Friday, September 23, 2011

The Ba'ath Party's Grip On Syria May Finally Be Weakening

If Bashar al-Assad's regime does cling to power, it may be forced to amend the constitution to allow for greater political pluralism
By Daniel Pye
Bashar Assad
                          Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad. Photograph: AP
More than six months of protest in Syria have so far failed to topple the Assad regime and there are no signs that either peaceful protest or armed resistance will do so any time soon.
For years, Syrians opposed to President Bashar al-Assad's Alawite-dominated regime have sought alternatives to his rule. As a result of the uprising the regime has been forced (albeit torturously slowly) to implement a series of modest reforms first pledged when Assad came to power in 2000. It has approved a series of laws on demonstrations, the media, political parties and elections – the latter scheduled to be held in February next year.
Most Syrians taking part in demonstrations that I have spoken to reject all the regime's attempts at reform, seeing them as a disingenuous last-ditch attempt to cling on to power.
There are others, however, who think the regime may have dug in enough to prevent its overthrow. Such people may use whatever means are available to open up society as a result of these reforms, while continuing their activism.
Ask Syrians what needs to change before concrete reforms can be taken seriously and they will say that article 8 of the constitution, guaranteeing Ba'ath party rule, needs to be scrapped.
For the first time since 1973 this may be an option, as pressure from the street has forced the regime to convene a constitutional assembly to draft a new document. The new constitution would end presidential appointment of the prime minister and, in combination with the new political parties law, could pave the way for greater pluralism.
Although the parties law restricts the formation of new parties in a number of ways – they cannot be based on religion, tribe, ethnicity, gender or race – it allows, at least in principle, political parties to organise openly against the Ba'ath for the first time in generations. Kurdish and Islamist parties, however, will not be tolerated.
There could be the beginnings of a freer press as more publications are allowed, though it is not clear whether the suffocating state censorship of the media will be toned down or abolished altogether. Private media opening under the new law will probably be the preserve of the wealthy oligarchy that grew up under Assad's tenure, at least to begin with.
Journalists in Syria are frustrated and angry. In July I had a long conversation about the Syrian media with two editors, one from the 24-hour state news agency, Sana, and another from a prominent daily newspaper.
"I just got back from Daraa, it was horrible. The soldiers are occupying the mosques and writing sectarian slogans on the walls and I can't report it," the Sana editor said. "I lie every day."
"That's not true," the newspaper editor replied. "You lie every minute, I lie every day."
If elections are held in February as planned it seems likely they will enshrine the current ruling powers. The new elections law is based on an archaic law in Egypt. Half of the 250 seats in parliament would be allocated to workers' and peasants' representatives. It is revealing that Syria's richest man, billionaire businessman Mohammed Hamsho (he is Maher al-Assad's brother-in-law), has run for a workers' seat in the past.
But even members of Syria's street opposition are willing to entertain the idea that the regime's "reforms" might be the first sign of rain that heralds an end to the drought of political freedom and social justice. It is unlikely that many of the so-called reforms – introduced years ago in neighbouring countries – will be implemented unless the horrific violence stops. But some Syrians are willing to use whatever peaceful means are at their disposal to effect social change.
A previously heretical reality is beginning to be recognised by the rulers of Damascus: that the Ba'ath party cannot survive with the same methods of control it that got it into this mess. Its antiquated propaganda and Siguranta Statului-style shadow government must be dismantled willingly, or be swept away by the anger of the streets.
-This commentary was published in The Guardian on 23/09/2011
Daniel Pye worked as a correspondent for the Daily Telegraph in Syria since
February 2011 before taking a post in Jakarta, where he works as an editor at the
English-language Jakarta Globe

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