Syria is about to step into the stream of Arab political reform, but with as little fanfare as possible, writes Sami Moubayed from Damascus
When President Bashar Al-Assad came to power in 2000 he stressed that reforms in Syria would be economic and administrative, rather than political. Authorities reasoned that political liberties would mean little to a population of 17 million if they were not well paid, well fed and secure in their lives and careers. The average Syrian is more interested -- it was alleged -- in earning good money than practising his or her democratic rights. Political liberties are a luxury, many officials bleated, that cannot be enjoyed unless one is living comfortably.
This explains why wage increases, private banks, and other economic reforms preceded party political or media law in Syria. Today, as Syria turns a new page in its history, now that its army has left Lebanon, Al-Assad is coming under increased pressure to bump up his reform programme, both politically and economically, to avoid further confrontation with the United States.
Many want the money that was once spent on maintaining Syria's troops in Lebanon to be transferred to public works, increased wages in the civil service, and construction projects all over Syria. Others are saying that reforming the economy while neglecting political life is no longer acceptable and that people want comprehensive and real change in all sectors of life, politics being a must among them. A bill is already underway in the House of Representatives in the US to hold Syria responsible for lack of political freedoms and one-party rule, and the only way to avoid another showdown with Washington is for Al-Assad to commence on these much needed reforms on his own, without waiting for them to be dictated by the US.
Syria has started to release political prisoners, issuing four amnesties in 2004, and another two in 2005, the last being in mid-March where five political prisoners were freed. An estimated 500 prisoners remain in jail, among them the two parliamentarians who were arrested amid great publicity in September 2001. A new partisan law is being prepared in Syria, to allow for parties not allied to the ruling Baath Party, and opposed to its socialist ideology, to operate freely and compete for the upcoming parliamentary elections in 2007.
It is highly probable that these parties will be granted licence to operate away from the umbrella of the National Progressive Front (NPF), a parliamentary socialist coalition created by the late president Hafez Al-Assad and headed by the Baath Party since the early 1970s. A formula is yet to be created to allow the Baath Party to maintain a majority vote in parliament. This would change, however, if Article 8 of the Constitution was amended, which says that the Baath Party is the leading party of state and society. Members of the opposition made such a demand in 2000-2001, but it fell on deaf ears in government with many leaders of the anti-Baath movement arrested for violating the Constitution. Today, however, Information Minister Mehdi Dakhlallah announced, when asked about a constitutional change to Article 8: "Everything is subject to change. Constitutions are not holy and can be amended."
He added: "Personally, I am against any party being a leader [in society]. I am among those who wish the Baath Party returns to its reality; a democratic party as specified by its Constitution."
Meanwhile, tolerance is increasing in media affairs. Material usually banned in Syria is sold freely at newsstands. The mass circulation Beirut daily An-Nahar is still banned in Syria, but Syrians can easily log onto the newspaper's online edition and read its editorials, which are normally highly critical of Syria's role in Lebanon. The same applies to the London-based Al-Quds Al- Arabi and the Paris-based Al-Watan Al-Arabi.
The online bulletin All4Syria.org, to add another example, is also still banned but its creator Ayman Abdul- Nour can still send it off by e-mail to subscribers' accounts inside Syria, though many of its stories are also highly critical of Syrian affairs.
A higher committee has been created by the government to study why Syrian media has failed to live up to people's expectations and to market Syria in an effective manner to the outside world, especially during the latest campaign orchestrated against Damascus since the assassination of Lebanon's ex-prime minister Rafiq Al-Hariri. Although still far from having a free press, recently Syrians looking for news have had their choices extended with the opening of several newspapers and magazines, breaking the state's monopoly over media affairs, in place since 1963.
There are many contradictions, however, in political life and reforms in Syria. On 19 March, it was announced that the passports of all Syrians, even those banished for their political views, would be renewed and they would be permitted to return to Syria. This was declared by Syria's ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, Ryad Naasan Agha. On 21 March, however, the London-based Al-Hayat informed readers that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had announced that this would not mean the dropping of criminal charges brought against exiled Syrians. They would be allowed to return only if they are proven innocent of political crimes (or any other charges held against them).
This clarification destroyed all hopes that Syria would extend a hand of reconciliation to those at odds with the Baathist regime. Another contradiction occurred on 8 March 2005 when Ibrahim Al-Ali, a veteran officer of the Baath Party, appeared on Syrian TV and criticised the Baath Party, saying that it must reform itself from within to face up to the challenges Syria was facing, and in particular to abolish the Regional Command because it had outlived its usefulness. While his words were applauded inside Syria, a tribunal was created to interrogate him for his views, headed by General Mustafa Tlas, head of the Military Committee of the Baath Party.
The people of Syria, mainly the older generation, remember too well that Syria, prior to the Baath Party revolution of 1963, was one of the healthiest democracies in the Middle East, enjoying a vibrant parliamentary system, multi-party rule and a free press. Everybody in Syria remembers the words of President Shukri Al- Quwatli when signing a treaty of union with President Gamal Abdel-Nasser of Egypt in 1958: "Mr President, you have taken over a people where every single one of them thinks he is a politician, while 50 per cent claim to be natural leaders, and 25 per cent believe they are prophets. And at least 10 per cent, Mr President, act as if they are gods." This is precisely why the people in Syria today are hungry for political freedoms, because if given the opportunity, they love to practice, talk and engage in politics. It is also why conservatives in the government are none too enthusiastic to grant them these political rights, fearing that a Pandora's box will be opened in Syria. A country of politicians, natural leaders, would-be prophets or gods would be very difficult to govern.