February 12, 2001 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 47

The Battle for Reforms and Civil Society in Syria - Part I

February 12, 2001 | By Y. Feldner and E. Carmeli*
Syria | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 47

Since Bashar Assad became the president of Syria in July 2000, expectations for openness and democracy in Syria have been on the rise. The new president himself had contributed to these expectations, even before he came to power, by leading a struggle against corruption in the Syrian leadership. Furthermore, in his inauguration speech, President Bashar stated: "We are in dire need of constructive criticism... and in order for the criticism to be constructive, we must think objectively and examine each issue from different points of view..."[1]

Indeed, President Bashar has taken a number of steps, symbolic as well as practical, that reflect this new path he wished to advance. He pardoned a long list of political prisoners, initiated laws encouraging the private sector and foreign investments, and allowed some freedom of expression in Syria. In addition, he declared that with the end of his seven-year term, he intends to hold presidential elections, instead of the current practice of holding a referendum on a single candidate.

The most significant changes characterizing Bashar's presidency are his relative tolerance of political opposition, and allowing controlled pluralism in Syrian political life. Following are a few examples:

Pardoning Political Prisoners

President Bashar has pardoned about 600 political prisoners and closed the infamous Al-Maza military prison. Further, in January of this year, the political leadership closed the military courts, which had been in operation for 37 years.

However, it seems that the executive branch has not been in a hurry to carry out the President's instructions; this led a group of Syrian lawyers to present President Bashar with a petition, protesting the disregard for the presidential pardon. "The pardon has been made meaningless and its goal has been discarded," read the petition. "The Minister of Justice ordered the release only of prisoners who have already served some months... The courts raise bail so high it becomes difficult to pay them. Those accused of money-changing [are still held in prison]... Many are still arrested for smuggling and trading in foreign currency, although [the president] pardoned smugglers. [In addition,] people remain in detention for more than a year before being brought to trial."[2]

Allowing Pluralism in the Media

There are four Syrian daily newspapers: Al-Thawra, Al-Ba'ath, Tishrin, and The Syrian Times. All are published by the ruling Ba'ath party. Another periodical, the weekly Al-Usbu' Al-Adabi, is published by the Syrian "Arab Writers Union," which is associated with the Ba'ath party. This union was harshly criticized recently for favoring the regime's interests over those of the writers. So far, the other parties in the government coalition, as well as individuals, have not been allowed to publish newspapers.

However, President Bashar recently decreed that other parties in the government's "Progressive National Front" could publish and sell newspapers in the newsstands. These parties have recently begun to publish two newspapers, Saut Al-Sha'ab ["The Voice of the People"] and Saut Al-Dimokratiya ["The Voice of Democracy"]. Furthermore, the cartoonist 'Ali Frizat, who applied for permission to publish a satirical newspaper, was given the permit he hoped for. Frizat said that seven years ago Bashar Assad visited an exhibit of his cartoons, and expressed his opposition to censorship. When Bashar was appointed president, Frizat decided to take the opportunity to remind the new president of that event. President Bashar instructed the Ministers of Information, Culture and Higher Education, to meet and discuss the request, which was then approved. Frizat's paper, Al-Dumari ["The Lamplighter"], is expected to be published in late February 2001, and will be the first private paper in Syria since 1962. Through this paper, Frizat hopes to "chase the police out of the people's minds."[3]

"The 1,000 Manifesto"

About three months after President Bashar's rise to power, the London daily Al-Hayat published a manifesto signed by 99 Syrian artists, professors, writers, poets, actors and intellectuals who called themselves "The Committees for Civil Society." This manifesto, known as the "founding manifesto" or the "99 manifesto," demanded, among other things, the end of the censorship that has prevailed in Syria since 1963, a pardon for political prisoners and the exiled, and the recognition of freedom of association, freedom of the press and freedom of expression. This manifesto and the activity around it were not covered by the Syrian press, but they raised great interest in the Arab world.

The fact that the government took no steps against the authors of the "99 Manifesto" paved the way for another manifesto, which was published in June 2000. This manifesto was signed by about a thousand Syrian intellectuals and politicians (and was therefore named the "1,000 Manifesto"). It presented a number of demands to President Bashar, including: canceling of the emergency laws, military rule and the special courts; granting political freedom, especially freedom of opinion and expression; the renewal of freedom of the press and publication; the implementation of democratic elections on all levels; securing the independence and integrity of the courts; respecting human rights guaranteed by the current constitution; canceling of the idea of a ruling "front" and a ruling party; canceling discrimination against women; and the formation of committees for the establishment of a civil society.

The "1,000 Manifesto" gained the support of the Syrian "Muslim Brotherhood" as well. The movement stated: "The talk of change in our country still [causes] shame, hesitation and embarrassment. Those in power must urge the people to take responsibility and to play an active and positive role for the public welfare. The Muslim Brotherhood has declared a number of times that it is ready to erase the past, its bruises and pains, and to relate positively to the new era, in a modern Syria based on pluralism, peaceful elections and the establishment of the foundations of a civil society..."[4]

In addition to the "99" and "1,000" manifestos, seventy Syrian lawyers signed a petition calling for the government to conduct political reforms. They joined in the call to revoke the emergency laws and demanded the legislation of a new "parties law" that would ensure the principle of political pluralism and the neutrality of the state's apparatuses during elections.[5]

Syrian Intellectuals Enlist for the Civil Society

Since the 70s, there has been a ban on forming independent civil associations in Syria. Recently, a group of Syrian intellectuals began to hold conferences, and proposed the formation of an association for the establishment of a civil society. In order to stay within the confines of the law and to avoid investigations, they declared that the meetings were held in the framework of the "National Dialogue Club." The group met at the home of Syrian MP Riyadh Al-Seif, for a series of lectures on democracy and civil society.

The participants in these meetings were given the opportunity to speak freely, reported Al-Hayat's Syria correspondent Ibrahim Hamidi, who was present at one of the meetings. At this meeting, Dr. Shibli Al-Shami lectured on the "right [freedom] of speech." "Since 1958," he said, "the Syrian regime has been a dictatorship... The fundamental problem is that the oppression is from within. Today our government says: 'Say what you like, and we will do what we like.' Because of this, there are those who do not dare to speak, arguing that the security apparatuses record everything. Don't believe it, brother. We are leaving the past behind, even though we don't forget it. We demand a civil society and we must forgive in order to begin anew..."

'Issam Mirzu, a citizen present at the lecture, stood up and said: "I am not educated like you all. I am a peasant.... I feel like a foreigner in my own homeland. There is only one opinion here. We are not accustomed to having [even] two opinions. Everyone has to keep with the line. Only when I traveled to Europe, a couple of decades ago, did I discover that, contrary to what my teachers taught me, George Orwell was not a villain..."[6]

MP Riyadh Al-Seif, applied for permission to form a new party that would be called the "Civil Peace Movement." According to Al-Seif, it will be a liberal one. He is waiting for a new "Parties Law" that will allow its official establishment. 350 intellectuals, Syrian and foreign journalists, and "observers" were present at the meeting in which Al-Seif announced his party. The quotes are in the text of the Al-Hayat article and indicate that the "observers" were members of the Syrian security service. Also present at the meeting were five professors from the University of Damascus who are members of the leadership of the Ba'ath party - Faysal Kulthoum, Ibrahim Za'rur, Muhammad Al-Ahmad, Rafiq Sallah and Hussein Al-Zu'bi.

Hamidi reported that Al-Seif presented his party's platform, and caused some anger when he spoke of "The Ba'ath Party's monopoly on power" and the fact that the Ba'ath Party "gives itself the right to govern the country and the society through Pan-Arab rhetoric that conceals leftist tendencies, while removing from the political arena any other ideas. As a result, the vital element of competition... does not exist." The five Ba'ath Party professors present asked to refute some of Al-Seif's claims. They accused him of collaboration [with foreign elements] and hinted that he had made a fortune as the representative of Adidas in Syria.[7]

This argument attests to a broader phenomenon: the Ba'ath Party has turned into the primary target of reformers criticism. Economist Aref Dalila, who was expelled from the University of Damascus in 1998 for criticizing the government, was one of the first to sign the "1000 Manifesto", and in his view, the reforms will be put to the test in the next parliamentary elections. "There is disagreement," he wrote, "between those who don't want change because they are accustomed to examining history through their own interests, and those who don't see how the situation can remain as it is."

"Many citizens hope and dream about reforms, but they need a leader... The coming parliamentary elections in 2002 will be the best umbrella for reforms that will assure economic, social and political revival. If this opportunity is wasted...the implications are bound to be very difficult... The success of the reforms will be guaranteed if the people, in all of its sectors, awaken to take part in carrying out the reforms... The revival [must] begin from the heart - the legislative branch - in order to spread throughout the body."[8]

*Eli Carmeli is a Research Associate with MEMRI. Yotam Feldner is MEMRI's Director of Media Analysis.

The Battle for Reforms and Civil Society in Syria - Part II

[1] Syrian Press Agency, July 17, 2000.

[2] Al-Safir (Lebanon), January 24, 2001.

[3] Al-Hayat (London-Beirut), January 15, 2001.

[4] Al-Hayat (London-Beirut), January 16, 2001.

[5] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), February 2, 2001.

[6] Al-Hayat (London-Beirut), January 13, 2001.

[7] Al-Hayat (London-Beirut), February 2, 2001.

[8] Al-Hayat (London-Beirut), January 24, 2001.

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