Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, December 2000, Pages 31, 80
Syria’s New President Bashar Al-Assad: A Modern-Day Attaturk
By Sami Moubayed
Historically, leaders who have succeeded their fathers as heads of state have deviated from their parents’ specific policies—without, however, abandoning their predecessors’ ultimate goals. King Talal of Jordan, for example, was quite different from his father, King Abdullah I, and King Abdullah II was different from his own father, King Hussein. The same applies to Saudi Arabia’s King Saud, who succeeded his father, King Abdul-Aziz, in 1953. Nor is President Bashar Al-Assad of Syria an exception to the rule. Since officially coming to power on July 17, Bashar has managed to break many negative norms, shake off primitive restrictions from the past, and garner sincere public support among Syria’s disgruntled youth.
In January 1994, three months short of completing his medical residency at St. Mary’s Hospital in Great Britain, Bashar Al-Assad cut short his studies to attend the funeral of his elder brother Basil. He journeyed to Damascus to attend the service, share in the family grief and, supposedly, return to London. Instead, to his surprise, his “short” visit lasted for six years and, rather than becoming a practicing ophthalmologist, he became president of the republic following his father’s death in June 2000.
The product of a Western education, with a cosmopolitan upbringing and independent views, Bashar has begun implementing his own cultural revolution. No sooner had he been sworn in as president than he issued a decree banning photos of him and his father—plastered on every wall throughout Syria—from public display. Overnight, thousands of pictures of Hafez Al-Assad, some in place since the 1970s, disappeared. Bashar backed his action with a statement saying that the new regime wanted to follow a realistic policy that did not immortalize and over-exaggerate its leaders. The photographs now can be found only in government offices—a black cloth frames the picture of the late president, side-by-side with a shot of the new leader, wearing a stern expression while his blue eyes gaze into the unknown horizon. Bashar’s edict was a relief to the Syrian people, who were disturbed by the ever-increasing photo mania, a must in Syria’s departed political culture.
Other reforms quickly followed: a 25 percent wage increase was instituted, some decades-old bureaucratic laws were canceled, and Syria’s two-and-a-half-year military service requirement, which alienated the country’s educated youth and resulted in their self-imposed exile in the Gulf, was somewhat reformed. Previously, any Syrian male not enrolled in the university at the age of 18 was drafted into the army, where he would undergo a crash course meant to “make a man out of him” in order to face the “ever-present” Israeli threat. To evade service, young men fled to the Gulf, where a law stated that after five years of work, they could pay $5,000 for their military exemption. Those who did not get a chance to work in the Gulf were forced to go to Lebanon, Europe, the U.S. or the Far East. There they would remain until they were 55 (the age for military exemption). By then, however, having worked for decades and raised their families abroad, almost all of them declined to return home.
President Bashar has made it legal for any person with an advanced technical degree, or who agrees to invest in the Syrian market a substantial amount of money (which varies with the country of exile), to come home to Syria. Another military reform requires any new cadet at the Homs Military Academy to obtain a university degree (B.A.) before enrolling.
In response to these reforms Syrians, a hard-working and simple people by nature, who have had to suppress their hopes and dreams for decades, have begun reaching for the sky. Some speculated that wages would “definitely” increase by 100 percent, others that the state would restore to its rightful owners land nationalized in 1964. Some went so far as to say that the new president would break the Ba’ath Party’s hold over Syria. In fact, none of this happened. But other liberalization laws have followed, making it legal to import a car, for example, and allowing private Lebanese banks to open in the Free Zone area.
All the reforms have been well received—except the wage increase. After a rumor circulated that civil servants would receive a 75 percent increase, military officers 100 percent, and judges 140 percent, the relatively measly 25 percent increase was seen as a bitter slap in the face. Even worse, the small increase caused cigarette prices to skyrocket throughout Syria, causing much public displeasure among a population where the majority are heavy smokers.
Political reforms have been made in a gradual and delicate manner. The Muslim Brotherhood leaders who had threatened the regime’s existence in 1982 and have been in jail since then were set free. After long years of either prison or exile, the Brotherhood was too weak, bankrupt, and displaced to do more than say “thank you” to the new leader, and rally in support around him. Most could not afford to continue to oppose the state any longer.
With their opposition out of the way, the young Assad has begun reforming the state from within. Ex-chief of staff Hikmat Shihabi, for years one of his father’s right-hand men and long considered Bashar’s main rival for the presidency, was welcomed back home. Four days before Assad’s death, Shihabi, a Sunni from Aleppo with close links to Washington, was forced into exile under charges of using his position as chief of staff, which he held from 1974 to 1998, to garner illegal wealth. Apparently believing in the motto, “More friends for Syria and fewer enemies,” Bashar al-Assad asked Shihabi to return and received him as an honored guest at the presidential palace.
Freedom of speech—a privilege Syrians lost in 1958 when, as part of Syria and Egypt’s United Arab Republic, Gamal Abdul Nasser became their president—was marginally restored. Everything and everyone was open to what Bashar al-Assad described as “constructive criticism.” In his first four months as president, he received four open letters of appeal from disgruntled Syrian citizens, all published in the Lebanese press, asking for political, economic, and social reform. Claiming that Syria was in terrible condition, the letter-writers—very politely—demanded change. Surprisingly, they were tolerated by the regime, signaling that the era of regulation of thought and speech was over. This led to greater courage on the part of the public, and in September, 99 Syrian intellectuals issued a public manifesto in Beirut calling for freedom of speech, the lifting of martial law imposed on the country since 1963, political pluralism, a general amnesty and freeing of political prisoners. Among the signatories were some of Syria’s most renowned figures: the poet Adonis, the philosopher Sadeq Jallal al-Azm, novelist Haydar Haydar, historian Abdullah Hanna, filmmaker Mohammad Mallas, and actor Khaled Taja. Although many of them were living in Damascus, no measures were taken against them.
Another indication of the government’s growing tolerance was the return to the state-controlled newspaper, Tishreen, of renowned Syrian thinker and university professor Aref Dalila. Having been silenced in recent years for his outspoken thoughts, Dalila had been forced to leave the country and abandon his teaching career. He returned at Bashar Al-Assad’s urging, marking his comeback with an article in Tishreen arguing that one-party rule was the cause of Syria’s economic strife. Reforms could not succeed, he argued, without the removal of many of the figures in power for the past three decades.
Bashar Al-Assad also is attempting to keep Syria’s military presence in Lebanon, Syria’s protectorate in the region, as discreet as possible. During Lebanon’s September parliamentary elections, Assad declared a hands-off policy. To everyone’s surprise, Syria’s strongest supporters, Prime Minister Saleem al-Hoss, Beirut chief Tamam Salam, and war-time militia leader Elie Hobeika, all suffered humiliating defeats. And when Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir seized the opportunity provided by Syria’s transfer of power to issue a statement calling for the evacuation of Syrian troops, Syrian authorities, although none too pleased, made no serious attempt to silence the pro-Sfeir movement that erupted overnight. Once again, when the Damascus-based Greek Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius Hazem supported Sfeir’s plea, authorities made no attempt to keep him quiet.
During his first four months in power, Bashar Al-Assad has tried to appeal directly to the Syrian people. Unlike his father, who in recent years always had been present in the Syrian subconsciousness but never in real life, the young Assad is following the Hashemite family model in Jordan. Since assuming the presidency, Bashar has been known to take the wheel and drive around Damascus, followed by a two-car entourage, even stopping at traffic lights. Syria’s new young president also has lunched with friends in public restaurants, and attended Friday prayers at various mosques, accompanied by only two bodyguards. By contrast, when his father needed to get around town, roads were sealed off and the president traveled in an entourage comprising of 10 automobiles, a mine detector and an ambulance.
President Bashar Al-Assad is revolutionizing Syrian society at a slow and delicate pace. To date, he has tried shaking the Syrians out of their stuffy Puritanism, exposing them to technological innovations long lacking in Syria, such as cellular phones (which Bashar introduced in February 2000), and the Internet (March 1999). The eyes of the Arabs will be on him in the coming year as he faces the challenge of living up to his people’s very high expectations.
Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst. He is a specialist in Middle Eastern affairs and an author of two books on Syria.