Reform in Syria? Prospects and Assessments

In his presidential inaugural speech before the Syrian parliament, Bashar Al-Assad focused on repairing his country's ailing economy, modernizing the bureaucracy and enhancing democracy.

In his presidential inaugural speech before the Syrian parliament, Bashar Al-Assad focused on repairing his country's ailing economy, modernizing the bureaucracy and enhancing democracy. He emphasized the importance of introducing reforms, but, at the same time, he gave no sign that Syria's democratic experience will resemble that of the West. He stated: "Western democracies are the product of a long history…We should have our own democratic experience springing from our history, education and civilized personality…and arising from the needs of our people and reality." What kind of democratic experience was Bashar alluding to?

In official Syrian parlance, this democratic experience is known as Ta'dudia, meaning pluralism. Central to this is the concept that reforms will enhance political representation and inclusion and, by extension, freedom. Admittedly, Syria is fairly known for its religious pluralism, a vestige of its Ottoman heritage and structure of government (known as the Millet System). The hardening in attitudes toward, persecution and/or harassment of minorities in the former Ottoman provinces have not, to a more or less extent, become part of the socio-political landscape in Syria. Historians and analysts contribute this condition to the fact that Syria itself has been governed by a minority sect, the Alawite, which is regarded by orthodox Sunni Muslims as heretical. Interestingly, as some historians point out, the esoteric Alawi religion contains certain liturgical features that are partly Christian in origin. For example, Jesus Christ occupies a prominent place in Abu Abd Allah Ibn Hamdan al-Khasibi's teaching, a leading tenth century (fourth century by the Islamic calendar) Nusayri jurist. Alawis were previously known as Nusayris, a word with arguably Christian connotations. Others argue that the leadership in Syria has sanctioned cultural and religious freedoms in exchange for political acquiescence. In either case, thanks to religious pluralism, co-existence among Syria's religious communities has been fairly harmonious.

In sharp contrast, Syria's religious pluralism has not been matched by economic and political pluralism. Will the Syrian leadership, as Bashar promised, introduce reforms that will bring about political and economic pluralism? Will Syria's religious pluralism provide the conditions for accepting political pluralism? And what kind of political pluralism does the leadership and, particularly the reformers, envisage for Syria?

Ta'dudia was first launched by the late president Hafiz Al-Assad, who upon his assumption of power established the Majlis Al-Sha'b (Parliament) and the Progressive National Front-a group of parties affiliated with the ruling Ba'ath party-and promulgated a new constitution. These institutions, according to the regime, offered political participation and thus represented a pluralistic system. These institutions, in practice, have been none other than a means to broaden Assad's basis of support by co-opting and containing political forces. Assad sought to legitimize his regime by institutionalizing it. For example, when Syria's influential merchant class, along with some independent forces, had begun to call for some economic liberalization and political participation, Assad, in 1990, enlarged the parliament from 195 to 250 deputies. Third of the seats have been reserved for independent deputies, the majority of whom have been businessmen. Still, on account of their overwhelming majority, the Ba'ath party and its affiliate, the PNF, have controlled the agenda and decision-making process of the parliament.

Significantly, the call for significant reforms and reform under Assad's tenure had been respectively tabooed and insignificant. This has changed under Bashar's rule. Bashar's statements and initial actions of political liberalization, such as permitting the publishing of newspapers (Al-Domari, the first privately owned published newspaper in over three decades) and releasing political prisoners, fostered an atmosphere of change that was speedily capitalized upon by many Syrians.

In September 2000, a group of 99 Syrian intellectuals issued a statement calling for political reforms. The statement called for ending the state of emergency, issuing a public pardon to all political detainees, establishing a rule of law recognizing freedom of speech, expression and assembly and freeing public life from all forms of state surveillance.

Obviously, this was a political manifesto, albeit not a revolutionary one. The statement was mildly crafted. It adhered to neither an ideological line nor a position threatening the regime. Interestingly enough though, the signatories included the most prominent intellectuals in Syria (such as Adonis, Sadek Jalal al-Azm and Haidar Haidar), many of whom were employed by state-run institutions.

Before long, public forums addressing reform and revitalization of civil society, hitherto banned, mushroomed in Syria. In January 2001, the initial document ballooned into another statement signed by 1000 Syrians of all walks of life. Obviously, religious pluralism in Syria played an important role in uniting the voices of reformers by fostering a climate free of sectarian tension and antagonism. In fact, Alawis were at the forefront in signing the statement. In addition to repeating the demands of the first statement, this new document emphasized holding democratic elections at all levels and importantly reconsidering the principle of "the party rules the state and society, and any other principle that alienates people from the political life." This "principle of party rules the state and society" was a direct reference to the Ba'ath party, which is constitutionally billed as "the vanguard party in society and state."