February 13, 2001 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 48

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

February 13, 2001 | By Y. Feldner and E. Carmeli*
Syria | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 48

The Regime's Position

Reports in the Arab media indicate that President Bashar tolerates the activities of various groups of intellectuals, as long as the process is supervised. The Ba'ath Party, on the other hand, and the security apparatuses, do not favor these developments.

One of the manifesto's initiators, Michel Kilo, thanked President Bashar Assad "for his broad- mindedness and his positive attitude toward the manifesto. [We] want to hold a dialogue and to establish civil society institutions in the country."[1]

However, like the "99 Manifesto," the "1,000 Manifesto" was not published in the Syrian press. Syrian authorities did not ban the distribution in Syria of other Arab newspapers that published the manifesto. But, an official in the Syrian Ministry of Information met with representatives of the Arab and foreign press, and emphasized the need for "balance and objectivity in covering the issue." He called for "supporting the reforms and moderate changes."[2]

Occasionally the official Syrian press joined in the discussion about the development of a civil society. Some articles supported the activities of intellectuals. Dr. Tayyeb Tizini, for example, wrote in the November 12, 2000 issue of the daily Al-Thawra: "Wise political leadership considers [cooperating] with enlightened popular, intellectual, political and national elements."

Tizini called upon intellectuals and the media to participate in the "historic mission that is being led by President Bashar Al-Assad."[3] Later, Al-Thawra wrote that "declaring an emergency situation [whose main reason was the war with Israel] is a breach of Syria's temporary and permanent constitution."[4]

The Syrian government basically set two conditions for the activities of the intellectuals: that they refrain from direct contact with either civil or governmental foreign elements, and from any non-public activity.[5] As long as these limits have been respected, the government has not taken any steps against these new trends of reform.

Opposition to the Reforms

A: The Ba'ath Party

The Ba'ath Party, which found itself under the attack by the reformers, retaliated and hinted that the reformers are guilty of collaborating with Syria's enemies. Editor of the Party newspaper, Al-Ba'ath, Dr. Turki Saqr, warned the reformers that their ideas were bound "to stream, consciously or unconsciously, into the millstone of the enemies of the homeland."[6]

But the criticism against the Ba'ath Party gained momentum and so, Dr. Saqr wrote once again: "the reform and development process in our country is constant ... There is a general atmosphere of liberating all that is in people's minds... This is, of course, a natural, normal and good thing... But it is not natural that this is exploited by some who do not wish well for our people and our country, and who do not want to see Syria as the Arabs' strong fortress and the nation's last line of defense..."

"Throughout its history, the Ba'ath Party has had many battles against imported political ideas and against [attempts] to enforce foreign platforms and ideologies - from either the left or the right. These may suit others, but they do not comply with our national or pan-Arab situation... Therefore the Ba'ath Party has always made sure to renew itself and its methods, and has at the same time expelled all individuals, groups or streams that have wanted... to import ideas from across the ocean and force them on our party and our people."[7]

B. The Security Apparatuses

A Syrian security source claimed that the "1,000 Manifesto" is reminiscent of a "Statement No. 1" of a coup. Furthermore, author Nabil Sleiman, one of the signatories of the "99 Manifesto" and the "1,000 Manifesto," who criticized the Syrian security apparatuses in one of his books, was attacked and beaten in Ladhiqiya.[8] Officials tried to evade responsibility for the act and said that they suspect Islamic forces who wanted to protest Sleiman's "sex and pornography-strewn" writings. However, Sleiman said in a telephone interview from the hospital that "those hostile to the reform trend, and those destined to be harmed by the spirit of change, are behind the attack." Following the attack, Sleiman decided to delay all activities of the "Ladhiqiya Dialogue Club," which he headed, "until things are cleared up."

Sleiman also said that the security apparatus questioned him about the activities of the "Dialogue club" which he founded. "The truth must be told," he stated, "They came and asked me what's the club's story, its plans and the reasons for its establishment." Sleiman concluded, "The attack is not a personal message for me, but a message aimed at all of the intellectuals advancing civil society and the deepening of dialogue. There is now in Syria a language of dialogue and democracy... and there is no alternative but to pay the price."[9]

C: Ideological Opposition

A thesis on civil society published by one of the initiators of the "1,000 Manifesto," author Michel Kilo, in a four-part article in the [Lebanese] daily Al-Nahar caused a great commotion in Damascus.[10] Dr. 'Imad Al-Shu'eiby, a professor of Philosophy at the University of Damascus, published a fierce response in the Paris-based newspaper Al-Muharrir. Al-Shu'eiby's response worried the reformers because he is known to have close ties to Syrian authorities.

Al-Shu'eiby claimed that he does not oppose the idea of a civil society on principle, but rather "the way it is presented." In his opinion, the reformers have gone too far in their demands: "Our tragedy in the east is that we are the knights of revolutionary words. We latch onto words and raise them to a holy level... The thought that ideas create reality is naive... There are those who think that the state and the government can be toppled by means of civil society. This is naivete that attests to a lack of social understanding..."

"The problem is that they go all the way and demand the maximum in every thing. There has been freedom of speech for years, and we have used it in various ways. Now they want to make a change by pressing a button. They demand to change the 'political nanny of the country' [quoting Kilo], and they mean the Ba'ath Party and the existing institutions, which are responsible for Syria's stability. They want to blow up everything and start from zero. This is the naive, destructive and revolutionary logic of teenagers who do not understand politics. These are the revolutionary ideas inherited from the 1950s, which led to the 1967 disaster..."[11]

Michel Kilo rejected Al-Shu'eiby's criticism. "I do not dream of toppling the state," he explained. "This is not our goal. I believe that the state's functioning can be improved... We make sure to act within the confines of the law and publicly... We believe that Syria is undergoing change despite the fervor of some elements, and despite the tension here and there. The dialogue in itself expresses the good health of Syrian society. The spirit of change is blowing in Syria."[12]

The Syrian "Arab Writers Association" which is associated with the Ba'ath Party also expressed fierce opposition to the new initiatives. Dr. Ahmad Ziyad Mahbak claimed that the late President Hafez Assad already established a civil society in Syria, and there is no need for further steps. In an article in the Union's weekly Al-Usbu' Al-Adabi he wrote: "What is the origin of the civil society? Is it [an idea] imported from the West? The correct meaning of the civil society must come from within our Arab culture whose roots are 4,000 years old and which will continue into the future by means of the will of the Arab people to realize its Arab identity. The meaning of a civil society cannot be imported from outside the homeland... from powers that weave [plots] against this nation and have no interest in its revival or progress."

"Syria's history," Dr. Mahbak added, "goes back to pre-history. [Syria] is the cradle of civilization. Syria has always been... a product of its moral and cultural values. It never was a non-civil society."[13]

The reformers responded to this attack from the "Arab Writers Association." Syrian journalist Muhammad Kamel Khatib wrote, "The 'Arab Writers Association' has turned into an apparatus for political supervision and literary and ideological censorship. In other words, it is by now a government arm instead of being a tool for the [free] expression of the ideas and interests of writers... Chairman of the Association ['Ali 'Aqleh 'Ursan], who has extended his term indefinitely, banished those who opposed him, and others resigned soon after."[14]

Khatib recalled a statement by the late Syrian Minister of Information, Ahmad Iskandar Ahmad: "If the Syrian intellectuals and writers are not willing to go with us, we will build a new generation of intellectuals that will support us and grant us their understanding." According to Khatib, the "Arab Writers Union" is the realization of the vision of that same Minister of Information.[15]


While Bashar Assad's regime did not change his father's foreign policy regarding the peace process with Israel, and made only slight changes in Syrian policy towards Lebanon - signs of changes in domestic policies are abundant.

The activities aiming to promote a civil society in Syria have gained momentum in recent months, because the initiators have thus far not encountered any restrictions from the political leadership. Nevertheless, the government old guard - the Ba'ath Party and security apparatuses - have difficulties adjusting to the changes.

The litmus test for the reform will be the change in the parliamentary structure, which is now under the hegemony of the Ba'ath Party. An additional test will be the ability to bring about ideological pluralism to replace the Ba'ath ideology. President Bashar seems to have a generally positive attitude toward supervised reforms of this type.

*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 I

[1] Al-Hayat (London-Beirut), January 14, 2001.

[2] Al-Hayat (London-Beirut), January 14, 2001.

[3] Al-Hayat (London-Beirut), November 13, 2000.

[4] Al-Hayat (London-Beirut), December 25, 2000.

[5] Al-Hayat (London-Beirut), December 25, 2000.

[6] Al-Ba'ath (Syria), September 14, 2000.

[7] Al-Ba'ath (Syria), February 1, 2001.

[8] Al-Hayat (London-Beirut), January 31, 2001, Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), January 31, 2001.

[9] Al-Hayat (London-Beirut), February 1, 2001.

[10] Although Al-Nahar is banned in Syrai, photocopies of Kilo's article were distributed in Damascus.

[11] Al-Quds (PA), October 11, 2000.

[12] Al-Quds (PA), October 11, 2000.

[13] Al-Usbu' Al-Adabi (Syria), December 16, 2000.

[14] Al-Hayat (London-Beirut), January 20, 2001.

[15] Al-Hayat (London-Beirut), January 20, 2001.

Share this Report: