it defines each citizen by only one facet of his identity. It also opens wide the door to foreign intervention. However, the idea of the Lebanese national compact represents a real need in Syria at this moment.

Complex Identities

Before presenting the idea of democracy of consensus, I must speak about constructed and complex identities. A contemporary person, a citizen of his nation and a participant in the globalizing world is characterized by the many aspects which make up his personality and identity. The order of importance of different parts of the identity differs from person to person. One may be Syrian before he’s Muslim. Another Christian before he is Syrian. One cares more about the plight of the workers than anything else. While yet another considers capital investment more important than cultural markers. One is Syrian first and another is Arab first. Each of these characteristics – ethnicity, language, profession, culture, gender, tribe, social class, etc.– has a different importance from one citizen to another. Therefore, the constitution must not limit an individual to one of these characteristics to the exclusion of the others. Our constitution also must not prevent a citizen from expressing the characteristics that he believes, for one reason or another, to be primary in his identity.

Society must also agree to resolve differences by consultation and refuse to resort to violence. Each citizen must be allowed freedom of conscience, so long as his liberty doesn’t harm those around him. To insure this there must an independent judiciary, a free press and institutions and organizations which are non-sectarian and open to all.

Final Model: Democracy of Consensus

The model which I present here as most appropriate for Syria begins with a presidency that insures the unity of the nation, is the highest arbitrator, and protects the rights of groups marginalized for any reason. Therefore, this president must be elected by a process of negotiation and consensus building, working to find the middle way between different social groups. The experience of many countries supports the idea that the best way to realize these goals is the election of the president by both parts of the legislative branch, a senate and a house of representatives. For Syria, it is clearly very important that this election requires at least a two-thirds vote to avoid the dominance of the numerical majority.

In the Catholic Church, the cardinals elect the pope by a two-thirds vote. Though this sometimes makes for a long and difficult process, it ensures the unity of the whole above all else. The current pope has modified the process to eliminate some of these difficulties. Now, candidates who don’t receive two-thirds of the votes after a set number of rounds of voting are eliminated as candidates. Therefore, there is a strong incentive to quickly find the person who will be most widely accepted and with God’s help they succeed.

In a similar way, even the most divided legislature will be forced to elect the person most likely to ensure national unity and harmony. I suggest that the first president elected under this system be limited to one term of three years. Then, for the next fifty years, presidents will be elected for terms of seven years, again without the possibility of a second term. After that, presidents will be limited to two terms to ensure both stability and national unity.

As is the case with many constitutions, I suggest that the house of representatives is elected on a nationwide basis from lists of different parties. A representative would not represent a specific region, but instead an idea or a program. This would allow many differing political ideas to be represented in the legislature, perhaps some based on religious identity, some on cultural identity, and others based on social class issues.

For the Syrian senate, it is best that senators are elected by geographic region. This will help ensure that the different elements of the nation – ethnicity, religion, or anything else that distinguishes various regions – are represented.

The president should appoint the prime minster who will form a government. Both legislatives bodies should approve the government and preferable by a high margin, perhaps sixty percent, serving to further build consensus.

I also think that local governors should be elected by the local councils, by a high margin, for the sake of local, social, and sectarian harmony.


What I have presented here is only a humble attempt to participate in the dialogue about the most appropriate constitution and government for Syria. I believe that a democratic Syria is possible, but change is impossible as long as there is a lack of freedom of expression and violations of human dignity and rights continue. As divisions deepen, peace and harmony slip farther away.

Who can lead this transition? History has given Dr. Bashar al-Assad this responsibility and placed in front of him many difficult, even dire, choices.

We have heard much about various conspiracies against Syria, which have been and are always present. However, rather than focusing on that, we should put to use all the good wishes and hopes which exist towards Syria, regionally and internationally, and work to arrive at the best solution for the country, which I am certain will require a wide consensus.

As a member of the Catholic Church, I also hope that a country friendly to Syria and important to the Church, like Brazil, will gather our friends outside the country to help to complete the current democratic transition.  

The nation also needs a way to make amends, both material and intangible, to the families that have lost members in the events. Opportunities also need to be created for those who have served and continue to serve their nation in good conscience. When reform comes, if they are removed from their positions it must be done peacefully and honorably. All this is necessary to avoid revenge, which will only lead to more loses, possibly even the loss of our unity.

I call with all my heart on the President and his advisors to look at the historic chance that they’ve been given, that Syria might take a leap forward towards a better future.

Love for one’s country requires a readiness to make huge sacrifices. There’s no doubt that the democratic transition will require these huge sacrifices along with courage and generosity of spirit. Those in authority in the international community must have the wisdom to ease this transition by opening a way, if necessary, for those who leave their official offices to live in honor and safety.

Let us leave the study and evaluation of this critical, historic period to the coming generations. Certainly, there will be differing points of view on current events. However, for those of us who are living this moment we must look for the best, most reasonable negotiated solutions with courage, wisdom, and fairness. This is not the time to keep accounts, but a time to pass through with as few losses as possible. I also must express the hope, that we all share, that this transitional period will pass as quickly as possible to end Syria’s current international isolation, as the economic situation has become dire for many, especially for poorest in this country.

Finally, I want to affirm my desire to serve this society that I love, no matter the cost, and my absolute refusal of actual or intellectual violence. I ask the God who loves humankind to prosper Syria and make her a source of inspiration and a model for coming generations.

Paolo Dall’Oglio

Deir Mar Musa al-Habashi