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Syria's Slow Move to Democracy


For the past year, the Syrian government has been under considerable pressure to change its ways -- to stop meddling in the affairs of its neighbors and to institute democratic reforms at home. While Syria's foreign policy options have been curtailed and despite some minor changes on the domestic front, the Syrian government seems intent on resisting the pressure for reforms.

It's not been a good year for Syria -- ever since the assassination last February of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri on the streets of Beirut.

The government of Bashar al Assad was thrust into the international spotlight amid accusations of involvement in the killing. A U.N. investigation even implicated high-level Syrian officials. International pressure forced Damascus to withdraw its troops from Lebanon last May, ending nearly three decades of military presence.

Western Pressure

The West stepped up the demands for Syria to cooperate more fully with the U.N. investigation, to stop trying to destabilize its neighbors and to implement democratic reforms at home.

Many average Syrians resented the outside pressure, especially from Washington, but at the same time hope flourished that long awaited change would take place. And in Damascus, human rights advocates and reformers spoke of greater freedom to come.

It's not quite how it happened, says Syrian political analyst, Marwan Kabalan of Damascus University's Center for Strategic Studies. "I believe not much has changed in the past nine months. The government has been saying that we can't actually reform, we can't change because of this international pressure."

The government may once have used international pressure as an excuse not to push ahead with political change. That pressure, reform advocates now say, seems to have eased. But they say that has not helped either.

In fact, says political analyst Ayman Abdel Nour, the government sees less pressure as a green light for the status quo, "Business as usual. This is what they have in mind, with some cosmetics -- some few improvements here and there and decorations -- cosmetics."

The Assad Regime

To be sure, some things have loosened up -- there is greater freedom of speech; the government interferes less in people's daily lives, and it recently released five political prisoners -- reform advocates who'd been in jail since 2001.

Riad Seif is one of them. Speaking with VOA in his office in Damascus, he says that for decades, especially under the last President Hafez al Assad, Syria was run like a personal fiefdom.

"Syria was guided, in the time of Assad, not like a country, but like a farm -- it's owned by someone and he has a 100 percent free hand to do whatever he wants, like the owner of a farm," says Riad Seif.

Seif was among the leaders of the so-called "Damascus Spring," a brief period when the authorities allowed dissent, following Hafez al Assad's death in 2000. Intellectuals and political activists saw an opportunity to push reforms as Assad's son, Bashar took over the reins of power. But, those hopes were soon dashed and Seif and others landed in prison.

The Bush Administration welcomed the release of Seif and four others in January and called for other political prisoners to be set free as well.

Reforms in Syria

Fayez al Sayegh is director of Syria's state-run television and sometimes acts as a government spokesman. In an interview with VOA, he insists the reforms are taking place and will continue. He scoffs at the suggestion that change is coming too slowly.

“So, what kind of change do you want,” he says. “You want democracy like in Iraq, amid violence and ethnic and religious division? That's not acceptable.” The Americans seem to like the democracies of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, he says. To this day, Saudi women are not allowed to drive and when women got the right to vote in Kuwait last year, Sayegh says it was hailed as great progress. He quickly adds that Syrian women have been voting and running for office for the past 40 years.

Most Syrians would quickly agree that they do not want to follow Iraq's example and many of them would not want to see an Islamic government come to power either.

Mohammed Habash is an independent member of parliament and considered a moderate Islamist. He agrees that reform has been too slow, but he believes change is underway. "I believe we are working day by day by civil society, by parliament, by independent people in Syria to ask more, to claim more," says Habash. "I believe we can change our situation."

Riad Seif wants to see things move more quickly. He says change must come, whether this regime likes it or not. "This regime cannot survive, it must change. We say we have the right to live like other nations, to build our country. We want our children and grandchildren not to have the same pains and not to live like slaves," says Riad Seif.

Even the most ardent reform activists in Syria are not talking about a revolution or toppling the government. But, Seif says pressure for change will continue. He's currently meeting with other activists with the aim of establishing a political party. Seif likens the Damascus Spring of five years ago to the first round in a boxing match. The second round, he says, is now.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.

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