Across the Bay

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Less than Half Empty

Ammar Abdulhamid shows, through the example of the Syrian media, how cosmetic and arbitrary the Syrian regime's willingness to reform really is:

    The coming to power of young President Bashar Assad in 2000 raised hopes that the regime would loosen the reigns significantly. But after a brief period of decompression in 2001 known as the "Damascus spring," Assad enacted a publications law that consolidated government control; he allowed the licensing of just one "independent" political magazine, owned by the son of the minister of defense; and he cracked down hard on dissent.

Ammar shows how the entire charade is tightly regulated, and can be dissolved at the regime's whim:

    [A] genuine media "glasnost" requires more than these haphazard and anecdotal gestures, no matter how brave or promising they might seem. Without the state's clear and public commitment to open up the media sector, to permit truly independent newspapers and other outlets, and to cease harassing journalists and activists, such informal moves will never acquire the necessary credibility among the country's dissidents; nor for that matter among international observers, who continue to denounce Syria's record on freedom of expression. Furthermore, the Syrian regime can easily reverse the trend at any moment. 

The funniest instance in Ammar's piece was the contention by Dakhlallah that "there [is] no basic incompatibility between Baath ideology and democracy." (If that somehow reminds you of "Islam is compatible with democracy" don't be alarmed or confused! It's not just that Baathism was meant to dovetail with Islam, or that both ideologies claim absolute Truth. It's also about the mechanism identified by Adonis as "the constant and the variable." The Baath is a constant. It's Truth. Now from that premise, how do we try to cut and paste it around changing circumstances while trying to keep the constant intact? Well, if you're Kanan Makiya, you'd say that's impossible. Democracy and Baathism are mutually exclusive.)

Dakhlallah's remark reminded me of another one he made in October 2004. I made a comment about it to a post by my optimist friend Josh Landis who hailed the appointment of Dakhlallah as a sign of serious reformist intentions on Bashar's part. I wrote in response to a quote on Dakhlallah I had seen in the Daily Star:

    "Dakhlallah has argued that the party is too big, too meddlesome and too removed from its founding principles of social justice, socialist economics and Arab nationalism."

    Yeah that's the way forward! More ideological rigidity and a return to the "roots" of the party! Is the future of democracy in Syria the past of the Baath!!?? Since when was democracy and individual rights and liberties at the root of the Baath party!?

And Dakhlallah is not the only one. The bigger sham is Minister Buthaina Shaaban, who wrote a poetic op-ed about the sanctity of rivers of blood emanating from the martyrs of the intifada, and recently slammed the Auschwitz commemorations. But I won't waste time (or blood pressure) on her.

In my comment to Josh's post I also pasted a Hit&Run post by Michael Young that still rings true:

    [T]he four-year "reform" effort of Bashar has led mostly nowhere--as indeed it could not, since the president never sought true liberalization of the Syrian system. It also shows that domestic reform by Middle Eastern autocrats is a splendid fiction if it does not at the end of the day include the possibility of a non-violent change of regime. Bashar thought he could emulate the Chinese model; now he fears he might be Gorbachev. In fact, his ways are to be found neither in Moscow nor Beijing, but in Cairo and Tunis, where the populations have just been promised several more years of the same mediocrity at the top.

Precisely. This is why placing reform in the hands of the ME regimes is futile, fanciful, and ultimately comical. If we are to work with regimes, it needs to be in tandem with external pressure, period. It is the mixture of conditioned incentives and pressures that will create the space needed to establish serious and truly free parties and institutions that the government simply cannot touch (legally), intimidate (through the secret services), or infiltrate (with cronies) and corrupt. These outposts, and the international watchful eye, are needed to keep the regimes in check, and to slowly but surely continue to carve out a larger space that will ultimately, but necessarily, break through the so-called "red lines."

So, make no bones about it, the end game is political participation which will lead to peaceful exit from power of the current regimes, and a peaceful and regular transfer of power for all governments that follow. The regimes know it, and they will resist it tooth and nail. That will keep the glass less than half full.

The question with Syria, however, is what options does it have left, if international pressure remains steady? As Michael said, the China model is out. Will Bashar now go for a Gorbachev? I'm not holding my breath.