Al-Ahram Weekly Online   12 - 18 May 2005
Issue No. 742
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Soft de-Baathification in Syria

What shape will reform in Syria take? Sami Moubayed, in Damascus, looks for signs

The Syrian parliament now contains, close to the entrance, a gallery of portraits of former speakers. First is the former president, Hashim Al-Atasi, who held the job in 1919. Last is Baathist Abdul-Qadir Qaddura, who left office in 2003. Between them are portraits of a great many pre-1963 politicians, for decades ignored by the Baathist government. They include the pro-Western Faris Al-Khuri, the socialist Akram Al-Hawrani, and Nazim Al-Qudsi, who was parliamentary speaker in 1956 and went on to become president in 1962 only to be toppled by the Baath a year later. Ten years ago these men had all but been air-brushed from Syria's history.

The gallery is a testimony to Damascus's attempts to create a united front of all Syrians, Baathist and non- Baathist, to appease the Syrian street and ward off international pressure.

The rehabilitation of the pre-1963 order was led by Syria's defence minister Mustafa Tlas who, in his memoirs, opposed the laws passed after 8 March, 1963 stripping pre- 1963 politicians of their civil rights. This month 2005 Tlas organised the return of Colonel Jassem Alwan, a Nasserist officer in the Syrian Army who planned a coup d'etat against the Baath regime in July 1963. Alwan's rebellion was crushed and many of his co-conspirators executed. Alwan avoided the same fate only after the intervention of Egypt's late president, Gamal Abdel-Nasser. Since then he has been living in Cairo, a prominent member of the Syrian opposition.

Tlas lobbied for his return. Alwan was met last week at Damascus Airport by a chauffeur-driven car and escorted to the Cham Palace Hotel in downtown Damascus. On the same day Youssef Abdelki, a painter and communist activist who had spent several years in prison, also returned from an exile of more than 20 years.

The man who crushed Alwan's rebellion in 1963, ex- president Amin Al-Hafez, was himself arrested, then released, sentenced to death, then exiled in 1967. He returned in 2003, having spent two decades in Saddam Hussein's Iraq. He now lives in his native Aleppo and receives a government pension despite critical views of the current regime, expressed in an interview with Al-Jazeera TV in 2001.

Tlas is also lobbying for the return from Egypt of Abdul- Hamid Sarraj, director of Syrian Intelligence between 1955 and 1958 and, during the Egyptian-Syrian union years (1958-1961) minister of the interior. Arrested after the secession, Sarraj escaped from Mezzeh Prison in 1962. During his years in power he was responsible for the persecution of large numbers of Baathists. He is expected to return late this year.

Moves towards the rehabilitation of pre-1963 politicians were begun by Basil Al-Assad, the eldest son of late president Hafez Al-Assad, who died in a car crash in 1994. During a visit to Saudi Arabia he met Munir Al-Ajlani, a veteran politician and academic from the 1940s who had left Syria since 1963, inviting him to return home saying, Ajlani reports, that "Syria is your country and you are free to come back whenever you desire." Ajlani, accused of treason for encouraging an Iraqi-backed coup in 1956, did not return and died in exile in 2004.

Issam Al-Attar and Ali Sadreddin Al-Baynouni, leaders of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, led military uprisings against the regime in the mid-1960s and early 1980s. Both could return in the near future. Baynouni's brother, Abu Fateh, a senior official in the Brotherhood, was exiled in 1982 but returned to Syria following a presidential pardon in September 2001. Haytham Al-Manaa, the outspoken spokesman for the Arab Committee for Human Rights, was in 2003 welcomed back to Syria after 20 years in exile. According to human rights activist and lawyer Anwar Al- Bunni, around 70 exiled figures are currently preparing to return to Syria, with government approval, having received Syrian passports valid for two years.

The Baath Party Conference, scheduled for June, is expected to pave the way for a general amnesty, releasing political prisoners and permitting the return of those banished for political reasons. Among those scheduled for release are the parliamentarians Riad Seif and Maamoun Al- Homsi, and the economist Arif Dalilah, the ex-dean of economics at Damascus University arrested for dissent in 2001 and sentenced to 10-years behind bars. Riad Al-Turk, Syria's veteran Communist Party leader, was granted a presidential pardon in November 2002 after spending 14- months in jail. In 2000, when Bashir Al-Assad first came to power, he released 600 prisoners, mostly members of the Brotherhood. In 2004 he released a further 300, and so far this year 350. The June conference is also expected to approve a new party law, allowing political parties not affiliated to the Baath to operate, and abrogate Law 49, which makes membership of the Muslim Brotherhood a capital offence.

Mohamed Habash, the regime-friendly Islamist deputy in the Syrian parliament, has lobbied strenuously for both and is expected to launch a moderate Islamist party once the new party law is issued. The Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), outlawed in 1955 for its alleged role in the assassination of Colonel Adnan Al-Malki, a pro-Baath officer and the brother of Riad Al-Malki, a ranking Baathist, is also expected to receive a licence. The SSNP has recently been allowed to stage rallies and resume publication and attended a meeting of the National Progressive Front (NPF), a parliamentary socialist coalition headed by the Baath Party, as an "observer". This month its aging leader, Issam Al- Mahayri, and senior party officials met President Al-Assad in Damascus.

There are moves to drop the word "socialism" from the objectives of the Baath Party and replace the longstanding trinity of "unity, freedom and socialism" with "unity, democracy, and social equality". According to the London- based daily, Asharq Al-Aswat, the Regional Command of the Baath Party will be dissolved.

Nor are Baathist credentials automatically required these days for access to senior posts.

Moves towards appointment on merit, rather than party affiliation, began in 2000 and to date, the list of independents to have assumed senior positions is long and impressive. Syria's ambassador to the US, Imad Mustafa, is not a Baathist, nor is Sami Al-Khiyami, its ambassador to the UK.

Other posts usually reserved for Baath members include the president of Damascus University, occupied today by the independent Issam Al-Awwa, and the Ministry of Higher Education, occupied by the independent Hani Mourtada. The independent Abdullah Al-Dardari is head of the State Planning Bureau and this month journalist Diana Jabbour, a reformist and open-minded woman with independent views, became director of Syrian Television. She is the first woman, and first non-Baathist, to assume such an important media job.

The changes in Syria may not be as radical as some Arab newspapers are saying. But then nor are they as cosmetic as detractors charge. Slowly, but surely, Syria is softening its Baathist identity.

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