The Umayyad Square in central Damascus.

Tug of War in Syria

Following President Bashar al-Assad’s assumption of power in July 2000, an increasing number of political activists in Damascus have emerged calling for a greater say in decision-making and advocating a return to democratic culture, political pluralism, and a liberal economy. First to speak out along these lines was Damascus MP Riad Seif, who in January formed an unofficial party called the Movement of Social Peace, advocating capitalism, an end to one-party rule, and democratic dialogue among all segments of Syrian society.

In other signs of the times, the Communist Party newspaper Sawt al-Shaab (Voice of the People) re-appeared on local newsstands 43 years after a government decree prohibited its publication. In December the Nasserist Party, although loosely present in public life for over 30 years, merged with another unofficial party, the Movement for Unity and Democracy. February saw the debut of a pro-Nasser newspaper, alWahdawi (The Unionist). That same month, an independent journal of political satire, al-Domari (an archaic Damascene word meaning “he who lights the dark”), was issued in Damascus, headed by renowned cartoonist Ali Farzat.

Of all the breakthroughs, however, the most important probably will be the possible restoration of the outlawed National Party—a move expected to be complete by May 2001.

The National Party was founded in 1928 as the National Bloc, a coalition of urban notables bent on evacuating the French through diplomatic means rather than armed revolt. It was a movement for the wealthy aristocracy of Syria’s major urban centers—Damascus, Homs, Hama, Aleppo, and Latakia.

When independence was achieved in 1946, the bloc renamed itself the National Party, and was led by then-President Shukri al-Quwatli, a Damascus landowning politician with an exceptionally unblemished record. The party’s dean was Fares al-Khoury, a multi-dimensional lawyer, politician, poet and mathematician who had assumed the premiership during the Mandate era. Sabri al-Asali, a traditional chief in Damascus who was to serve as premier several times during the 1950s, was secretary-general.

The National Party established a secular, constitutional democracy based on universal male suffrage, and earned a majority vote in 1947’s parliamentary elections, re-electing Quwatli to another five-year term as president. In 1949, however, Quwatli clashed with the military officers in Damascus, and his regime was overthrown, causing the National Party to fall from grace.

In 1951 the National Party was outlawed by Adib al-Shishakli’s military government and, with Quwatli in exile, disappeared from political life altogether. Quwatli returned to Syria in 1955, nominating himself for office once again. His supporters rallied around the slogan that was to mark the party’s future policies—“Put an end to the officers at home.” Upon his re-election, President Quwatli packed Syria’s bureaucracy with National Party sympathizers. He resigned from office in 1958, however, to join in union with Gamal Abdul Nasser’s Egypt.

By the time Syria united with Egypt in 1961, the tide had turned against Quwatli and his generation of politicians. For one thing, they all had reached advanced age, distancing them from the country’s increasingly youthful population. Over a 15-year-period the National Party also had antagonized the statesmen of Aleppo, Damascus’ traditional political and commercial rivals, and seriously alienated the country’s class by refusing to give in to its ambitions and demands. More importantly, the National Party was at odds with the Baath Party, which opposed its urban characteristics, capitalist nature and liberal policies. Being traditional socialists, the Baath considered everything affiliated with Quwatli as reactionary, backward and ultimately wrong.

When the Baath came to power in March 1963, rather than cooperate with the National Party it terminated its political license, banished its entire leadership, outlawed its publications, rescinded the civil rights of party members, and had those who refused to leave Syria placed behind bars.

Overnight, the most celebrated men in Syria, hailed 17 years earlier as the creators of the country’s independence, were referred to in state-run newspapers as “reactionary traitors” and, in socialist terminology, “bloodsuckers” of the nation’s peasant class. National Party Secretary-General Sabri al-Asali was locked up, his property was confiscated, and he died bankrupt in 1976. Former Prime Minister Lutfi al-Haffar and parliamentarian Fakhri al-Barudi suffered similar fates, as did President Kuwatly, was who was exiled to Beirut, where he died in bankruptcy in June 1967. Baath Party authorities curtly refused to permit his burial in Damascus. Only when the late King Faisal of Saudi Arabia intervened on Quwatli behalf did the government relent.

Quwatli’s death marked the apparent banishment of the National Party from Syrian political life. The party was over and done with—or so it was thought.

In 1998 Umran Adham, a Paris-based Damascus millionaire who had previously served as President Francois Mitterand’s envoy to Syria, approached President Hafez Al-Assad and requested the right to re-launch the National Party. According to Adham, Assad replied, “It is the natural right of any citizen to apply for a political license. Go ahead apply, and we will see.”

Knowing that this was a polite way of saying “forget it,” Adham postponed the proposed revival. In January 2001, he once again proclaimed his intention of re-launching the National Party, claiming that a team of Syrian legal minds was in the process of laying out party by-laws and reactivating its constitution. Upon completion, the project would be presented to the Ministry of Interior for official authorization.

If everything went as planned, Adham added, the National Party would be in place for Syria’s November 2002 parliamentary elections. Reactivating a political culture that existed prior to 1958, he said, the new party would aim at “attracting” Syrian youth to political dialogue and activity,

The question being raised in Syria today, however, remains to what extent the Baath Party will welcome back a traditional enemy. Although Kuwatly and his generation are long dead, their ideology, aims, and objectives apparently are not. It took the Baath Party 30 years to erase all mention of the National Party leadership from history books, movies, documentaries—from, in fact, national consciousness altogether. From the years 1963 to 1990 the mere mention of their names in public was taboo. Things began to change in 1990, when Defense Minister Mustapha Tlass, a Baath Party veteran related by marriage to National Party co-founder Saadallah al-Jabiri, became the first government official to restore legitimacy to the National Party.

By demanding its restoration into Syrian public life, Umran Adham has taken a further step toward restoring the party’s pride. If anything, the party will attract the country’s urban notables—all the one-time upper-class landowners who have been transformed by socialist doctrine into middle-class professionals—and all those related, either by emotion, ideology, or heritage, to the outlawed party. It would also serve as an attractive alternative to those who are fed up with the claim that socialism means the end to all human misery.

To some, the return of the National Party’ means a retreat into darkness and reactionary politics. To others, however, it is, in Franklin Roosevelt’s words following the Great Depression, “an end to normalcy.”

The Regime Counterattacks

The government’s level of tolerance of free political discourse was marginally reduced on Feb. 19, however. Although the state continued to express its willingness to listen to criticism—so long as it was constructive and aimed at the country’s collective improvement—and gradually restore freedom of speech, somewhere along the way things got out of hand. In every district of the country mushroomed intellectual forums calling for the overthrow of the ruling party and, in many cases, the revoking of the entire existing order—something the Assad administration considered “unacceptable.”

Striking back, the Baath Party dispatched 17 of its top-ranking officials to major cities and institutions throughout Syria to relay the official response to the accusations and instruct all involved on how to deal with future challenges. The first high-ranking official to assert government policy was Vice-President Abdul Halim Khaddam, who, along with Safwan al-Qudsi, Secretary-General of the Socialist Unionist Party (a puppet organization of the Baath), met with the Damascus University faculty on Feb. 19 and 20. Kudsi described his mission as aimed at putting an end to the intellectual demands of “chaotic change.”

These changes, financed by the mercantile class and championed by, in Qudsi’s words, “so-called-intellectuals,” do nothing for the national cause, he argued, but instead “turn the country back to French Mandate times.” The state, he announced, would “advance what already exists and not eliminate the existing order.”

Speaking before a large audience, Khaddam added that last summer, when the new administration expressed its willingness to tolerate political discourse, it was looking for dialogue with conflicting views, not open incrimination of the existing regime. Such talk, he added, was beyond “the red lines of the state” and “would not be tolerated.”

Making similar appearances were President Assad’s second vice president, Zouheir Masharka, Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa, Master Speaker Abdul Qadder Qaddura, and Prime Minister Mustapha Miro. Spreading throughout the country reviving long-ago Baath slogans and defending their cause against the accusations of intellectuals and reformists, they claimed that, since coming to power 37 years ago, they had worked for what in their eyes was best for the nation’s collective interest.

According to the state-run newspaper Tishreen, their mission was to “advance the role of the [Baath] Party, enhance the aspects of centralized democracy and maintain the link of life with the masses into a more dynamic relationship between state and society.” Commemorating the Baath Party’s 37th year in power, the newspaper went on to say that the party had put an end “to the era of backwardness,” and established a state in which the aspirations of the people are respected.

Two New Movements

In response to these government efforts, two new intellectual movements were created, one initiated by 16 intellectuals led by Jamal Hunayydi, a lawyer in the Suwayda district of the Arab Mountain, and the other called the “Al-Hassakeh Conference for Cultural Dialogue.” Both advocate the restoration of civic society and an end to one-party rule and emergency laws in place since the Baath came to power in March 1963.

Although the state recently has made it illegal to launch such movements without proper authorization—even if meetings take place in private homes—neither movement in al-Hassakeh or Suwayda is authorized. Similar intellectual forums recently were shut down in Aleppo, Banyas, and Tartous for not having secured proper authorization.

In the first state response to these intellectual movements, the Baath newspaper said in an article in late February, “We do not deny at all that our experience has included mistakes. It is not flawless, nor is it ideal, and it needs study to end all levels of standardization, looseness, chaos, and isolation. But to speak of certain changes in the name of the people means to crumble the past 40 years of the people’s experience in achievement and construction.”

The paper went on to ask, “Does civic society and urbanization mean a return to the status of the Mandate? Or does it mean a return to the state of political chaos, local struggles, patron-client systems, and quarter bosses?”

In a surprising move, Damascus MP Mohammad Maamoun al-Homsi, renowned for his courage and open discourse in parliament, declared on Feb. 24 that he was supporting the intellectual-reformist movement and rallying around Riad Seif, founder and president of the unofficial political party Movement of Social Peace. Seif, an industrialist who stands as Damascus member of parliament, inaugurated his political machine in January 2001, without government authorization.

Seif called for an end to one-party rule and creation of a constitutional assembly to draft a new legal document for the country. Other demands included the restoration of political pluralism, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press. A capitalist by nature, Sayf has been a vocal critic of socialist doctrine, declaring in a mid-February interview with the Beirut-based newspaper The Daily Star, “Socialism is dead.”

Apparently upset by Seif’s outspoken campaign and attacks on socialism, Minister of Justice Nabil al-Khattib requested on Feb. 16 that Master Speaker Abdul Qadder Qaddura grant permission to bring Seif before a court of law on the charge of defying the constitution. Seif, declaring that he was protected by parliamentary immunity, refused to accede to the government’s regulations. While he continues to hold political forums at his Damascus residence, upon hearing news of the measures to be taken against him, he told a Reuters interviewer, “The Damascus spring is over.”

In accordance with the new law forbidding unauthorized political gatherings, Sayf declared that no political forums would take place in the future. Instead, friends would be meeting at his house for coffee and afternoon chats. Although the structure and elements of conferencing and debate were abandoned, political content certainly was not.

Coffee and Chats

Among those who have shown up at Seif’s residence since the government regulations were issued and ignored was outspoken Damascus MP Maamoun al-Homsi, who declared in an interview with the London-based paper al-Hayat, “It hurts us as parliamentarians to see how our colleague Seif was treated by the vengeful campaign enacted against him.”

He and his fellow reformists, Homsi continued, were “all consistent in our support, by word and heart, for Assad,” but were facing opposition from those “who want to turn out the light,” since it threatened their personal, rather than the national, interest.

Not all regime officials were corrupt, Homsi observed, and, likewise, not all of them were opponents of change. “There are honest people in the Baath Party and in the state,” he said, “and we will work with them, as one hand, in a peaceful manner, to serve the interest of the homeland.”

Homsi, who in 1999 earned respect for approaching the late President Hafez al-Assad during his fifth swearing-in ceremony, recounting the problems facing Syria and politely asking for change, since has rallied around Sayf in heated parliamentary debates.

Other speakers who ventured into Seif’s “coffee gatherings” were his academic ally, Dr. Aref Dalilah, along with Dr. Walid al-Bunni, Communist Party veteran Fateh Jammous and political activist Assem Marzo.

Marzo, the most colorful of the participants, addressed Seif’s audience in traditional uniform. Speaking in strong Damascus slang, he said, “My name is Assem Mirzo, and I am a Damascene born in 1936. I fled the country, first to Moscow then Beijing, then Malta, until I decided to give up on politics, return to my farm, and herd my cows.”

He fell from grace, he added, because he predicted publicly in 1977 that the days of the Soviet Union were numbered and said so to Abdul Qadder Qaddura’s face. The reasons for this predicted fall were inherent in totalitarian states, Mirzo had said—hinting back then that this might be Syria’s fate, too.

Striking a balance so as to remain politically correct, Mirzo went on to tell the group, “The young president has earned my admiration, because he wants to change, modernize, and awaken Syria. I am sure that he will succeed. Dr. Bashar said to me personally: Oh Citizen, speak and let me hear you—and that is exactly what we are doing.”

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, April 2001