The surprise appointment of a new Syrian vice-president sparks debate on how far this may affect the country's future, Sami Moubayed reports from Damascus
In a move that took many Syrians by surprise, President Bashar Al-Assad appointed Najah Al-Attar, a veteran literary academic, as vice-president on 23 March 2006. The move is important and symbolic for a variety of reasons. First off, Al-Attar is the first non-Baathist to assume the post since the Baath Party came to power in March 1963. In Syria, vice-presidents can be either very powerful, as was the case with Abdul-Halim Khaddam in 1984-2006, or mere tokens in a game beyond their reach, such as former Vice-President Zuhayr Masharka. But if Al-Attar proves to be a strong independent as vice-president, her appointment may well propel changes in Syrian political life and perhaps influence some form of democratisation. After all, she has the president's attention, and those who know her say she is a tolerant and confident woman who genuinely believes in reform.
Her appointment is also highly significant in that Al-Attar is a woman, making her the first in Syrian history, to be given such an important position. While the president is out of the country, she will be expected to cover for him, while he will delegate important political tasks to her throughout her expected tenure. Her appointment is indeed a signal that gender roles in Syria are rapidly changing, and that Syria remains among the more advanced Arab countries with regards to gender equality.
Another significant aspect of Al-Attar's appointment is the fact that she is a Damascene descendant of the notables. She is married into the Azma family of Damascus. And she is the first Damascene to attain such a senior government office since the 1950s.
Speculations are heavily mounting in Damascus, focussing on the surprise timing for such a move, as well as on the choice of person.
According to observers, Al-Attar's appointment may be something of a message to the Muslim Brotherhood, given that her brother, Issam Al-Attar, who is currently in exile in Europe, once led the Islamist group. The Brotherhood, currently headed by Ali Sadr Al-Din Al-Baynouni, recently teamed up with former Vice- President Abdul Halim Khaddam in Europe, to create a united front opposing and seeking to bring down the Syrian regime.
But such an observation is somewhat short- sighted, given that Al-Attar has been in government since the 1970s, when her brother was actively fighting the Baathists. Her appointment as minister of culture in the 1970s may have been a political message aimed at the Brotherhood in its day, but now her brother Issam is old and politically inactive.
Rather, Al-Attar's appointment goes to show that the Syrian regime has started to single out talented people -- many of them independents -- and to bring them to positions of authority with the hope of curbing rising popular discontent. Other independents brought to power since Assad became president in 2000 include Syria's Ambassador to the United States Imad Mustapha, Ambassador to Britain Sami Al-Khiyyami, Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs Abdullah Al-Dardari, Secretary-General of the Premiership Maher Mujtahid, and Telecommunications Minister Amr Salem, former Microsoft employee in the US. Others to enter and leave government under Assad include Ghassan Al-Rifaii, the World Bank expert who served as minister of finance, and Issam Al-Zaim, a university professor who became minister of planning and then of industry.
Najah Al-Attar was born in 1933 and raised in Damascus. Her father was among nationalist leaders who took part in the 1925-1927 Syrian revolt against the French Mandate in Syria. She studied at Damascus University, graduating in 1954, and obtained graduate and postgraduate degrees in Arabic literature from the University of Edinburgh in Britain.
Al-Attar became a schoolteacher in Damascus in 1960. Then in 1962, she became director of composition and literature translation at the Ministry of Culture. On 7 August 1976, former President Hafez Al-Assad appointed Al-Attar minister of culture and national guidance in the cabinet of Prime Minister Abdel Rahman Al-Khlayfawi, rendering her the first woman to serve as a government minister in Syria. In the early 1980s, when Information Minister Ahmad Iskandar Ahmad was dying of cancer, and Assad was facing international pressure amidst a Muslim Brotherhood uprising in Syria and a civil war in Lebanon, she served as a spokeswoman for the Syrian government.
She promoted cultural exhibitions, shows, and theatrical performances during her 24 years as minister. In 1995, she co-founded the National Symphonic Orchestra and initiated the construction of the Syrian Opera House. She greatly encouraged the concerts and activities of Maestro Sulhi al-Wadi, helping him to promote classical music in Syria, and called on Syrian artists living abroad to return home and work in Syria.
In 1983, French President François Mitterrand gave Al-Attar the Medal of Honour of the French Republic. She held office in Syria through four different cabinets and was dismissed under Prime Minister Mohammad Mustapha Miro in March 2000, to be replaced by Maha Qannut, a woman who earned a reputation for irresponsibility during her brief tenure of her post as culture minister.
But in 2002, in light of the 11 September 2001 attacks on Washington and New York, President Bashar Al-Assad appointed Al-Attar director of the Centre for the Dialogue of Civilisations, an academic foundation that conducts research, holds debates and publishes articles on global political issues on the post-9/11 world order. It was co-established by veteran Baathist Abdullah Abdel Daim. In 2003, she became a board member of Kalamoun University, one of Syria's oldest private universities, in Dayr Atiya. She also became president of the board of trustees at the Syrian Virtual University (SVU), a pioneer project that introduced online education to Syria.