For Syria's Ba'ath, it is a make-or-break moment. The question is, how will it survive? Omayma Abdel-Latif
Is Baathism dead?
For Syria's Ba'ath, it is a make-or-break moment. The question is, how will it survive? Omayma Abdel-Latif investigates
When Ali Saleh Al-Saady, a leading Iraqi Ba'athist, visited Syria shortly after the Ba'ath takeover in March 1963, he was reported to have asked his hosts: " Macko mashaneq, macko damm? ", meaning 'How come there are no executions and no bloodshed?' Al-Saady was showing his astonishment at the fact that Syria's Ba'ath came to power by means of a bloodless revolution. He was later told by the then Syrian President Louai Al-Ataasi: "In Syria we don't like blood or executions."
This story is often recounted by Syrian politicians and Ba'ath Party members to show what they regard as radical difference between their interpretation of the Ba'athist doctrine and that of Iraqis. Some would even stretch the argument further. Mahdi Dakhlallah, editor-in- chief of the Ba'ath newspaper, the mouthpiece of the Ba'ath Party, said that while the Iraqi Ba'ath excluded all national forces from the political process, carried out mass executions and alienated ethnic minorities, Syria's Ba'ath rule was based on a system that was inclusive of all political forces on the Syrian scene and that the party has respected international law.
Perhaps at no time in its history has the Ba'ath Party found itself at a juncture as critical as in the aftermath of the fall of the Ba'ath rule in Iraq at the hands of the United States' military intervention. As it celebrates 57 years of existence, questions are being raised about the future of Syria's Ba'ath, which came to power 41 years ago on a ticket of socialism, Arab nationalism and appeal to the marginalised minorities.
Today, the Ba'ath has a membership of some 1.8 million citizens, 800,000 of whom hold working memberships. The party has 17 branches across the country, three of which are located in Syrian universities.
Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly, senior Ba'athists involved in a process of restructuring the party's hierarchy and doctrine argued that the party will survive the tribulation. "The Ba'ath will never end," insisted Ahmed Al-Barqawi, philosophy professor at Damascus University. "This is an American demand to finish off any nationalist movement in this part of the world. The Ba'ath will remain the guardian of the concept of one Arab homeland with common concerns and common goals," he added. Al- Barqawi is also a member of the Committee for Freedom, one of four committees set up by the party to supervise the reform process.
But observers argue that in order for the party to survive the American onslaught, a process which involves a critical assessment of the party's record should be accelerated. Such a process, according to senior Ba'ath members, has been underway already for almost four years now. In June 2000 the party held its national congress with one key issue on the agenda: addressing reform within the party.
Critics argue, however, that the party's acknowledged need for reform has not been translated into realities on the ground over the past four years. Leading party members respond by citing some of the key changes which the party underwent, most important of which was the reshaping of the state-party relationship.
This task is assigned to four committees appointed by the party. They include scores of Syrian academics, politicians, diplomats and military men. Their mission is to outline a blueprint for the party's structural and political reform. The discussions centre around two key issues outlined by the party's al- qeyada al-qutriya -- regional command. The first is the revision of the party's concepts of unity, freedom and socialism; the second is the party's understanding of democracy.
Al-Barqawi, who participated in the discussions with a paper titled On Democracy and Freedom, said that "there were some bold proposals" made during the debates. These included the need to re-define the concept of the party's leadership of the state and society. This in a way implied the need to amend Article 8 of the Syrian Constitution issued in 1973 which stated that the Arab Socialist Ba'ath Party is by default the leading party -- al-hizb al-qaed -- in the state and society. "There were even suggestions during the discussions that the party should function within a context of a multi-party system," Al-Barqawi said.
The party has just finished electing its Al-Haska branch members, a governorate to the north-east of Syria. In an attempt to allow for new party recruits to become more involved, elections have been conducted in the other 16 branches of the party. The completion of the election of the party's 17 branches will enable the party to hold its national congress any time between this month and June 2005.
Dakhlallah, who has written a series of articles calling for party reform, admitted that "mistakes have been made", leading the party to deviate from its original doctrine. "Policies and decisions which are in divergence with the party's doctrine were made." Party officials blame regional and internal challenges during the 1980s which pushed the party to be primarily concerned with its "survival".
"We don't want the function of the Arab world to be reduced to [playing the role of] a guard protecting oil fields for the West. We want the nationalist parties to preserve the idea that this is one Arab homeland with common concerns and aspirations." Ahmed Al-Barqawi, Damascus University professor
"The regime has to drop the mindset of excluding voices of dissent, work towards building stronger domestic consensus through public participation and move towards a process of national reconciliation." Haytham Al-Maleh head of Human Rights Association of Syria
This, he pointed out, came at the expense of the democratic process. It was reflected in the fact that the kind of state which the party was leading meant that the security apparatus dominated its logic of governance. Since the 1990s, Dakhlallah pointed out, the party has made a strategic decision to uphold its original doctrine. A manifestation of this was reflected in a decision taken five years ago to adopt a democratic approach in electing its members and senior leadership on all levels.
Such a process of introspection has affected the way in which Syria is being run today. According to Dakhlallah, the claim that Ba'ath members occupy all senior level posts is untrue. "All the ministers in the present government hold no senior posts in the party except for the defence and foreign ministers."
Only 65 per cent of the present government belongs to the Ba'ath Party and its partner coalition the Progressive National Front (PNF), while 35 per cent of the ministers are independents. One top post held by an independent is that of the Finance Ministry, which is run by the deputy director of the International Monetary Fund and has no connection whatsoever with the Ba'ath Party. The tourism minister is also an independent. "There are many important state posts that are not in the hands of Ba'athists and are mainly run by western-educated personnel who have no ties at all to the Ba'ath Party. The party ceased to be the channel of recruitment to the state organs and this is one major change," Dakhlallah explained.
Ba'athists argue that, contrary to the view which perceives the party's attempts to reform as a response to external pressure, the volatile situation in the region has in fact contributed to slowing the pace of the reform process rather than to its acceleration. "Due to the unstable regional situation, we became preoccupied with how to deal with daily events rather than looking at the big issues ahead of us. The events in Iraq in a way had an adverse effect on the reform process in Syria," Dakhlallah added.
Such steps towards reform, however, are not likely to cut ice with an American administration bent on targeting the party precisely because of its pan-Arab ideology. Party officials believe that the party's very motto -- "One Arab nation with an eternal mission" -- is an open challenge to the US designs for the region. "It is imperative that the Ba'ath or any other party which carries the banner of pan- Arabism exists to defend the Arab national cause particularly at hard times like these," Al-Barqawi told the Weekly.
Al-Barqawi believes that while the legitimacy of the pan-Arab ideology should not be contested or questioned, he nonetheless believes that the discourse should be revised to match the political realities. "We need to rethink the concepts. For almost half a century we had nationalist parties ruling in Syria, Egypt, Iraq and Algeria. We need to assess those experiences and see in what way these systems furthered the cause or undermined it."
He pointed out that one can measure the success or failure of those nationalist parties by seeking to understand whether the discourse adopted by those parties was translated into realities on the ground. "If we reach the conclusion that all the nationalist parties which had carried the banner of pan-Arabism have failed to live up to the slogans they have adopted during the past 50 years, then it is a sign of failure." The Ba'ath Party, Al- Barqawi added, ruled Syria and Iraq and Nasserism ruled Egypt. But it seems that in all three cases, political expediency has ultimately ruled over the moral standing of the party.
In the view of Al-Barqawi and other Ba'athists, there should be a new reading of pan-Arab nationalist movements and discourse. Certainly, the occupation of Iraq and the deteriorating situation in Palestine more than ever provide motive to revive the notion of one free Arab nation.
But opponents of such nationalist rhetoric would argue that authoritarian regimes have ruled with an iron fist in the name of Arab nationalism for 50 years. Al- Barqawi, however, believes that the real issue lies in how to produce a political system which is representative of the will of the people. "The nationalist issue becomes of primary concern in this respect because pan- Arabism becomes more effective in a democratic context. I believe that there is no contradiction between the notion of Arab nationalism and democracy."
"We don't want the function of the Arab world to be reduced to [playing the role of] a guard protecting oil fields for the West. We want the nationalist parties to preserve the idea that this is one Arab homeland with common concerns and aspirations," Al-Barqawi said.
Such an ambitious goal, however, will be put to test in the days ahead, which ultimately will determine how well the lessons of the past have been learnt.