Interview with Ayman Abdelnour by Joe Pace
Interview with Ayman Abdel Nour - Editor-in-Chief of "All4Syria" and Member of the Baath Party
By Joe Pace
21 July 2005
Many analysts were disappointed by the results of the Ba’th conference and pointed to it as evidence that Bashar is not committed to reform. Why do you think that the conference did not result in more substantial changes?
You have to take into consideration that you are speaking about a party that has 2 million members and you want to keep it united as one body. Second, you have to understand that Bashar’s speech was addressed to both the Syrians and the West, so it contains different messages. I think that now that the Regional Command has only 14 members, it will be able to enact change much faster than the old 21 member Command.
The Bath Party is not a party; it is a movement. It contains all the elements of Syrian society, from the illiterate to the most highly educated teacher who wins international prizes. You find secular people and conservative people. What unites them is that they want to build Syria and a better future. Everything is big and vague and general, especially in the application. If you read the literature in the 1960s, its all out of date and nobody is applying it because it is against imperialism and for Marxism and such.
They gather and they discuss the agenda and then they tell the government what to do and what to say.
Now they have a new definition of socialism: social justice and equality under the law. The right to have a job. Sadat did the same in Egypt and it split his party into three parts.
For the conference, this was the biggest recommendation they could make and still stay united. If they had taken a more reformist stance they would split and fracture.
What are the lines on which they would fracture?
The fracture lines are in the labor rights. There was a huge debate for the last nine months to adapt a new definition instead of this social, directed economy. The debate was about the market economy, they saw that it would jeopardize the rights of the worker and labor unions and privilege the private sector. So they adopted the name, the social market economy.
The president wants to say that they are separating the Bath from the government. This is important for the business community because we are heading for a market economy. Third, this is a message to the Damascene business community, since he brought an independent (Abdullah al-Dardari—deputy prime minister for economic affairs) to help economic reform and he has orders to do anything for the businessmen. They want to absorb and buy the business community. For the first time, the president met with the Damascus Chamber of Commerce.
It was opposed by all the peasants and labor unions.
How would you describe the new members of the regional command? Do you consider them reformists?
It depends on what you mean by reformists. You have to have a vision and an understanding about what has happened in other countries. You have to know languages and follow the western media and understand international relations. You have to visit other countries and study the experiment of reforms there and met officials and diplomats. According to these criteria, you will find only two or three in the regional command who fit into this category. The others want to develop, to reform, but they don’t have any plans or agenda. But at least, they will not stop reform initiatives like the previous Command.
What sort of things did the previous one stop?
It stopped the economic reform plan twice. It stopped the draft law, suggested by the government, to reduce the steps to give licenses for NGOs. The new government is preparing the draft and will send it to the parliament and regional command soon. In 2003 the president ordered the Bath to stop interfering with the daily work of the government, but the command paralyzed the decision after a few months from passing it. [Decision 408, 21 June 2003]. But these guys are new and poor so they don’t have an economic interest to defend like the older generation.
In the constitution, the Bath regional command sets the agenda. And the government implements the policy. This was the reality.
We have to let the Bath Party work as a political party, as any ruling party, and the government should work as the government of the nation. Right now the Bath interferes in every small issue. Now they are separated.
Why was All4Syria — a website Ayman created in 2004 that compiles articles mostly written by regime critics — banned when several oppositional websites are permitted in Syria?
For a simple reason: let us assume now that we have a PC and we surf the internet. We go to those opposition cites and what do we see? The Assad family is very corrupt and we have to change them or kill them. The Alawites are running Syria and we should finish them off. We need freedom of speech and to free political prisoners. The corruption in Syria must end. The Bath is very bad—we should abolish it. You go to my website and you see: this is the official, this is his name, he did this, made this decision, which is wrong because of this, and because of his wrong decision he will impact this sector in this way. The president sent this delegation, and they are under-qualified and should be changed an replaced the following people, and I list them. The Baath Congress lacks reformists, I wrote following elections in June; the government should appoint 150 reformists into the Party to make up for their absence, I recommended.
If the average person reads the opposition websites, they think “we will not endanger our lives with these Utopianists.” But the regular citizen reads my news…. There is no concrete or useable information against the officials in the opposition websites. “All4Syria,” is actually much more scandalous because those in the government who employ these idiots will see how badly qualified they are and figure out with whom they should be replaced.
The purpose of “All4Syria” is to launch dialogue. It’s the first sanctioned newsletter to cross all the red lines and all the taboos in Syria. It was the first to criticize the intelligence apparatus, the National Bath Command, the Regional Command, even employees in the presidential palace. So we were the first to promote the sense of freedom of speech, to open dialogue. It strengthens the community. When people see that they can participate in the dialogue, they will defend their society.
What is the impetus for reform?
There is a genuine need from inside. They cannot continue in the same way with the same people with the same slogans in the 21st century. First, a socialist, directed economy cannot attract foreign investors or even the Syrian ex-pats. Investment is very badly needed to create jobs for the labor market. The unemployment rate is increasing and this will cause a huge problem for the regime in the future, which will not be able to control the streets.
Second, Syria needs to improve its trade balance. Oil and raw materials account for more than 80% of the total exports. In 2011 consumption will match production, so Syria will start paying for its energy balance. So it needs hard currency; unless it changes the structure of its export to be finished material, it won’t be able to cover the trade deficit and to bring in hard currency. This is even more pressing because of the high growth rate and because of the need for technology and equipment to replace the old generation that was used in the public sector in the 80s—all imported from the USSR.
Third, there are the bourgeois and the new businessman and some high officials – this layer needs an open market to prosper and grow, so it pushed for changing the economy thoroughly and the tools used by the government and Bath party.
They cannot continue with the one party system because of this new class, the rise of conservative Muslims. They need associations and entities to defend their interests. Unless these associations are controlled by laws that require transparence and allow them to work above the table, they will work under the table, risking the stability of the regime.
Are they going to get rid of the one-party system?
Yes, they cannot keep on like this. Especially after the fall of Iraq. Now everyone is saying that the one party dictatorship only exists in North Korea, Cuba and Syria. It’s become a joke. So they need a new system. But that doesn’t mean they would compromise their interests.
How do they do that without compromising their interests?
There are a lot of systems: there is the Turkish model in which the National Security Council controls everything and defends the constitution and secularism. Or the Chinese system: one party, but they can absorb the businessmen. There is also the experiment of Jordan, in which the parties fight inside the parliament but under the head of the regime who is the king.
What sort of party law do you expect?
I expect it after a year or a year and a half; it will forbid explicitly ethnic or religiously based parties. They will have to be nationwide, having offices and members in all 14 governorates, and to gain a licence, parties will have to surpass a certain minimal threshold of members—a few thousand.
What do you say to those who contend that the party law is window-dressing; specifically, that it will mandate impossible conditions for parties to obtain licenses? Such as there have to be supporters in every district, there have to be several thousand members, etc.
Does the Democratic party in the US not have supporters in every state? Is any state not represented by the German parties? How can you have a national party and not have representatives in every part of the country? This is not a big issue.
Regarding numbers, I think that it will be a few thousand, but there is a difference between members and supporters through signature. Until now it is unclear because you can gather one million signatures of people who agree with your objectives and slogans, but it doesn’t mean that they are members. It’s unclear whether they want signatures or members. The party must be serious, not like Jordan where there are 35 parties and only two succeed in electing people to parliament, so the others are like a political salon, not a party.
Then is the Party Law going to be accompanied by a Press Law that enables prospective parties to disseminate their platform in order to get the prerequisite number of members?
If the leadership does not have a clear vision towards the transfer of democracy, this will fail. The most important thing is not the Party Law by itself. More important is the election law which could undo the accomplishments of the party law. We need a new information law. We need a new law for syndicates. We need a new law for private associations and NGOs. We need a new law for the right to access information. Unless those laws are completed and have a vision, we have a problem; it will bring more problems. We have a lot of new laws in different sectors that bring more problems than they solve because they are miswritten. Then the government forms a committee to explain the law and explain how to implement the law, then in the end, they end up rewriting the law and it just creates more confusion.
The new information law—there are many changes from the publication law. It adds many chapters to enable giving licenses to television, radio stations and websites. They replace the jail penalty with a fine. It takes away the power of the prime minister to close a publication and gives it to all government members. So if the government wants to close a publication they will study it in a report written by a committee of three members (including minister of justice) to justify this position, then send it to the whole government to vote.
This regime has tried human rights activists in the High National Security Court for "disseminating false information" and issued prison sentences. Under this new law, could someone—say, from a political party or a human rights organization—be imprisoned on similar grounds under the new law?
The new law covers journalists. You will still need the names from the security apparatus before getting approval so no political newspapers will be accepted.
A lot of Western analysts speculate on competing power centers within the government; to what extent do you think power is truly centralized in the hand of President Bashar?
The president is 100% in control of the government. That was very clear when he changed all the high officials in the army and the intelligence apparatuses.
What role do you think the opposition will play in these reformist initiatives?
There is no opposition. At the congress, it gave the government a good image that there is a democratic opposition. A lot of websites are opened which highly criticized the regime and the president. The government considers this good because it shows the Syrian citizens how idiotic and immature the opposition is, so they will stick with the regime. But when it begins to become a problem, they will ban it.
What are the circumstances under which the government would begin to fear the opposition?
The government fears that they will be united. If some of them had an agreement with foreign powers to interfere. And if the government fails to deliver to citizens a better level of life and job opportunities, the people will be able to be mobilized. Even if they don’t agree with the slogans or the objectives of the opposition, they will move against the regime. So the regime is trying right now to finish and tackle the tension points that concern the average citizen and to solve them. This is why the government has taken a lot of popular decisions in the last 3 months, like reducing the car customs, new ISPs and reducing costs of the internet fees, buying the industrial businessmen through launching the first industrial conference, and signing all the requests from the industrialists. For the first time in his 5 years, the president met with the board of the Chambers of Commerce in Damascus and Aleppo.
Will the effect of these decisions trickle down to the lower classes or are there new government initiatives to appease that segment?
There is a set of issues they will do soon to buy all the people. They will have the new law for the NGOs and they will start to formulate a social safety net to give loan and aid to the poor people and also they will have a plan to develop areas in the northeast of Syria.
How threatened does the regime feel from US pressures and how do you think it is likely to respond?
It fears instability. All the same, the government is very sure that it cannot be changed. The US will not interfere militarily, and there are is no other way to change the regime. There is no real opposition that could mobilize the street. And also, there isn’t a clear cause which would make people rise up and go to the street because the regime is also solving direct points of tension. This is the difference between this regime and Saddam’s regime.
Here the regime is very clever. It doesn’t ignore even the smallest point of tension that an outside power might take advantage of. You cannot name any single problems that would mobilize the people. They directly solve the problem. This is their strategy, which they inherited from Hafez. Do not let anything spiral out of control; finish it when it is small. Kill it or solve it.
How is this regime likely to respond to increasing international isolation?
It has an exit strategy; walking towards democracy like the announcements after the congress, bringing a new independent deputy prime minister - Abdullah al-Dardari - and trying to build bridges to the EU and to enhance the relationship with Turkey and the Arab world.
How did the withdrawal from Lebanon impact internal stability? Did the regime loose face in the eyes of the people?
It would have had a greater impact if it weren’t accompanied with those harsh, awful slogans used by the Lebanese opposition against Syrian people. But those slogans keep the street with the regime because it has touched them, not the Syrian officials who took the money or the Syrians who mistreated the Lebanese. The mistake of the Lebanese is that they attacked the Syrian people and the Syrians—the average citizen felt humiliated and insulted. So he is now backing the procedures taken by the government, like arresting the fisherman and raising lawsuits against the Lebanese for the killing of the Syrian laborers and for the border inspections of Lebanese trucks.
It damaged the prestige of the regime a little, but this move on the Lebanese part killed everything. Economically, Lebanon will be more affected than the Syrians.