"Time for change" by Sami Moubayed with Commentary
Sami's latest article is right on. Syrians will put up with sanctions lite if the government moves ahead purposefully with internal reform designed to free the economy. Of course, it is hard to do this when being isolated. All the same, there is a tremendous amount that can be done to the economy with or without Western support. Syria is not a hostage on this issue. Sami is urging the government to move more quickly, but there is no reason to believe it will. The President did not present a compelling reform agenda in his speech. He could have use his speech, which gave adamant political support for his family and state security structures, to make clear that the price of that support would be real economic reform. He did not. In many ways, that was the most depressing part: the silence on reform.
Pressing ahead with reform will create short term instability and internal wrangling at a time when the president believes he can least indulge such divisions, but doing nothing is worse. Syrians must be compensated by forward movement on the domestic front if they are to accept backward movement and increased isolation on the foreign front. Bashar must show them that he has a plan.
The defiant tone of Bashar's speech may turn out to be good in some respects. The UN had given Mehlis a carte blanche to diddle around with the most important officials of Syria with no limitations. The presidency was clearly targeted. No country could allow such liberties to a foreign power - not even a country as weak as Syria. It would have opened the door for America and the West to carry out agendas well beyond finding justice for the death of Hariri. It is clear that the West does not know exactly what it wants from Syria and is making up its policy as it goes. Most thinking people suspect contradictory agenda's would quickly surface, i.e. differences between France and the US and between the UN and France. Bush's Nov 11 demand that Syria "start importing democracy" is a case in point. We moved from a Qaddafi deal to democracy over-night. Syrians may want more democracy, but few want it dictated by the US or implemented through the most recent UN resolution and by Mehlis. Maybe some day they will decide that only Washington can instruct them in democracy building and that sticking with their government is damaging. That day has not arrived. The US should pressure Damascus for more democracy, to observe important international protocols on human rights, and to follow due process in the law. Trying to subvert the state will not advance this cause or reassure most Syrians.
The big mistake in Bashar's speech, to my thinking, was his ferocious attack on Lebanon’s leadership. Here is the excerpt:
The truth is that today Lebanon has become a passage, a factory, and a financier for all these conspiracies. In other words, Mr. Al-Siniora could not make good on…or maybe he was not allowed to make good on (his commitment), because he is the slave of a slave. What is happening now has nothing to do with Al-Hariri’s assassination.The accusation that Lebanon has become a factory of conspiracies against Syria exacerbated justifiable Lebanese fears. It has given the US a real opening to claim that Syria is hatching plans to intervene in Lebanon through more than legitimate political and economic persuasion. President Asad must make it perfectly clear in the future that Syria does not contemplate the use of force in Lebanon. The "slave of a slave" insult was damaging and suggests that Syria has yet to understand the full implications of Lebanese independence. He will have to use diplomacy to help his allies in Lebanon, not undermine them with outlandish insults to their Lebanese partners. He placed Hizbullah and Amal in a terrible fix, not to mention the many Sunnis who are uncomfortable with the way Lebanon has given western ambassadors such latitude to influence internal policy in the country. There are many Lebanese who value good relations with Syria. Bashar must get them on his side. He cannot ask Lebanese to be either with him or against him on the Lebanon issue. They will choose Lebanon and not Syria. The lesson of resolution 1559 was that no Lebanese party wanted Syria to remain in Lebanon. Hizbullah gave Syria a kiss good-bye at the door, but it didn't give the traditional Arab entreaty: "Lissa bakir. Shrib kaman Ahwey" [It's still early. Drink another coffee.]
On Iraq and Palestine, Bashar was very moderate. In fact Ibrahim Hamidi pointed out to me that Bashar actually moderated Syria's traditional position on both countries. In Iraq he condemned all terrorism, whether carried out against civilians or state targets. He asked for good diplomatic relations with the Iraqi state. He did not talk about legitimate resistance. As for Palestine-Israel, he said he would support Abu Mazen and made no reference to Palestinian resistance groups. How much one should take these statements as an indication of policy shift is not clear, but there is a potential opening, which will undoubtedly go unnoticed.
Time for change
Damascus launches an internal reform programme in a bid to appease the Syrian street, Sami Moubayed reports from the Syrian capital
Sunday 13 Nov. 2005 from al-Ahram Weekly
The Damascus government believes that the only way the Syrians will firmly reject the impact of UN Prosecutor Detlev Mehlis's report and Security Council Resolution 1636 is if it creates a timely, thorough internal reform programme. Judging from the Iraqi precedent, the Syrian government realised that a population that is dissatisfied will not defend its government in times of crisis.
But the fact is that the majority of Syrians are dissatisfied not because of the lack of political freedoms or because of Syria's current standing in the international community. On the contrary most Syrians today are rather apolitical. Rather they are dissatisfied for reasons that merely cosmetic change will not rectify.
Many of the promised socio-economic and political reforms were originally expected in June 2005 following a Baath Party conference.
The new reforms are two-fold: on the one hand political, and on the other socio-economic and educational. The political reforms are intended to satisfy the intellectuals, activists and politicised Syrians who have been complaining that political change has been slow since 2000. These people, however, represent a minority of Syria's 18 million.
When he came to power in 2000, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad promised economic changes and regime officials said that political change would follow. The argument was that political reforms would not be appreciated by a population that, first and foremost, demanded better schools, higher wages, lower real estate prices and better hospitals.
And Al-Assad promised to live up to these demands. In 2003-2004, 5.1 million Syrians -- around 30 per cent of the population -- were declared to be living below the UN poverty line, while in 2005 it was announced that two million Syrians could not even meet their basic economic needs. It was these people, rather than the politicised Syrians, who were declared to be the priority on the agenda of the government.
In 2000, Al-Assad took over a stagnated economy with a growth rate of 2.4 per cent. The population, however, was growing at a rate of 2.7 per cent. The economic measures taken by the new president paid off initially and by 2003 -- mainly because of trade with Iraq -- the economic growth rate increased to 3.4 per cent.
But when Iraq was invaded things fell apart not only in Syria but through much of the Middle East. In 2004, the economic growth rate dropped to 1.7 per cent. Oil production -- which accounts for 75 per cent of Syria's exports -- reached 604,000 barrels per day (bpd) in 1996 (the highest point in years) but declined to 450,000 bpd in 2005.
One of the earliest decrees passed by Al-Assad concerned the privatisation of banks, breaking the government monopoly over the banking sector that had been in force since 1963. This reform has not been effective since to date credit loans to individuals have not been issued by private banks. Instead loans are given only to influential businessmen whose reputations guarantee repayment. Meanwhile, transferring money out of Syria continues to be complicated and highly regulated while transactions are slow. As one observer, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: "the only reform private banks has given citizens is that they wait for a shorter time in queues, they carry out transactions in rooms with air conditioning and better furniture, and they deal with employees who are better dressed and more eloquent than their counterparts in the government banks."
Meanwhile, wages have been raised by the regime since 2000 by more than 50 per cent, and ambitious plans have been declared to help combat unemployment, estimated officially at 11 per cent but is close to 20 per cent in reality. The Anti-Unemployment Commission signed an agreement with the Industrial Bank in 2005 for SP1 billion to help develop 2,000 small projects in Syria, providing around 40,000 new jobs.
But for now things remain stagnant and problematic for most Syrians. A survey carried out by the Central Statistics Bureau in cooperation with the Anti-Unemployment Commission put the total labour force in Syria at 4.475 million workers. And at least 300,000 new Syrians enter the work force each year. Due to a decrease in investment -- due to the political climate -- work opportunities are also decreasing and currently, around 30 per cent of university graduates in Syria are unemployed.
Private schools have opened in Damascus and private universities have mushroomed since 2000, again, ending the government monopoly over education in place since 1963. Among the most prominent is Al-Kalamoun University in Dayr Atiya, 100 kilometres away from Damascus, which among other things is the first independent school in Syria to teach political science and international relations. Many Syrians see that the only real reform worth noting since 2000 has been in the educational sector but it takes a decade for this reform to start affecting society as a whole.
Other recent declarations include the promise to increase wages in the public sector by 20 per cent in early 2006 and to increase investment. The government has also lifted a ban on importing clothes and medicine, which should help create new businesses in Syria, increase competition for Syrian clothes and medicine factories, and put an end to smuggling that usually takes place from neighbouring Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. Overseeing the government programme is Abdullah Al-Dardari, deputy prime minister for economic affairs.
Politically, the regime issued a general amnesty on the last day of Ramadan, setting 190 political prisoners free. A hundred-and-one of the released prisoners are members of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. The rest were a combination of dissidents from different Islamic groups.
The amnesty was welcomed by activists and politicians but criticised because it did not include the famous three dissidents arrested in September 2001 -- parliamentarians Riyad Seif and Maamoun Al-Homsi and the economics professor Aref Dalilah. They may, however, be released in another amnesty, probably on 16 November, marking the 35th anniversary of the Correction Movement that brought former president Hafez Al-Assad to power in 1970.
Other positive indicators include a new lack of harassment of activists. Likewise the tone of Syrian activists in online articles and articles published in the Lebanese and Arab press has grown more heated and many are expressing their views more openly.
Finally, a new cabinet is expected to be formed later this month. The number of seats allocated to the Baath Party will be reduced and according to All-4- Syria, an online bulletin run by the reformist Baathist Ayman Abdul-Nour, the Regional Command of the ruling party has recently met to discuss an alternative to Foreign Minister Farouk Al-Sharaa, whom many consider to be responsible for Syria's current isolation. In addition the post of Ghazi Kanaan, former interior minister, has been vacant since he died on 12 October.
With regard to the Kurds, Syria has announced that it will soon grant citizenship to 90,000 members of this often persecuted minority. And finally, the multi-party law -- promised by Congress in June -- is expected to be passed by the end of the year. If fully implemented, it would dramatically change the climate in Syria and end the socialist monopoly over political life.