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Syrians Enjoy Greater Freedom but Want More


Demands for greater democracy in the Middle East are being felt across the region. Even Syria, long considered one of the most autocratic states in the region, has started to loosen its grip, allowing some greater individual freedom. Human rights and political activists say the changes have not gone far enough.

KABALAN: "It is misjudgment, miscalculation, misperception, and misunderstanding."

That blunt critique of the Syrian government's shortcomings could have landed Marwan Kabalan in jail just a few years ago. But, now the political science professor from Damascus University, is among a growing number of critics not afraid to speak more freely. It is quite a change.

For three decades President Hafez al Assad ruled Syria with an iron fist and through a pervasive intelligence network. Restrictions had started to ease somewhat towards the end of his rule, but it was not until after his death in 2000 and the emergence of his young son Bashar as president, that hopes grew for meaningful political and economic reforms. But, many say those hopes have so far not come to fruition.

But, Syrian political analysts like Ayman Abdel Nour say there has been change and it is being accelerated in part by pressure from the international community.

"There is a great freedom of speech in Syria now and less interference from the intelligence and the Baath [Party] in the government and in citizens' lives."

Ayman Abdel Nour is himself a member of the ruling Baath Party, but also a staunch critic of the government. He is the editor of an on-line newsletter on Syria, which has been banned by the government. But he feels comfortable talking freely with visiting journalists.

While dissidents may say they feel freer to express their opinions these days, their comments are likely to appear in Lebanese or regional Arab newspapers and not in Syrian ones.

Some political prisoners have been released too, and some once-exiled government opponents have been allowed to return.

But human rights advocate Haithem Maleh is careful not to overstate the changes. He says the situation is not necessarily better, just, as he puts it, "less bad." He says the changes have little substance.

"Until now what happened after Bashar al Assad came to the regime, some cosmetics, some relaxed security, as I call it, in Syria," he noted.

Haithem Maleh is president of the Syrian human-rights association, a four-year-old group that remains in legal limbo not recognized by the government, but left alone, at least for now. Mr. Maleh is a lawyer and former judge who spent seven years in jail as a political prisoner in the 1980's.

He says Syria needs more than cosmetic change.

"If we want to speak about change we have to speak about the laws, because the laws, good laws, create good life in any country. We have a lot of very bad laws published by this regime beginning in 1963 until now," he added.

Among those "bad laws", Mr. Maleh says, is the emergency law, which can be imposed at will and severely restricts personal and political freedom. And, there is the law still on the books that says the Baath Party can be the only legal party in the country. Political and human-rights activists want those law rescinded and they want a new law permitting multi-party, direct elections.

Political analyst, Ayman Abdel Nour agrees that drastic changes are needed and soon.

ABDEL NOUR: "There should be huge changes in the structure - about the connection between the Baath [Party] and the government about the structure of the government itself. So, this all should be changed."
PACE: "Is it going to happen?"
ABDEL NOUR: "If it will happen, it will happen in the long run and I don't think we have that time."

Syria's leaders face a dilemma. Pressure from outside and inside the country is pushing the government toward reform. Whether the Baath Party can manage the process, allow enough freedom to satisfy those pushing for it while retaining its position at the top of the political power structure, remains an open question.

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