Thursday, May 19, 2005

Syrian Moves Toward Democracy

NO, the headline is not a typo or a joke. Buried deep in the Washington Post is a report that should have been prominently on the first page. Link.
Beset by U.S. attempts to isolate his country and facing popular expectations of change, Syrian President Bashar Assad will move to begin legalizing political parties, purge the ruling Baath Party, sponsor free municipal elections in 2007 and formally endorse a market economy, according to officials, diplomats and analysts.

Assad's five-year-old government is heralding the reforms as a turning point in a long-promised campaign of liberalizing a state that, while far less dictatorial than Iraq under Saddam Hussein, remains one of the region's most repressive. His officials see the moves, however tentative and drawn out, as the start of a transitional period that will lead to a more liberal, democratic Syria. [...]

Most prominent among the reforms will be a recommendation for a new party law, said the officials, analysts and diplomats. It would envision the formation of parties as long as they are not explicitly based on ethnicity, religion or region. While this is potentially a dramatic step, analysts caution that even if the Baath Party recommends the change, enacting a law could take a year or more. Also, the party is not expected to surrender its constitutionally enshrined position as "the leading party of both the society and the state."

Emergency law allowing indefinite detention of suspects may be suspended, except in cases of national security, and the government will likely ease rules that require approval from the security services for a host of activities -- among them opening a hair salon.

As part of the reforms, the government is expected to enact a law providing for free elections of 15,000 members of municipal councils in 2007. The congress is also expected to endorse the free market as the country's economic orientation -- a break from the party's slogan of "unity, freedom and socialism." The move would formalize economic changes underway for more than a decade.

On the one hand, I'll believe it when I see it. On the other hand, it may really be happening. When Bashar Assad took over from his father, he spoke of reform, but such talk soon ended. It was widely believed that he was too reliant on his fathers old crones to buck their opposition to reform.

Two things have changed that may strengthen his hand if he truly favors reforms. First is the Bush Doctrine. Liberalization is breaking out on all of his boarders, and he cannot keep this fact from his people. Second is the humiliating retreat from Lebanon. If he can link the policies of the hardliners with the events that led up to that humiliation, especially the murder of Hariri, it might strengthen his hand vis-a-vis them.

In brief, I am not about to hold my breath waiting for this to happen, but I also will not totally disregard the possibility that some or all of it may occur.


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