Mohamad Noureldin began working at the Military Works branch of the Ministry of Defense in Homs in 1992. His role was assistant to one of his relatives who was the Director of the branch.
Mohamad says that nepotism was the only way to gain employment at any government agency, and this was in fact how he was able to assume his position as the office manager at the branch. He was responsible for all the branch’s incoming and outgoing mail and was considered the right hand man to the branch director, from whom authority was directly conferred and whose orders he carried out immediately without having to go through any other administrative hierarchy.
Mohamed remained in his position for two years before a merger in the Hama branch meant that his relative was transferred to the branch in the capital. As a result, Mohamed was made the managing director of materials.
The branch was in charge of establishing and restoring the buildings, barracks and units belonging to the army and the different military sectors, and supplying them with the necessary infrastructure for water and electricity. Mohamed’s new responsibilities consisted of securing the requisite materials and supplies for special army projects, and he remained in this position from 1994 to 2012.
“Anyone who’s worked in a government job,” says Mohamed, “has no doubt come into contact with the corruption, nepotism and sectarianism rampant there”.
The corruption in the agency where Mohamed worked manifested itself in several different ways, including the falsification of purchase invoices for construction and renovation materials— (Mohamed’s job included reviewing invoices)—the falsification of the real costs for material repairs connected to the ministry, forging bills and documents in order for directors and department heads to pocket extra profits, as well as exploiting military personnel and taking advantage of special occasions and national celebrations to mark-down extra costs that were then used to cover up traces of theft and embezzlement by directors. Some employees also stole things outright, taking fuel and construction materials for private use and then falsifying damage reports for the material in question in order to cover their tracks.
When President Bashar al-Assad came to power, he did so under the banner of a system of accountability and fighting corruption, which led some managers and beneficiaries of said corruption to attempt to curb their activities. This, however, did not last long, and soon enough, things returned to the way they had been before. Mohamed says that the prevailing attitude in his institution, like many others in the public sector in Syria, was one of increasing sectarianism, with
employees coming together in circles of different ranks. The first circle was made up of those people who were close to the administration and the command centers, and they met regularly to discuss ways in which to benefit from their positions. The second circle was made up of that privileged subsection of staff who were only on the payroll without having to even show up to work, while the third was made up of ordinary employees who had to stick to a regular schedule.
Mohamad adds that despite internal divisions and disputes, or divergent modes of thought within the same sect, members of sectarian minorities would nevertheless form themselves into cliques, especially the Alawites. The Alawites, as Mohamad says, were distinguished from everyone else by the advantages they enjoyed, getting support without having to resort to the usual employee hierarchies or routine. The proportion of new hires was also skewed toward them, with Alawites making up about 95% of new employees, while the remaining 5% was divided among all the other sects.
Job openings weren’t advertised in the newspapers; rather, they were disseminated through nepotistic connections via branch heads and managers. Certain positions were only filled on paper, some employees received salaries without ever having to show up to work at all. These, too, were mostly people from the Alawite sect, despite the fact that some vital production sectors were consistently understaffed. Complaints to that effect were met with deaf ears from the concerned authorities, seeing as such work was strenuous and didn’t appeal to those with support from higher-ups or personal connections.
Mohamad suffered from such favoritism: his job title was changed and the administration would not promote him. He had to content himself with a salary raise, though he was often denied additional bonuses, deprived of vacation days and was blocked from pursuing certain tasks, which were assigned instead to colleagues who were less efficient and experienced. He watched them get promoted above him and their monthly salaries increase until they doubled what he was making.
His salary wasn’t enough to cover his basic living expenses, and the cost of inflation exacerbated the defecit. Mohamad went to work trading and buying agricultural seeds alongside his job. This work also suffered from interference by government officials, and he was forced to pay clearance fees or other miscellaneous charges, amounts that sometimes equaled the value of his cargo. There were also traders from certain sects that worked deliberately on smearing the reputation of Syrian traders on the global marketplace for unknown reasons.
Mohamad finally left his job at the end of 2012. The branch in his area was shut down for security reasons and moved someplace else entirely, and Mohamad was forced to face a long and dangerous commute to get to work every day. As a result, he was often absent from work, and so the administration considered that he had resigned. Mohamad says that many of his Sunni colleagues are currently out of work for the same reasons, which means that the institution where he once worked is nearly empty of Sunnis.