Syrian reforms re-defining political environment despite limitations

Developing Just Leadership

Abbas Fadl Murtada

Dhu al-Hijjah 05, 1421 2001-03-01

Special Reports

by Abbas Fadl Murtada (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 30, No. 1, Dhu al-Hijjah, 1421)

Since he became president last July, Bashar al-Asad of Syria has initiated a process of political and economic reform. Asad has issued a series of decrees and submitted several draft laws to the country’s People’s Assembly (parliament) dealing with various aspects of Syrian political and socio-economic life. These moves are rightly viewed with scepticism by many people, who notice the continued restrictions on the Islamic movement; in recent weeks, a number of activists, and businessmen accused of supporting them, have been arrested and interrogated. Nonetheless, these moves are a considerable change in Syria’s political environment.

Asad has pardoned 600 long-serving political prisoners, closed the notorious Mazzeh prison (long a byword for the repression of the Ba’athist state) and submitted a draft law for a general amnesty covering a wide range of common-law crimes. Encouraged by this atmosphere of openness, advocacy groups such as the Committee for the Defence of Human Rights in Syria, which have long been active underground, have come into the open.

The ruling Ba’ath party has also decided to allow the six legal political parties that are its partners in the Progressive National Front (PNF) to issue their own newspapers. This is a significant departure from previous practice, allowing constituent parties of the PNF, which was formed in 1972 as a coalition between the Ba’ath and political groups of a communist or Arab nationalist complexion, to distribute their publications openly. A ministerial committee has drafted a new law ending the government’s monopoly of the press. The draft empowers the cabinet to issue newspaper licences to individuals and authorized political parties. Ali Farzat, a well-known cartoonist, has applied for a license to issue a satirical paper. This would be the first such publication to be issued independently since the Ba’ath seized political power in a military coup in 1963.

Work on a multimillion-dollar network for internet communications is underway. The network will be run by a company in which the state-run Syrian Telecommunications Foundation will hold a 25 percent stake; private Syrian and Arab investors will own the remaining 75 percent. Under the new network, access to the internet, currently the privileged domain of public administration, companies and universities, will become available to the public.

Like the last Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, after he launched perestroika (‘openness’), Asad has come to realize that political freedom cannot be withheld indefinitely from all quarters of society or sociopolitical life. Indeed, Asad’s ‘perestroika’ has awakened civil society. Civil society associations and forums have mushroomed since he became president. Limits to such freedoms are emerging, however: organisers of new political discussion-groups in Damascus reacted in dismay when vice-president Abdel Halim Khaddam warned the discussion-salons not to cross certain lines.

The fact that such salons exist at all, however, is a start. So too is the growing outspokenness of some intellectuals. Last September a group of respected Syrian intellectuals issued the so-called “Petition of 99,” demanding among other things the release of all political prisoners. In January some thousand writers, artists, professionals, businessmen and academics signed a Basic Document calling on the president to introduce wide-ranging political reforms. The Document, drawn up by the Committees for the Revival of Civil Society, urged Asad to end the state of emergency and martial law, release all political prisoners, allow the return of political exiles, ensure the independence and integrity of the judiciary and, most notably, end the Ba’ath party’s monopoly of political power by enacting a law for elections to be held under the supervision of an independent judiciary. Among the prominent figures who signed the document are independent member of parliament and businessman Riyad Sayf, ultra-secularist and anti-Islamist philosopher Sadeq Jalal al-’Azm, writers Khayri al-Dhahabi and Mayya al-Rahbi, researchers Michel Kilo, Walid al-Bunni, ‘Arif Dalila, Najati Tayyarah, Ihsan ‘Abbas and Jad al-Karim Jaba’i, and cinematographer Nabil al-Maleh.

Later in January, 70 lawyers issued a statement demanding political reforms, particularly public freedoms and the end of the state of emergency and martial law. They also demanded legislation that would guarantee the neutrality of the state in the conduct of elections, thus paving the way for the rotation of power through the ballot-box.

In an interview with the daily al-Sharq al-Awsat (February 8, 2001), Asad raised the prospect of allowing new political parties alongside those in power under the umbrella of the Ba’ath-led PNF. “There is an idea to develop party activity in Syria; all possibilities are open, including that of having new parties,” he said.

Such a development might well unleash a storm of change. So far the constituent parties of the PNF have behaved more like extensions of the Ba’ath party than independent bodies. Since they joined the PNF these parties have led a semi-clandestine existence. Their role in public political life has been limited at best. Their positions have always been barely distinguishable from the government. Their membership is estimated to have ranged between 300 and 10,000, with the two wings of the Communist party, the Bakdash and Faysal wings, being the most active and effective among them.

The reforms seem to suggest that the democratic sentiments expressed in Bashar al-Asad’s inauguration speech, which referred to transparency, respect for opposing views and pluralism, might be a little more than rhetoric. But they are also inspired in part by internal and external pressures. Syria’s social, economic and cultural life atrophied during the 30-year rule of Hafez al-Asad. There is a large and widening gap between the rich and poor. More importantly, the burdens of underdevelopment are not shared equitably, with an island of affluence surrounded by a sea of poverty and destitution. Economic benefits are allocated largely through a system of clientelism and patronage feeding voraciously at public expense.

The system of government instituted by the Ba’ath party is in many ways a carbon-copy of the one that prevailed in the former ‘eastern bloc’. It is a largely centralized and authoritarian system in which there are few legitimate mechanisms by which the population can complain against public officials or influence the policymaking process. The state became monolithic: the security agencies enjoy wide, largely unchecked, powers, instilling fear in the people. The new president seems to have realised, even before coming to power, that such a system is an anachronism. The internal pressures for accountability and participation were also compounded by the challenges of globalization, economic integration and the conflict with Israel.

The rejuvenation of civil society currently under way might lead eventually to a radical change in the basis of governance. Since it came to power in 1963, the Ba’ath regime has justified its rule by a glib and superficial “revolutionary legitimacy.” It made the institutions of civil society irrelevant to the country’s governance, and transformed the institutions of state into spoils to be distributed among chosen nomenklatura. The Ba’athist hegemony effectively depoliticised Syrian society.

If carried to their logical conclusion, Asad’s reforms would shift the legitimacy of political power from “putschist-cum-revolutionary legitimacy” to “constitutional legitimacy,” thus making the state an instrument of the rule of law. But it is safe to say that it will not be easy to push reforms against the existing network of vested interests and entrenched bureaucratic habits, even if Asad genuinely desires to do so.

In his recent interview with al-Sharq al-Awsat, he said: “The important thing is to move forward in a measured fashion “as all development needs discussion.” That effecting change should be a gradual affair is understandable in the light of opposition from entrenched power centres, the natural impulse being to ensure that the floodgates of reform will not sweep the regime away altogether. It is also important to preserve internal stability, which was established after long years of turbulence. Asad faces the “Gorbachev dilemma”: preserving stability and the regime is conditional on prosperity and change, which in turn are hard to bring about without social and political stability.

There has been growing pressure from within some government circles against the movement toward reform. But the old guard may well realise that, although the age of overt military coups in Syria ended long ago, the age of undeclared, non-military coups might just have started.

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