يونيو 11, 2024

State of Law & Civil Society in Syria

syria civilBasic Given of Haytham Manna’ speech in Los Angeles (26th April), Chicago (27th April) and Detroit (29th of April)2008. In the occasion of Syrian Independence Day

Syria’s last century has been one of upheaval and political-social disintegration. Colonialism, nationalism, and Islamism have each played a role in this disintegration, which has seen the law of force consistently replace the rule of law. This disintegration has left a political vacuum, with the struggle for human rights and viable civil Society the only option if we are to reclaim the political life of Syria, and rescue it from this black period of history.

  1. The Colonial Era

As in much of the Arab world, the initial upheaval within Syria’s socio-economic structures came about as a result of European penetration. With this penetration came the disintegration of Syria’s traditional society and its values. Middlemen and compradors became symbols of the new commercial order and quickly developed into a privileged class.  For better or worse, the traditional commercial class adapted itself to the new conditions in order to save its interests. They did not abandon their religious traditions, however, nor did they forget what it was which maintained these structures. All survived, the new co-existing with the old without supplanting it. The Turkish Marxist Quflagumli aptly described this hybrid situation by calling forth the image of a “sterile mule.”

Even those among the traditional merchant class who had turned to usury in their efforts to survive found they could no longer control their autonomous commercial domain. The artisan class would also find their lives and their work brusquely transformed. They awoke to a world suddenly inundated by manufactured goods, sweeping them into a pauperized proletariat. Morally polluted by despotism and steeped in religiosity, artisans cried that “Islam is dead!” (1) and banded together to revolt.  But traditional merchants, their former exploiters, urged them to cooperate with the new middlemen, whatever their religious background, reinforcing the new comprador class in its dominant position.

Intellectuals traveled a different path.  They understood by the end of the 19th century  that the best thing to do was to build on the duality they knew to characterize all colonized Arab societies.  They spoke of “reconciliation” and “harmony” and of the “positive aspects” of Western thought and Islamic culture with many advocating, for example, establishing a democratic state based on both shura (consultation) and equity.  Their best-known spokesman was Abdel Rahman al-Kawakibi (1854-1902), attorney and author of the seminal The Nature of Despotism, which argued for a democratic, constitutional project and the moral and physical integrity of the human being. Assassinated by the Ottomans in Cairo the same year the book was published, al-Kawakibi possessed the qualities which symbolize the best of what this epoch had to offer:  intellectual honesty, an open mind, and great personal courage. (2)

It was the hostility of some intellectuals toward Ottoman despotism that drove them to call for freedom and Arabism, two components that later became the rhetorical elements in the Hashemite revolt. The 1916 movement grew into what is generally referred to as the “Great Arab Revolt;” in reality, however, it deliberately muddied the ideological waters to create a coalition gathered under the Hashemite banner in order to fight the Turks and later the European colonial powers and proclaim Arab Independence. Syrian independence was declared March 8, 1920 by the Syrian Congress.  Faisal was proclaimed King July 3 of the same year.  The new King based his legitimacy on a Constitution, the “Basic Law,” which in 148 pages detailed the rights of individuals and of groups under the law, regardless of religious affiliation.  But twenty-two days later, General Gouraud and his troops entered Damascus.

 The start of the new century was marked by a host of new social categories such as lawyers, journalists, and civil servants, many of whom found liberty in exile in France and Egypt.  It is to them we owe our introduction to the first writings about Human Rights and fundamental freedoms. The Shuhada (“Martyrs”) of May 6, 1916 (3) were the on-the-ground translation of this generation’s intellectual inspiration.  In the wake of the 1925-1927 revolt, the nationalist movement brought a new dimension to Syrian political life by introducing the concept of patriotism and independence to the detriment of religious identification; one of its characteristics was to turn away from salafiyyism rather than articulating itself within a traditionalist discourse.  The birth of political parties and new socio-cultural associations   also brought about conflicts of ideas as well as of interests, while currents of nationalism opened a breach within clan, ethnic and religious structures by introducing familial pluralism, and by letting women participate in public life. Failure of the colonial project to establish a number of small, religious states — Alawite or Druze — paved the way for progressive nationalistic Arabs to abolish even the administrative autonomy of Djebel al-Arab (Druze) created by the authorities in 1943 and for the progressive factions within all religions to lead the struggle against the religious divisions within the country (4).  Thus it is noteworthy that nationalism twice ushered in fundamental liberties:  first, against the Ottoman religious entity, and, second, against the Western colonial powers.

The notions underlying human rights gained greater prominence with the birth of the Union of Arabic Women (Damascus, 1933) and of the League against Fascism (May 15, 1937).  In addition, intellectual debates were initiated that same year by a Lebanese writer who, in Damascus, published the first book about human rights on Arab soil.  He was Raif Khouri, who touched upon the history of human rights, devoting a large part of his book to denouncing fascism and managing to tightly wed the Soviet evolutionary approach to liberal ideas.  Emphasizing that democracy is a sine qua non in achieving respect for human rights (5),  Khouri dubbed fascism the most destructive force in contemporary history. On June 10, 1941, the League renamed itself the League against Fascism and Nazism.  The battle against fascism broadened even more when the League of Arab Students was formed in April 1942, its constitution embracing the goals of pro-democracy and anti-fascist students, demanding nothing less than a democratic front on a global scale and Syrian independence.

The nationalist movement was also reinforced in its commitment to democracy and opposition to colonial rule by France’s failure to respect its promises.  French ambitions came clear with its 1939 cession of Syria’s Alexandretta to Turkey, and it’s bombing of Damascus immediately after the end of WWII, followed by the storming of Parliament.  Nonetheless, in April 1946, Syria did attain independence with the evacuation of French and British troops.

The Post-Colonial Era

In 50 years, Syrian political life had changed dramatically.  Political alliances forged in the early 1900’s gave way to numerous political parties, including the Syrian Communist Party (1924), the People’s Party (1925),  the National Bloc Party (1932), the League for National Action (1933), and the Ba`ath Party (1947).  Along with these secularist parties, the Muslim Brotherhood was created in the city of Aleppo in 1937 from an assortment of Islamic associations.  Meetings multiplied as the Brotherhood attracted more and more people.  By the time of their fourth Congress in 1943, a para-military group, the Saraaya, was created.  In 1944, at their fifth Congress, a Central Committee was instituted and M. Mustafa Sibai was named “General Adviser”, organizing the Brotherhood into a bona fide political party.

Organized in hierarchical levels, Muslim Brotherhood members were sworn to “fidelity, order, obedience, sincerity, precision, prudence, and discretion.” (6)   Their program revolved around a solidification of Muslim family structure, spiritual instruction, and liberation of the home country from all political, economic, and spiritual non-Islamic power. While the Brotherhood accepted principles of political pluralism and a legitimately constituted state,  it still represented the continuing conflict between old and new, secular and religious, tradition and innovation.(8)

In Syria, as in the entire Arab world, 1948 was the year of the Nakba, the disaster.  The birth of the state of Israel on May 15 of that year launched a war between Arabs and Israelis and engendered an enduring sentiment of injustice and embattled hostility among Arabs. Embarrassed by their ineptness in confronting Israel, Arab governments were further discomfited by the effectiveness of volunteer units of Islamists and Arab nationalists, which gained them popular political acclaim and a more prominent political profile. Dogmatism and fanaticism, however, constrained their maturation, to the benefit of the National and Ba`ath parties.

A quick succession of three coups d’état between March 30 and November 21, 1950 brought Syria’s disarray to a head. Even as an armistice between Syria and Israel was being signed, a militaristic discourse within Syria became increasingly dominant.   And even as Syrian women obtained the right to vote, the Syrian Constitution was amended to make Islam the State religion and its teachings the basis of all instruction in the schools and of an all-out fight against “atheism” in the entire country.  Debates about democracy were stopped short by the dissolution of the National Assembly, the suspension of political parties, and the interdiction of all non-governmental media in 1952.

Unfortunately, nationalism in the army, on the rise since the end of the 1948 war, constituted the gravest menace to freedom and human rights.  Israel’s general militarization reinforced pressure for a corresponding military build-up in neighboring countries.  But neither Syria’s political parties nor the army developed a program that considered the needs of society as a whole rather than a military focus on Israel. This mutual weakness eventually led to the collapse of Shishakli’s dictatorship and opened the path to the country’s return to a parliamentary form of government (1954-1958).  Yet the power of nationalism returned in reaction to the tripartite invasion of Egypt by Britain, France, and Israel.  This led Parliament to agitate for a confederation with Egypt in the name of pan-Arab nationalism. On February 22, 1958, the United Arab Republic was created by uniting Syria to Egypt.  Jamal Abdel Nasser was appointed President and all political entities were dissolved.  The people and most of the political parties had thus sacrificed civilian and political pluralism in the name of pan-Arab nationalism.  July 8, 1959, saw elections in which the National Union, Nasser’s ruling party, ran uncontested.  The strangling of democracy in the name of Arab unity did not last long, however; another coup, that of September 28, 1961, led to the secession (al-infical) of Syria from its union with Nasser’s Egypt.

The failure of Nasser experience was as much a result of internal as external factors. The coup that brought down the Egyptian-Syrian union returned to power the forces which themselves had been defeated in the 1950’s.  Muslim Brotherhood returned to the political scene with the rise of a new party leader, Issam al-Attar, an intellectual open minded Muslim from the parliamentary school.  Nonetheless, the Brotherhood’s internal crises, as well as its uneasy relations with much of the rest of society, were not easily resolved and constrained its growth.   For the pan-Arab nationalists, the coup of 1961 amounted to a genuine electric shock The Ba`ath Party went about reorganizing its entire membership, but its  internal divisions and trends remained sharp and its unity a mere formality.

On their side, the Communists and Islamists supported the secession as they assumed they would regain their legal status.  Still, many Islamists as well as Arab nationalists considered this a mere transition period.  The military component of the Ba`ath Party and military officers loyal to Nasserism prepared the stage for a coup of their own.  Lastly, in 1962, Mouaffaq Eddin al-Kuzbari, a doctor of law, established the Syrian League for the Defense of Human Rights.  But in the streets, the desire for political pluralism did not outweigh the nostalgia for a time of unity. It was with the pretext of restoring this unity that another coup, this one dated March 8, 1963, brought a new government to power which immediately re-imposed a state of emergency and sealed, once and for all, the fate of normal political and judicial life in the contemporary history of Syria.

In a country where governments had been overthrown more often than elections were held, no one ever suspected this last one would survive over 45 years. Syria’s political agenda became defined by an ideology of unity with Egypt and Iraq, Arab socialism, and anti-reactionary discourse. This was baptized a revolution.

Memory constitutes a formidable weapon against the randomness of the history which would follow. But how many pages does one have to fill with collections of eyewitness accounts, supplemented by the lived realities expressed in a thousand and one oblique references to what is “private” because one cannot speak without fear and without masks? How is one to explain the transformation of Michel Aflaq’s trinity of Arab unity, freedom, and socialism into the tri-colored melodrama posited by Arendt:  destruction of the judiciary, the death of the moral personality, and cancellation of the specific singularity of each human being?

Images parade in one’s memory, jostling each other.  The massive enlistment of villagers in the army; purges for the “purification” of the military, now called “the dogmatic army;”(al jaish alaqaidi) the creation of paramilitary units (al-haras al-qaumi); the creation of  para-justice (in official language:  laws for the protection of the revolution); the reorganization of the Ba`ath Party to create units charged with re-education of the population.

The declaration of a state of emergency was followed by the nationalization of the economy and the hegemony of sections of the Ba`ath Party over the army, each of which strongly impacted Syria’s socio-political structures. A military-bureaucratic faction took the place of a capitalist class, not as rightful owners but as administrators of the means of production, distribution, information, and expression.  Delegated by the state, this faction became the state’s intermediary, and representative of its interests — it mattered little who officially delegated what to whom in the name of the state: law was made by the powerful. (8)

 Attaining supreme power so quickly bred tragic consequences. It resulted in a pathological drive toward a personality cult of the supreme leader; the militarization of a supposedly civil society; the modification of power itself such that it was exercised for the sole benefit of powerful sectors within the military. Under a chronic state of emergency, values are turned around, fear takes hold of society, and humiliation becomes the only commonality between individuals.  The ability to dream is shattered, an ability which is the vehicle of individuality and of the dignity inherent in human beings.

The state, empowered to establish laws, instead relied on extra-judicial means as the basis of its political power.  How is one to explain to the citizenry that the maintenance of order demands a permanent menace to the integrity, both physical and moral, of humanity?

However, in this situation the people in power are not shielded either – one misstep and they, too, are at the mercy of the torturer. Thus, power not only generates fear, it also possesses fear.  This is why it practices “preventive” repression.  How many citizens have paid the price for this extra-judicial prevention? We know, at least, that in 45 years, more than 45,000 individuals have been in prison and about 3,000 are still reported missing. A total number is difficult to ascertain since, for example, the number killed by Hama in 1982 and executed summarily between 1979-1982 is unknown.

In 45 years, laws have considerably evolved in the world. Each day, international conventions direct local laws toward more civil and judicial humanism. In Syria, on the other hand, the state of emergency freezes in place an under-developed judiciary and societal stagnation. So long as the independence of the judiciary is perceived as a threat by those who dominate the state, the citizen is in peril.

Political ideologies and Human Rights

The persistence of the state of emergency and the militarization of society definitively separated Baath ideology from any concern with fundamental freedoms and human rights.  The discourse of the governing people’s also created a gulf between the population and the non-Ba`athist secular parties – a virus of distrust was sown by the authorities which touched every facet of society.

The party also, of course, devoured its own children.  Just as the Ba`athists had seized the nationalist discourse from other pan-Arabic movements,  their supreme leader now seized the party and reduced its powers to a shadow of his own.  Most major Ba`ath party figures would be arrested and pass from 15 to 25 years in jail, with or without trial, it mattered not.  And so a national crusade to achieve something in which the country believed became nothing more than a barren trek across the desert.  A few days before his mysterious death in his cell after 22 years of incarceration without trial or conviction, Salah Jadid, founder of the military organization of the Party, wrote a tragic note to his daughter Wafa:

            “It was only a dream, wasn’t it?”

            “What was the dream?”

            “Everything, everything, everything that happened that year, Fania, why would I destroy             your happiness?” (9)

If the nationalist independence  parties stopped there activities, for Muslim Brotherhood, these years were also a nightmare.  From 1965 onwards the movement initiated the work of reorganization and mobilization.  They were aided by the phenomenon of growing religiosity in Syrian society which had become visible under different forms after the arrival of Assad in power, but this very growth also led to chaos within the movement.  Numerous local groups took shape independently of the Brotherhood, but soon either joined them or dissolved before taking root.

The principal difference between the Brotherhood’s experiences of before the unity with Egypt and after the declaration of the state of emergency was that the first experience was marked by the spontaneous adoption of political pluralism, while during the second period, under the state of emergency, it based itself in a totalitarian intellectual discourse. The goal became an Islamic State directed only by the Party of God purifying the country of the unfaithful and other secular persons.

The 1970’s were a time of general crisis within parties of the Left, and of the re-composition and radicalization of the Islamic discourse.  These years also saw the total decomposition of the Arab nationalist opposition.  The issue of human rights, on its part, was forcefully marginalized and the League of Human Rights only allowed to work discreetly under the aegis of the Union of Lawyers. The term democracy officially remained a suspicious concept, only to be referred to under the cosmetic cover of related concepts:  Shura, popular democracy, revolutionary democracy, and so forth.

Paradoxically, it was the rise of the Brotherhood’s that precipitated a more general movement against this political situation.  In 1978, the Union of Lawyers demanded the lifting of the state of emergency and other professional organizations followed its lead.  That same year, the Communist dissidents-Political Bureau adopted a program of straightforward democracy in place of its previous commitment to so-called “popular democracy.”  In 1980, the secular opposition founded the National Democratic Assembly, which adopted human rights in its program. (10)

The League of Human Rights and the Union of Lawyers as well as the unions of engineers, doctors, and pharmacists called for a strike on March 31, 1980, to signify the dual  rejection of both an authoritarian government and an Islamic State.  The Brotherhood, for its part, was telling its partisans to go all out against the state “because the revolution will be Islamic.”  In response, the authorities intensified their repression.  From April 7 to 13, 1980, Aleppo was given over to some 20,000 soldiers and police. Dozens were arbitrarily killed and there was looting, rapes, and 1,500 arrests. The leaders of the League of Human Rights were also jailed, including its founder and president, al-Kuzbari, who is still in prison with his friends so many years after his arrest, with no trial and no judgment.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s (MB) confrontation with the state were notoriously bloody. The butchery of Hama (February 1982) marked the end of a historic period for the Syrian MB, and ushered in two fundamental changes. One, as a result of these confrontations, the public became hostile to all religiously-based conflict. As to the Brotherhood, its defeat led it join later in 1982 the National Alliance, which included the Islamic Front, the pro-Iraq Ba`ath Party, the Arab Socialist Party of Akram Hourani, and some independent personalities.

The ideologue of the Islamic Syrian movement, Said Hawa, learned the following lesson:  “Syrians like the republican system, freedom, political activities, and equality before the law.”(11)  Hawa was convinced, perhaps, but not very convincing to others in the Brotherhood. The MB, ultimately, did not analyze its failure and the obstacles its program face in a pluralistic, multi-religious state such as Syria. To the contrary, debates concerning reform ideas largely ignored what Said Hawa had to say. Although many survivors of the confrontation with the government came into contact with human rights activists and subsequently adopted a more moderate stance toward the Islamic State, as a whole today’s Syrian Brotherhood is well behind those in Egypt, Turkey, and Tunisia. Others reinforce the Hizb al Tahrir (Islamic Liberation Party).   The physical elimination by the state of the Brotherhood’s leadership has, of course, played a role in delaying the integration of democratic reform into Political Islamic Movement program.

As to the ideologues of official nationalism, they showed little or no interest in reconciling their discourse with democracy.  Justifications of arbitrary rule included the old stand-by that an external threat justified internal repression.(12).  It was only the Left which made a commitment to democratic liberties an essential part of their political program. Of course, as a movement, the Left continues to be seriously weakened by constant arrests and other forms of repression, which have limited its ability to act.

New generation

The wounds inflicted on the Syrian League for the Defense of Human Rights were profound.  More than six years of detention without trial or verdict was so hard for SLDHR leaders after the One day demonstration (31/03/1980). Nonetheless, a new generation stimulated the organization’s renaissance, despite the heavy costs of doing so under the state of emergency.  Their animating belief is that Syria could not stay aloof of human rights much longer if it is to reconstruct its political society.  In this climate, on December 10, 1989, at the end of a three-month period of meetings among those representing various cultural, social, and professional perspectives, a communiqué was issued in Damascus announcing the founding of the Committee for the Defense of Democratic Freedoms and Human Rights (CDF), the successor to the League for Human Rights.

The new organization conducted intensive work, both inside and outside the country, to establish credible lists of prisoners, analyze the authoritarian basis of Syria’s power structure, secretly publish a journal, to distribute the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, put out an Annual Report published in Paris, and, amid these activities, generate an extensive Arab and international communication network.

The CDF was no extraterrestrial phenomenon, but rather arose out of a societal demand for some sort of protection against the arbitrary use of power at a point in time when to survive in Syria a citizen had to accept his or her marginality.  Silence, self-destruction, or the risk of disappearance were and continue to be the sole choices for a citizen. Denial of the right to work, interdictions of publications and travel, pursuit by the mukhabarat, incarceration, exile and, in sum, the impossibility of living with dignity were the grim alternatives to silence.

The junta prosecuted 17 CDF members before the High Court of State Security, and on March 17, 1992 ten of them were condemned to five to ten years in prison,  forced labor, and a surrender of their civil rights.  The trial of the CDF’s human rights’ activists did provide the opportunity for the abroad CDF direction to prove the arbitrary nature of the process of detention in Syria.  As a result, in the following three years more than 27 reports and books about Syria were published in Arabic, French and English. Moreover, we established a network of international contacts with over 120 non-governmental organizations from around the world, while being careful to refuse all help that could be interpreted as violating martial law or justifying the state’s taking of even one more prisoner.

Independent of the CDF, other networks dedicated to human rights sprung up spontaneously.  Of course, all this was done in full awareness of the government’s intelligence activities and, in general, Syria’s political realities. It is within this context that Syrian human rights defenders, in side or out side CDF, attempted to reflect on the successes and failures of the human rights project in the region. In prison, underground and in exile, they have continued to work for ways defend their agenda, and how to maintain a balance among economic, political, civil, social, and cultural rights.

The only thing left to say is that we began the 21st century in a period where the future is more uncertain than ever and where the disintegration of society is so advanced that it has become difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel.  It should be remembered that three-quarters of the Syrian population was born after the founding of the state of emergency and the proliferation of its extra-judicial laws which has generated such disarray and, even, psychosis.  There are about 150,000 Kurds still deprived of their Syrian nationality and an indefinite number of voluntary and forced exiles, lost to their country forever. But in 10 years of mobilization, More than ten thousands prisoners were released, some of them with a real intellectual construction and political rebirth. A new vision and approaches of political life begin to take place, Hafez Assad departure will be the best opportunity to open a new period of struggle.

During that period, in 1997 exactly, Damascus Center for Civil Rights and Theoretical Studies was fortifying. The Center included various important symbols of the Syrian movement. Through its intellectual magazine “Moukarabat”, it attracted the most important political and legal trends. Furthermore, the activities of the Syrian Committee for Human Rights in London increased and the preparation for a Syrian Association of Human Rights in Damascus started. Also, due to the contacts between the Arab Organization for Human Rights and the Arab Commission for Human Rights, the Friends of Civil Society Association was established at the end of August 2000. This Association gave the Revival of Civil Society Committees and the Statement of the One thousand. Also, an important number of the Syrians, who belonged to the Revival of Civil Society committees, activated in the Arab Commission for Human Rights and the Amnesty international. Also, a number of senior members in the Syrian League for the Defense of Human Rights decided to resume their activities because the regime’s decision to stop the league in 1980 was an illegal.

Authoritarian nationalism has lost its reason for its existence, but not before it destroyed the civil society.  Islamists and democrats could not establish a viable alternative due to a long oppression. The Islamic and secular parties had many difficulties in the underground reconstruction of a political life in Syria. The societal expressions took place, such as: tribal and/or sectarians, familial and geographical types. Going out of the public sphere created negative and/or traditional form of religious practices.

“Damascus Spring”

President Hafiz al-Asad died in 2000, after a 30-year ruling:  His son, Bashar al-Asad, replaced him. President Bashar had no previous experience in ruling Syria. In the early months of Bashar’s era, the young doctor took a few limited steps toward political and economic reforms. In a moment of enthusiasm, Syria-watchers called it the “Damascus Spring.” For example, He encouraged the initiation of political and cultural forums (Muntadayat). Intellectuals, politicians, and old political prisoners discussed the need for pacific transition to democratic model in an atmosphere of relative openness and freedom. Bashar’s limited support for these forums encouraged submitting petitions on political reform. Some of intellectuals established the “Committees for the Revival of Civil Society”. Three new human rights NGOs were self reclaimed.

In one year, Syria lived in a happy experience. Direct contacts and confrontations took place between the N P F (in power) and different secular oppositions. The openness was short-lived.  In mid-2001 Khaddam, Shara, Al Ahmad and Al Assad led a counter-attack against the supporters of the reforms. At the peak of this counter-attack, the regime ordered the disbanding of the majority of forums that had separated throughout Syria. From August 10 to September 9, 2001, ten persons were arrested and sent to 5 to 10 year prison. The economist Aref  Dalila still in prison up to now.

Two days before September 11 and by internal decision, the Syrian authorities stopped the process of reforms. Unfortunately, the war against terror used by the authorities against reformers. The end of the “Damascus Spring” and ambiguity of economical reform demonstrated that the new leaders of the country had no clear vision of the State of Law and the necessity for a Syrian civil society as the best protection against violence inside the country today.

Damascus Declaration

The occupation of Iraq has had deep impact on Syrian political opposition and civil society. The Iraqi situation was not an attractive example by the public and wasn’t convincing the educated elite.  Those who opposed the occupation kept active to establish a larger role for civil society and political opposition in the reforming project in Syria. The Iraqi situation created “fear” among both sides: ruler and people. Those new environments were created:  more groups wanted to re-start the Damascus Spring with a better understanding of the regional politics and the role of the opposition. The groups wanted to function within more organized structure.

During 2004-05, the Gathering for National Democratic Assembly and Muntada Jamal Attasi (Home-Club for Democratic Dialog) initiated several attempts to discuss the internal reform and Kurdish issue, in particular, issues related to Kurdish identity citizenship and culture rights. A Coordinative Committee was formed from National Democratic Assembly, Committees for the Revival of  Civil Society, Party of Communist Action, Kurdish Democratic Assembly and Kurdish Democratic Front to coordinate the mentioned initiative one year prior to Damascus Declaration. A subcommittee from the Coordinative was responsible for organizing mass demonstrations in support of Iraq and Palestine and calling the government to lift the state of emergency and release prisoners.

Damascus Declaration was established in October 16, 2005 and included groups who were members of the Coordinative Committee. Nevertheless, Damascus Declaration attracted seven independent national figures in addition to Muslim Brotherhoods and other Islamic and secular groups and personalities. For the first time, after 43 years of state of emergency, a large group of political movement, involving secular groups and Islamic, Kurdish, Assyrian and Arabs, liberals and communists, accept to work together under Damascus Declaration umbrella. Thus, Damascus Declaration became a national umbrella for many groups. (It is important to notice that Muslim Brotherhoods showed a real political and ideological improvement in joining Damascus Declaration when they signed the “National Chart” of August 2002 in London. Muslim Brotherhoods review their positions on the use of violence, pluralism, civil state, and peaceful change of government).

The Syrian Government didn’t arrest people after issuing the Damascus Declaration, although the political situation was tense since the United Nations Special Envoy announced that they will issue the report about the assassination of Rafiq Hariri in three days. Thus there was a real opportunity to open a serious dialog with the ruling party. The opposition was thinking to have a national conference for all groups. However, there was political ambiguity among the politicians and the Government on how should they treat each other. As soon as the ex-Vice President Khadam left Syria to Paris and launched a political war on the Syrian Regime, mistrust rose between the Government and oppositions.

There were two opinions among Damascus Declaration’s groups. First, that Khadam finished politically in Syria and his bad reputation will damage that of the oppositions. Second, was counting on Khadam’s relationship with the ruling figures, army and international to strength the opposition. The latter was led by Ali al-Byanouni, the General adviser of the Muslim Brotherhoods. Mr. al-Byanouni and Mr. Khadam formed “Savior Front” in Brussels during March 16 -17 2006.  The Savior Front cut all ties with the Syrian Government. At the same time, forming Savior Front ended the unity behind the Damascus Declaration, although no official declared that. Individual or groups, which made the Damascus Declaration, interpreted the declaration articles based on their needs and therefore started to work alone.

30/11/2007 was a very crucial moment in this delicate situation: A triumphal discourse of the new direction just after Damascus Declaration national conference, and a vague of arbitrary detention(13). Two important political parties (Party of Communist Action & Socialist Democratic Arab Union Party) decided to stop all cooperation with the new direction.  Syria lost in the same time, the unity of internal democratic opposition, the societal self-immunity and the possibility of a new internal integration, that’s means, any possibility of national dialogue for reform nowadays.

Is it the end of an era? The conflicts of the old generation have no place for the new one, Syrian youth questions are different from the political class project.  In this situation, Syria needs new initiatives, new political structures, and a lot of imagination. Today, it is only a political and civil rebirth founded in a commitment to fundamental freedoms and human rights which can be a bulwark against authoritarian structures of the Stat in its present form, and in the forms that will come.

Are the political leaders of democratic opposition and NPF ready to use their wisdom and embrace these freedoms in a non-violent struggle?



(*)    Haytham Manna: psychosomatic physician and Ph.D. in Anthropology, Director of the Syrian Revue MOUKARABAT (1998-2008), author of about 30 books. Manna is the President of the International Bureau for Humanitarian NGOs (IBH), Spokes person of the Arab Commission for Human Rights.

(1)During the events of 1850 at Aleppo and of 1860 at Damascus

(2)Reading:  Ecrits critiques de la renaissance by Daguerre, V. Riwaq Arabi, N. 4, CIHRS,    Cairo, 1996, pp. 119-129. (3)

(3) The last cry of an empire about to disappear was uttered by stupid, vengeful acts, criminal doings by military Ottomans without legitimacy.  Jamal Basha Al-Safah (the murderer) executed on the al-Burg place in Beirut 11 democratic militants, August 1915.  May 1916, 14 militants opposing the presence of Ottomans on Arab soil are executed in Beirut and 7 in Damascus.  In 1922, this butcher was himself killed by two survivors of the Armenian genocide in which he had played a dirty role:  Pedros Derbogosian and Estiban Zagikian.  Reading:  Thaourat al-Arab, “The Revolution of the Arabs,” by As’aad Dagher.  Second edition, Aleppo, 1989.

(4) Reading:  Histoire des Frères Musulman en Syrie by Manna, Haytham, Sou’al, 1985.  Reissued in collected volume, L’Islamisme dans tous ses ètats, Harbi, M. (Editor), Arcantère, 1991.  On May 22, 1930, the French representative declared the Syrian Constitution adopted by the Syrian Constitutional Assembly after adding article 116 about powers of representation.

(5) Reading:  Hokok al-insan, min ain wa ila ain al-masir, “The Rights of Man, from where and where to?” by Khouri, Raif, Dar Ibn Zaidoun, Damascus, 1937.  An important part of this book will soon be edited by H. Manna in a volume entitled: Les premiers ècrits sur les droits de l’Homme dans le monde arabe.  Al-Kamel Verlag, Cologne, 1999.

(6) Manna, op. cit. p. 69.

(7) In order better to understand the spirit of the era, we advise reading:  Review al-Hadith (modern version) published by two intellectuals from Aleppo (Edmond Rabbat and Sami Kayyal).  Also al-Tariq (The Road) of the CP Syro-Lebanese of the period.

(8)An incoming Minister of Defense who had been founder of the educational services of the Air Force explained to party members, “It’s the army that made the revolution…Lin Piao is second in command in China.  I’m not Lin Piao and there’s no Mao Tse-Tung in Syria…comrades?”

(9)Amnesty International, CDF-Syria, FIDH, Les droits de l’Homme en Syrie:  30 ans d’état d’urgence (Paris conference), Vol. 2, 1993.

(10) In a “Declaration to the people…for liberty, democracy and change” the RND proposes a 6-point program

                        –  The army back to its barracks;

                        –  Rescinding of the state of urgency;

                        –  Proclamation of democratic freedoms;

                        –  Liberating political prisoners;

                        –  Dissolving the secret service;

– Appointment of a government of National Unity, which organizes free elections;

and signed by:  the CP-Political Bureau, the Arabic Socialist Union (nasserian-led), the Revolutionary Labor Party, the Democratic Ba`ath Party (February 23).

(11) “Le Monde Diplomatique” March 1983.

(12) In a confidential letter of the permanent diplomatic mission of Syria to the United Nations at Geneva, dated August 31, 1992, the delegation explains the state of urgency as follows:  “The justification of the state of urgency lies with the menace weighing on the country.  Which gives authorization to the civilian government to promulgate an exceptional set of laws which, proceeding from the spirit of such laws, are able to protect the State’s territory, oceans and rivers, and fly zones from the dangers menacing them.  It has been installed under exceptional circumstances, i.e. the war opposing the state of Israel and the occupation, until today, of a part of its territory by the latter.”  The text does not explain why the state of emergency was declared four years before the occupation of the Golan, and not, either, how Syrian citizens threaten the territories of the State, its waters, and its aerospace.  This false state discourse about national security gave rise to an anecdote that said it all:  “In order better to ensure the security of the father of the nation, an essential condition to obtain such security, the army has decided to exchange with Israel one day of war for one year of the state of emergency.”

(13)  Mme. Fida Horani, M. Ahmad Touma Al Kheder, M. Akram Al Bunni, M. Jabr Al Shoufi, M. Walid Al Bunni, M. Ali Al Abdallah, M. Yaser Al Aiti, Riad Seif, Fayez Sara, Mohamed Hajji Darouiche, Marwan Al Ich, Talal Abou Dane still in prison up today.

             Basic Given of Haytham Manna’ speech in Los Angeles (26th April), Chicago (27th April) and Detroit (29thof April)2008. In the occasion of Syrian Independence Day. Thankfully and successfully Organized by The Syrian American Congress.