Syria lifts 5-decade ban on forming political parties

Analyst warns move could be merely symbolic; protesters vow to step up rallies over Ramadan.

By OREN KESSLER, REUTERS
July 26, 2011 01:31
4 minute read.
Syrian President Bashar Assad

assad speech 311. (photo credit: REUTERS)

The Syrian cabinet approved a law Monday allowing the formation of political parties other than the ruling Ba’ath party, provided they adhere to “democratic principles,” the state-run SANA news agency reported.

“The establishment of any party has to be based on ... a commitment to the constitution, democratic principles, the rule of law and a respect for freedom and basic rights,” the agency said, referring to conditions to be met by parties that want to apply for a license to operate legally.

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The Ba’ath party, which has banned opposition groups since a 1963 military coup, has been under pressure to abandon its monopoly on power during a four-month uprising that has called for the toppling of President Bashar Assad.

Gary Gambill, general editor of the Middle East Forum and an expert on Syrian politics, said the move is significant primarily in its symbolism.

“This is mainly symbolic, but the devil is in the details. Most autocratic Arab governments officially have multiparty systems – Egypt and even Tunisia ostensibly had parties other than the ruling one,” he told The Jerusalem Post by phone from Philadelphia. “The big questions deal with the electoral process, such as whether there is monitoring of the elections.

Certainly there is no verbal commitment Assad can give now that will put people’s minds at rest.”

He added, “We saw that his lifting of the emergency law wasn’t worth the paper it was written on.” The Assad regime lifted the decades-old emergency law in April, but the move meant little on the ground, where its security forces continued its violent crackdown against protesters.

“There can be no return to the status quo ante, in which the population may not have liked the regime, but tacitly obeyed it. I don’t think a week will pass in which there are no protests and no killings,” he said. “I think the bigger question is whether we can expect this disintegration in the next month, the next six months or the next year ... In the long term, there’s no really no option for Assad to win. The question is what is he willing to do to avoid losing.”

Assad replaced the governor of the eastern tribal province of Deir al-Zor on Sunday, two days after the biggest protests yet in the oil-producing region. Half a million people took to the streets across Deir al- Zor on Friday to demand Assad’s removal, activists said.

Hussein Arnos, a civilian, was transferred to govern the small province of Quneitera west of Damascus, on the border with the Golan Heights, SANA said, noting that he was replaced by Samir Othman Sheikh, an officer in the intelligence apparatus.

Protesters said Monday they would intensify demonstrations during Ramadan, taking advantage of more people gathering in mosques during the Islamic month of fasting.

“The protesters in Syria are planning on having much bigger demonstrations in Ramadan because people stay up late during the month and more people go to mosques,” Syrian human rights and political activist Ammar Qurabi told Reuters.

Ramadan, the holiest month of the Islamic calendar marked with fasting and prayer, will start on August 1. Large protests are expected nightly as Syrians filter into the streets after evening prayers.

“Each day of Ramadan will be like a Friday.

It will be like 30 Fridays, one after the other,” said Muhammad, a 26-year-old law student who takes to the street every Friday, the Muslim day of rest and prayer, which has become the main opportunity for protesters to gather.

“Every day in Ramadan will see small protests during the day and huge sit-ins at night. We’re organizing for a big push during Ramadan to get people out on the streets,” he added.

Activists and anti-Assad residents hope that Ramadan will act as a catalyst to embolden the pro-democracy movement, which started in March.

“Ramadan is a game changer,” a Western diplomat in Damascus told Reuters.

But some Syrians said they are fearful that Ramadan will see an escalation in the violent backlash from the government, which will see the Ramadan protests as a bigger threat to Assad’s rule.

Syrian human rights groups say at least 1,400 have been killed since protests started.

Authorities blame “armed terrorist groups” with Islamist links for the current unrest and say at least 500 policemen and soldiers have been killed.

Ammar, a 35-year-old supermarket owner in Damascus, said people have started stocking up on nonperishable food as they are afraid of an escalation in civil unrest during Ramadan.

“People are buying very large quantities of beans, oil, rice and sugar,” he said. “If anything serious happens, I will have to close my shop.”

During Ramadan, religious establishments, charities and the wealthy typically organize large free meals for the poor to break the fast. But activists say there are fewer announced this year as the government tries to prevent any public gatherings which could turn into a protest.

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