Democracy in the Streets

Manbij, Syria.

Manbij, Syria.

In July 2012, the Syrian regime withdrew from the northern city of Manbij. Overnight, a group of revolutionaries took power and attempted to run the city in what would become the most extensive democratic experiment in the entire country. The Manbij Revolutionary Council put forth a new vision of participatory democratic rule quite unlike Western representative democracy. Based on two years of research, this paper presents the never-before-told story of the rise and fall of Syria’s most thoroughgoing democratic experiment. After 40 years of dictatorship, the city bloomed with freedom of expression and assembly. Almost two dozen “assemblies”—incipient political parties—popped up, including organizations devoted to women’s rights, student unions, and agricultural cooperatives. Before the revolution, Manbij had one (state-run) newspaper, but under the Revolutionary Council’s rule, more than fifteen newspapers and magazines were in circulation. But from the beginning, the Revolutionary Council faced challenges—on the one hand, from Islamists because of its secular rule, and on the other, from poor and working class communities due to the Council’s promotion of laissez fare economic policies. The Islamists began waging a right-wing populist campaign against the Revolutionary Council, eventually creating the conditions under which ISIS was able to capture the city and overthrow revolutionary rule. The story of the Manbij Revolutionary Council is an extraordinarily hopeful one that shows the democratic and creative energy unleashed by the Syrian revolution, but also a cautionary tale of the utter inability of neoliberal politics to provide real solutions to the problems confronting the world today.