Al-Ahram Weekly Online
20 - 26 December 2001
Issue No.565
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Ushering in the new

A cabinet reshuffle is being viewed by Syrians as an indicator that long-promised reform is finally coming, writes Sami Moubayed from Damascus

"Syria is serious about reform," is the message that Damascus appears to be sending after President Bashar Al- Assad effected his first major cabinet reshuffle since taking office last year. Along with the reshuffle, Al-Assad ordered 225 political prisoners freed, and had corruption charges dropped against two former ministers.

Other indicators of reform are the public trials of two parliamentarians charged with conspiring to overthrow the regime. The unprecedented openness of the trials and the public sympathy they have generated have both been noted by observers.

While Prime Minister Mustafa Miro will continue to head the government, the key portfolios of economy and finance, are being taken up by newcomers.

The outgoing cabinet was formed under the late Hafez Al-Assad's orders in March 2000. With a mandate to solve Syria's economic crisis, Miro's cabinet of technocrats assumed power amidst a wave of public optimism. However, the late Al-Assad insisted upon keeping the ministers of economy and finance, Mohamed Al-Imadi and Khaled Al-Mahayni, in their posts. The senior Al- Assad's trust in the pair outweighed calls for a new approach to Syria's economy.

The winds of change began to blow a little over six months following the death of Al-Assad senior in June 2000. In December 2000, the new President initiated a series of changes in the management of the Syrian economy. Prime Minister Miro was given a mandate to authorise the opening of private banks, order a 25 per cent wage increase for civil servants, spend heavily on industry, issue a new press law and set up free trade zones with neighbouring Arab states.

Despite Miro's actions, however, Syria's economy remained stagnant. Laws for the economy were being issued almost daily, but very few were actually implemented. The private banking law, ratified on 2 December 2000, has yet to be put into effect, and no serious steps have been taken to do so. As a result, the Miro cabinet began to lose popular support. In March 2001, rumours of an imminent cabinet reshuffle circulated in the capital but nothing happened.

Last week, Miro presented his resignation to President Al-Assad, only to be asked to lead a new government. Miro's new cabinet, announced on 13 December, is the first in 30 years that was not hand-picked by the late Al- Assad.

On direct orders from the Syrian president, neither Al- Mahayni nor Al-Imadi made it into the new cabinet, the two men having been blamed by the Syrian public for many of the country's economic ills.

Al-Imadi, 70, first took up the position of economy minister in 1972 for a period of six years. Following a hiatus abroad, Al-Imadi became minister of economy once again in 1984, holding the position until this month.

When the younger Al-Assad took power he directed Al- Imadi to study the implications of Syria becoming a member of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) -- a move that the former minister had long advocated but had never openly lobbied for. Al-Imadi conceded that after almost 40 years of a centralised economy, Syria's industry was in shambles, and warned that once a member of the WTO, all local industries, being of inferior to international standards, would not survive.

Al-Mahayni, former minister of finance, held his position since 1985. A hard-core socialist, Al-Mahayni hit Syria's business community hard by implementing income taxes that reached as high as 60 per cent of profits.

President Al-Assad has replaced the two long-time ministers with Ghassan Al-Rifai'i and Mohamed Al-Attrash. Al-Rifai'i, 59, who takes up the finance portfolio, is a former deputy president of the World Bank and has worked as a consultant to the organisation since 1997. He is known to have liberal economic views and to have pro- Western tendencies. Al-Rifai'i is likely to guide Syria towards membership in the WTO and to try to shake off the economy's socialist legacy.

Al-Attrash, 68, who takes up the economy portfolio, is a moderate socialist who also believes in the pressing need for change. A graduate of the London School of Economics, he served as minister of economy from 1980-1984. When the late Al-Assad asked him to re-assume his post in 1985, he declined because he viewed the president's economic policy as misguided. Al-Attrash is believed to favour postponing Syria's bid to join the WTO for two to three years to allow the local industrial sector to prepare for a major shakeup.

Although media attention has focused primarily on the ministers of economy and finance, the cabinet includes an additional 17 newcomers. Among the most prominent are Najwa Quassab Hassan, an academic, who was named minister of culture; Bashir Al-Munajjed, dean of the school of engineering at Damascus University, who was appointed minister of telecommunications; and Saadallah Agha Al-Quala'ea, a music historian, artist, and civil engineer, who became minister of tourism. General Ali Hammoud, became minister of interior, replacing the much-loathed former minister, Mohamed Harba.

Many other ministers retained their posts including General Mustafa Tlass, confidant to the late Al-Assad, who has served as Minister of Defense since 1970, and veteran Foreign Minister Farouk Al-Sharaa, who in addition to his ministerial duties, was appointed deputy prime minister.

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