Al-Ahram Weekly Online   16 - 22 June 2005
Issue No. 747
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Salama A Salama

An uncanny resemblance

By Salama A Salama

Is Syria's Baath Party imitating Egypt's National Democratic Party (NDP) or is it the other way round? The NDP has yet to make a clear commitment to democratic pluralism and provide the concomitant guarantees for the presidential elections. And the Baath Party is having just as much trouble making up its mind. For now the Syrians seem intent on keeping the presidency within the Al-Assad family. And while they will allow the changing of some faces, change does not extend to policy.

The 10th Baath Party conference came amid growing expectations of reform. Many had hoped that the young Bashar Al-Assad would lead the country towards greater liberty and democracy and that the Baath Party would relax its grip on power, or at least rein in the country's security and intelligence services. The latter have, after all, paralysed cultural and intellectual life in Syria, strained relations with Lebanon and turned Syria into an international pariah.

And once Bashar Al-Assad was in power things seemed to improve. Then the old guard put its foot down. Damascus pressed for an extension of President Emile Lahoud's term in Lebanon, a move that violated Lebanon's constitution, defied the wishes of the majority of Lebanese and provoked international anger.

One would expect the Lebanese crisis to have shaken Syria's old guard to begin to move in the direction of reform, if only to deflect international pressure. Pressure on Syria, in the end, only benefits Israel and weakens the Lebanese resistance.

Yet the Syrian regime tried to put its house in order in the only way Arab regimes seem to know -- it tightened security, harassed the opposition, continued the state of emergency and further restricted freedoms. This is the knee-jerk reaction common to all regimes that for half a century have held power in the region. The techniques have been handed down to successive generations. When in trouble invoke foreign perils, exaggerate domestic ones and postpone reform.

The 10th conference of the Baath Party produced nothing beyond the vaguest promises that party laws would be amended, corruption fought, economic conditions improved, and ties with Lebanon and the US repaired. It also lifted restrictions no one knew existed. It is, for example, now possible to hold a wedding party in Syria without informing the security agencies in advance. And the regime has generously promised no one will interfere in the social life of citizens.

The ruling Baath Party still sees itself as the most progressive of all forces on the scene. As in Egypt emergency laws are still in force, presumably to fight terror and religious extremism. It is a situation that led 200 Syrian intellectuals to issue a statement saying that the forces of repression had once again snuffed the flame of liberty.

Egypt and Syria may differ in the level and pace of democratisation but the two are similar in many other ways -- they share a tendency to foot-drag, pretexts, a propensity for cosmetic changes and for changes of heart. Egypt, however, is past the point of no return. It would now be more costly for us to go back than to press ahead with democratisation.

The future of democratisation in Egypt hinges on the coming presidential and parliamentary elections. And unless we do something to inspire other Arab countries, forget about reform.

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