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memri
February 26, 2004 No.
668

Intellectuals Petition for Democratization and Reform in Syria

In early February 2004, seven hundred Syrian intellectuals signed and circulated a petition on the Internet with the aim of collecting one million signatures, in advance of submitting it to the Syrian authorities on March 8, 2004 – the anniversary of the Syrian Ba'ath party's rise to power. The petition (see Appendix) calls, inter alia, for abolishing the state-of-emergency laws that have been in force in Syria for over 40 years, for releasing political prisoners, and for permitting Syrians forced into exile to return. While very few reports on the petition have appeared in the official Syrian media, Syrian writers have written in support of it in the foreign Arabic-language press. The following are excerpts from two articles from the foreign Arabic press and one from the Syrian press:

'The Biggest Syrian Petition to Date'

Syrian journalist Sha'ban 'Abboud wrote in the Kuwaiti daily Al-Rai Al-'Aamabout the resistance to change within the Ba'ath Party:"It is not surprising that every day there is an increase in the number of Syrian intellectuals and writers signing the petition that calls for an end to the state of emergency imposed in Syria in 1963 and [raises] additional demands for other democratic rights for citizens who have lost patience with the slowness of the promised reforms. This is the biggest petition [yet], and the number of signatures on it should reach several thousand. Today, a state of confusion, worry, and anticipation prevails among the Syrian citizens, [to an extent] that has not been seen for many long years.

"It is true that the changes in the region following the American occupation [of Iraq] have influenced this, but the inner despair at [the lack of] serious domestic reform, the worsened living conditions, and the problems of corruption, unemployment, backwardness in education, and lack of transparency in the judiciary play a bigger role in the Syrian citizen's distress.

"Today, the Syrian discussion circles in the various cultural and social circles are moving in the same rhythm, and the same questions recur… The state and all its citizens appear to be sitting around a single table and going around the same closed circle of sterile debate – or in a long, dark, and endless tunnel."

'Corruption Became Open, General, Shameless, and Fearless of Punishment'

"It appears that the reasons for the confusion are all connected to the regression following the slogans of the great reform. The grand promises to fight corruption, develop education, act for the independence of the judicial system, fight unemployment and improve the standard of living, ease bureaucracy, and develop the party and political situation have produced nothing. The corruption in the government apparatuses grows stronger every day, and has even become open, general, shameless, and fearless of punishment.

"Whereas this internal regression, after many promises, was one of the factors in the despair and confusion among the Syrians, then the political and regional changes that happened and are still happening are playing an important and major role in providing a basis for this worry and this anticipation.

"… In the leading circles of the Ba'ath party, discussions have begun, with the aim of leading to the party's development and advancement… These discussions … reflect the concern prevailing in the party following the fall of its other branch [Iraq] after the American invasion. They also reflect [the Ba'ath party's] clinging to power and standing, however tardy, against the international and regional changes that have emerged since the collapse of the Soviet Union…"

'Historic Turning Points Meant Nothing to the Ba'ath'

"The historic turning points meant nothing to the Ba'ath Party thinkers and leaders. Only the American occupation in Iraq, the fall of the Iraqi Ba'ath, the threat of military attack on Syria, and regime change have created the need and the calls for change, as the concern and fear about losing privilege are what motivate thoughts of development and renewal today – not a reading of history… There should be no expectation that the Syrian Ba'ath Party will make historic decisions, because of the magnitude of the corruption among the members of the Syrian Ba'ath and because of the lack of a reform think tank [based on] centers of power that could ultimately implement its plans…

"All the data show that the Ba'ath members' ideological fanaticism is today a memory of the past. The true, believing, and genuine core of Ba'ath founders has dispersed among the booty of the regime and among the corruption [that the regime enables]. Some chose to resign or to join another party, and some emigrated, whether voluntarily or involuntarily.

"Of its 1.5 million members, many joined the party for reasons other than ideology, belief in [Arab] unity, freedom, and socialism. Anyone living in Syria knows that hundreds of thousands joined the Ba'ath party looking for jobs, or in order to evade some danger, or out of personal considerations. [This is why] it is hard to spot [a sense of] the importance of change and renewal among the [Ba'ath] leaders, let alone among the rest of the political and social spectrum in Syria – primarily because the name of the Ba'ath, and some of its officials, have been linked to corruption, bureaucracy, and damage to the political freedom [of Syrian citizens]…

"Today's Ba'ath leaders are for the most part officials best known for their loyalty to the [existing] regime and for defending it during hard times, rather than Ba'ath members who concern themselves with ideas and ideology. Any change in Syrian political life that does not bring about a revival of democracy-based party life and does not enable all the forces to express themselves and develop the party situation without conditions or limitations set by the Ba'ath party will remain a failure…" [1]

'The Best Way for Syria to Face the Challenges is to Open Up to a Civil Society and to Civil Rights'

Muhammad Ali Al-Atasi, [2] an activist in the Syrian Civil Society movement, wrote in the Lebanese daily Al-Nahar about the need for democratic reform: "Since the democratic demands made by Syrian society have not changed much during the four years of Bashar Al-Assad's rule, this proves the justness of these demands, and the need to push more than ever to meet them because of the stagnation of the current regime, and also because of the depth of the recent regional and international developments.

"The 9/11 attacks, the war on terror, the occupation of Iraq, the Israeli bombing of the outskirts of Damascus, [3] and the American and Israeli threats to Syria and Lebanon, the Syria Accountability Act, and the addition of the clause of democratization for the Arab regimes to the agenda of the American administration – all leave no doubt that the best way for Syria to meet the challenges is to open its political regime to the elements of civil society, to grant basic freedoms, and to permit [its] Lebanese neighbor to break free of the mentality of guardianship and being a satellite, in favor of two countries and peoples, which will benefit both Syria and Lebanon [that is, a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon]."

'There is an Urgent Need for a New Language of Practical Political Opposition Activity'

"However, clarifying the democratic demands and reiterating them in communiqués, petitions, and articles in the press have changed nothing. The Syrian regime has not responded positively, and has managed to ignore the honest voices from every direction that call on it to immediately launch a process of political reform before it is too late.

"The situation today is like a dialogue of the deaf. The policy of communiqués and petitions ended its role a long time ago, and there is an urgent need for a new language and different ways of political opposition that will be more practical … and will succeed in achieving genuine concessions on the part of the regime… For a while, previous communiqués helped to shift the obstacle of fear within society, and to reposition democratic reform at the top of the political opposition's priorities…

"Anyone following the Syrian arena knows that it is impossible to collect 100,000 signatures on any petition calling for political reform – so how can one million [on the current petition] be expected? I do not mean that this number of supporters of the demands for democracy does not exist within Syrian society – but [I mean] first of all that the police state in Syria is continuing to play its role, and that its security grip is still strangling society, and that most people are still showing the opposite of what they hold in their bellies, primarily with regard to the economic interests of those beloved by the regime.

"Breaking this vicious cycle based on a balance of horror and repression, and pushing the citizens to emerge from their silence and fear, demands much more than a policy of 'communiqués.' This is the biggest challenge facing the political forces that aspire to be active within Syrian society. Every step taken by the Syrian regime towards loosening its security grip on society will ultimately be to the good of the Syrian democratic movement." [4]

Teshreen Editorial Board Member: 'The State of Emergency Damages Syria's Reputation Abroad, and Hurts the Regime's Stability'

Hassan Yousef, who is a member of the Syrian government daily Teshreen's editorial board, addressed in Teshreen the issue of the petition and the state of repression in Arab countries, including Syria. In response to an anonymous letter from a reader, Yousef wrote that he had in the past signed similar petitions, and had not signed this one only because he hadn't heard about it. In the article, he wrote: "It is your right to stand in the darkness and hide behind a pseudonym. Personally, I respect all citizens' rights, including the right to hide behind a pseudonym, and I am certain that people are hiding … because they are afraid.

"It must be admitted that the activities of the regime's various apparatuses in the Arab countries have given the ordinary citizen much justification for this fear… We have heard of many people who suffered because of their open views, and unfortunately this is still possible.

"Yet while you hide in the darkness, you have no right to demand that I stand in the light, expose my soul to you, and show you my dreams and aspirations. I have no guarantee that you are nothing but a sniper who asks me to stand in the light so you can aim at my heart! Nevertheless, I am responding to your request … as a long time ago I decided that my truth would be the same in darkness or in light.

"You ask to know why I did not sign the petition calling for abolishing the current state of emergency. Personally, I think that this state of emergency harms the reputation of our country abroad while not helping the stability of the regime from within.

"But I did not sign the petition because it never reached me, and I didn't know about it. In the past I have signed a number of more general petitions and communiqués, but a long time ago I realized that the journalist is, as Albert Camus said, 'the historian of the moment,' and that the task of the writer is to touch the conscience of the reader so that he will execute the change.

"The writer is responsible not only for the correctness of the words that he writes, but also for the influence that his writings have on society… Our media still handle problematic issues as does a child who sees a tiger: He covers his eyes and says 'I am not here.' [Then], all the tiger has to do is gobble him up…" [5]

Appendix: The Petition

The petition was published in the Lebanese daily Al-Nahar on February 10, 2004. The following is a translation.

"On March 8, 1963, the Council of the Revolutionary Leadership declared a state of emergency in Syria. Although 41 years have passed since then, the state is still bowed under the yoke of the emergency laws, whose effect encompasses all areas of the life of society and citizens in Syria. As a result, society is under siege, its movement is halted, its potential is damaged, and thousands of citizens are thrown into prison because of their opinions, political views, or charges that do not constitute a criminal offense.

"The ramifications of the emergency law (the military laws and the special courts) have engendered special military laws, that depend to a large extent on the whim of those carrying them out.

"We, the undersigned, ask the Syrian authorities to remove the state of emergency and to abolish its ramifications and its effects (legal, political, and economic), including:

  • "Abolition of all the military laws and all the state-of-emergency laws;
  • "Ceasing all arbitrary arrests;
  • "Releasing all political prisoners and prisoners of conscience, and compensating the injured parties;
  • "Reexamining [cases] of revocation of citizenship (for political reasons);
  • "Returning the exiles to their homeland, with legal guarantees;
  • "Opening the case of those who have disappeared, revealing their fate, regularizing their legal status, and compensating their relatives;
  • "Giving democratic freedom, including the right to establish [political] parties and civil associations."

[1] Al-Rai Al 'Aam (Jordan), February 12, 2004.

[2] Al-Atasi founded the Al-Atasi Institute in Damascus; in his November 2003 interview with The New York Times, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad referred to this institute to demonstrate Syria's political pluralism. See Assad Tampers with New York Times Interview: One Message to Americans, Another to Syrians, ' Assad Tampers with New York Times Interview: One Message to Americans, Another to Syrians,'

[3] A reference to the Israeli bombing of the Islamic Jihad training camp at Ein Al-Sahab near Damascus, on October 4, 2003.

[4] Al-Nahar (Lebanon), February 12, 2004.

[5] Teshreen (Syria), February 18, 2004.