The western lies aside, Assad takes Syria on democratic path

The western lies aside, Assad takes Syria on democratic path

The day after Basher al Assad advanced the date for the Syrian referendum on its new Constitution to February 26  Anas-al-Abdah, a leader of the opposition Syrian National Council, predicted, ''On this day there will be hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Syrians marching for the downfall of the regime.''

Basher al Assad

Western leaders were so convinced of this that they did not even wait for the voting to finish before dismissing the referendum as “nothing more than a farce.” British foreign minister William Hague poured scorn on the exercise: “To open polling stations but continue to open fire on the civilians of the country... has no credibility in the eyes of the world” (he obviously had not been briefed on how India has used ballots to replace bullets).

So when 8 million out of an electorate of 14 million chose to vote, and 89 per cent of the voters endorsed the path to democracy laid down in the new constitution  they had no option but to claim that the figures were manufactured. The international media  joined in the chorus. Assad, the New York Times reminded its readers, had held two referenda already, in 2001 and 2007, to confirm himself in power in which there were no other candidates, and left its readers to draw their conclusions. Others journals condemned  the constitution’s ban on parties based upon religion and ethnicity as a way of excluding the Muslim Brotherhood.

What they all failed to see, or perhaps hoped their audiences would not see was the one crucial difference between the earlier referenda and the one held last month. Assad held the two earlier referenda to confirm his hold on power and had everything to gain from inflating the turnout and endorsement. But  he  held February’s referendum to divest  himself  of power. In this one, by contrast, the higher the turnout and endorsement he claimed, the more securely would he lock himself into a transition whose end product would be his own exit from power. To end all possible doubt on this score, he had introduced a clause in the constitution that bans anyone with a foreign-born wife from becoming the president of the country. Basher Assad’s own wife, Asma, was born in Britain.

Penultimate step

Assad also did not pull the referendum and constitution out of a conjuror’s hat. The briefest of glances at his actions during the past year shows that it was the penultimate step in a transformation to democratic rule  that he embarked upon in January 2011 within days of the Tunisian uprising.

He began the transition by lifting  all restrictions on access to internet sites. Paradoxically, this became the springboard of the attempt to topple his regime. In March, despite mounting evidence that Syria’s  pro-democracy movement had been infiltrated by armed Salafis, Assad tried to maintain sectarian peace  by avoiding reprisals against the trouble-makers..  On March 23, within hours of a police attack on the Omari mosque – the nerve centre of the planned protests in Dera’a, he sacked the governor of Dera’a, and  set up a  committee to study the scrapping of the emergency laws that had been in place for 48 years, since well before his father came to power.

 On March 26,  he released 260 prisoners and16 clerics arrested in the city in the previous fortnight.. On March 31 he announced a relaxation of the emergency laws and promised to repeal them by April 25.  He fulfilled his promise five days sooner, on April 20.

On July 26 Assad lifted the country’s  five-decade old ban on political parties and announced that he would frame a new constitution for a multi-party democracy. Six months later, on the eve of the  referendum, he  offered an amnesty to all ‘rebels’ and invited them to take part in the democratisation process. The referendum was therefore the last link in a chain of reform, attempted in the teeth of an armed uprising by rebellious Islamist and Salafi elements who had been pushed out of Syria by Assad’s father , and who were now  determined to seize power through the gun, Libyan style, and not the ballot box. 

Even a cursory glance that the 187 clauses of the constitution  (which Assad has now passed into law), shows that only a miracle can prevent  his displacement  by an elected president. For the constitution  formally ends the monopoly of the Ba’ath Party, ushers in a multi-party system, and requires the first parliamentary election to be held within three months of the enactment.  This is a far more swift transition than Egypt is making.

After that although he will remain president  till 2014, Assad’s power will be circumscribed by the parliament. What is more, the constitution gives the opposition the right to impeach him on a charge of high reason if it can muster two thirds of the votes. The constitution also contains no clause that will permit him to declare an emergency and rule without the parliament for longer than 90 days.

The Baath party’s rule has been  dictatorial, corrupt and oppressive. But it has protected Syria from the sectarian strife that has torn other Arab countries  apart, for more than forty years. What is more, it is the only Sunni Arab country in which secularism has not had to fight a constant rearguard action against rising Islamic fundamentalism. The referendum has shown that at least three out of five Syrians are  still prepared to brave bullets and opprobrium to vote for  a peaceful transition to democracy to protect their hard won sectarian peace. The new constitution has given them a chance to do so. 

The salafis know they have  they have lost. That is they have begun to bomb civilians in the cities of Damascus and Aleppo, the two metropolis that stood by Assad unflinchingly through his time of trial.