By Fadwa al-Hatem
This commentary was published in The Guardian on 31/05/2011
The inhabitants of villages such as Talbiseh, or Rastan – that is, those who have not fled for their lives yet – will most likely be unable to give their opinion regarding this bill.
They have been under tank and machine gun fire for the past few days while the Syrian military widens its crackdown against protesters throughout the country. If they are not as enthusiastic or grateful as they should be about this elections bill then surely they are forgiven. The family of 13-year-old Hamza al-Khatib, whose horribly mutilated body was handed back to them by the security services last week, can also be forgiven if they are not impressed in the slightest.
The bill itself, made up of 68 articles, is about organising the means by which members of the Syrian parliament and the local councils will be elected. It also "guarantees" the integrity of the election process, while proscribing penalties for those who would interfere unlawfully and improperly. Most importantly the bill will place the supervision of these elections under the control of the judiciary, and not the executive.
What astonishes me most about the situation in the country is the two-faced attitude that the regime is displaying. On the one hand it wishes to be applauded for its "bold" reforms and initiatives, while at the same time its feared security apparatus continues killing, arresting and torturing countless Syrian citizens.
Two forms of carrot are constantly dangled tantalisingly in front of the population: those of "reform" and "resistance" (ie against Israel). Both are vacuous but were thought capable of keeping the regime in power indefinitely.
For anybody who follows such announcements regularly, the official and unofficial government media are always peppered with words such as "civilised", "progressive" and "development" – terms for something that is supposedly in a constant state of progress, or transition. This is what we find today in Assad's Syria, with political reform always something that is to be studied and applied moderately, but never actually implemented. Reform is the promised land that nobody will ever reach.
It seems that some reforms are far more urgent than others, though. In 2000 the Syrian constitution was amended almost instantly to allow the young Bashar al-Assad to be "elected" as president. Until then, the constitution excluded anybody younger than 40 from the presidency, but the amendment lowered the restriction to 34, which happened to be the age of the new president.
Similarly, sober lawmaking was found recently in the removal of the decades-old state of emergency, only for us to find draconian "anti-terror" laws being put in its place – another legacy for which we can thank George W Bush. In the name of reform, the Syrian regime giveth and the Syrian regime taketh.
Second, the issue of "resistance" and championing the Palestinian people's rights is something that many Syrians, including myself, have always felt very strongly about. Yet, incredibly, we are expected today as Syrians to consider the term "resistance" as the exclusive property of the Assad regime.
It is implied that if the Syrian revolutionaries had their way they would allow the opening of an Israeli embassy in the plush Damascus district of Malki tomorrow, and allow the relocation of the Palestinian people to a desert outpost on the Iraqi border.
Apparently Syrians are just waiting to betray the noble Arab cause in a trice if they are not savagely repressed at every opportunity. We are, to paraphrase Rousseau, being forced to be free – for our own good, of course.
Irony aside, it seems the Syrian regime does not yet understand that both these carrots can no longer work. What the Syrian people want is not phoney e-government websites or cheaper sugar and diesel. The people want the torture, killings and arrests to stop, full stop; they want their dignity back; they want an end to the endemic corruption and a dismantlement of the intrusive secret police.
Genuine political reform can never be possible while your own people are being killed in the streets. Nor, with regard to justice for the Palestinians, does it have to come at the expense of individual freedoms and rights. The people of Syria want their country back, and it is up to Assad, if he is serious about his future legacy and about reform, to give it to them.