DAMASCUS – The last time I visited the Syrian capital in June 2000 it was dressed in the black clothes of mourning for the funeral of President Hafez al-Assad.
Returning five years later, I am eager to compare and contrast. Some new things are deceptively simple – such as my ability to connect to the internet wirelessly in my hotel room – but in a country long closed off to the outside world, the tiniest change is often the sign of an opening that is impossible to ignore and even harder to clamp down on.
Syria is not immune to the changes that are rippling through the Arab world nor is it an island untouched by the immense changes that have marched on the world stage in the past few years.
I wrote last week of the growing opposition movement in Egypt that has inspired demonstrations and louder calls for reform and change in my country. I was eager to talk to Syrians about how they think their country has changed in the years since President Bashar al-Assad became president. He will soon mark five years since he took over from his father.
I have arrived just a few weeks after he ended the first Baath Party Congress of his term so far. While many reformers and opponents of the Syrian government were disappointed that the Congress did not meet more of their demands for greater openness in Syria’s political arena, it is important to acknowledge that both supporters of the Baath Party as well as its opponents said the authorities were listening to some of their suggestions.
For example, both Ayman Abdel Nour, a Baathist, and Michel Kilo, a veteran opposition figure in Syria told me their recommendations were heard.
Ayman Abdel Nour believes in change from within the Baath Party. After the fall of Baghdad in May 2003, he launched a web site called All4Syria.org which has become a platform for debate between Syrian officials and those outside the regime. The site’s newsletter is sent to 15,200 subscribers who forward it to others reaching what Ayman estimates to be 70,000 readers a day.
In the days leading up to the Baath Party Congress, Ayman launched a petition to ensure that reformist members of the Baath Party members could attend. They could not go because the party had not elected them to go. He credits his petition with putting enough pressure on the Congress to allow 150 reformers to be there for the meetings.
Michel Kilo, who was imprisoned by Assad the father, remembers that when he would send letters of protest and criticism to Baath Party Congresses in the past, he would be derided as a traitor and worse. He told me that when he sent a letter full of suggestions and reform advice to the Congress earlier this month, dozens of Baath Party members sent him emails and contacted him to let him know they agrees with his suggestions.
Syria needs all the Ayman Abdel Nours and all the Michel Kilos it has today as it rides the rough waters of both internal political and economic frustration as well as an increasingly heated standoff with the United States and growing external pressure.
Syria shares with the rest of the Arab world a young population – the majority of Syrians are below the age of 30 which means that more and more Syrians are knocking on the door of the workforce every day. Conservative unemployment figures estimate that 20 percent of the population is out of work and that the rate of growth of the Syrian economy is falling behind that of the population growth rate.
The Baath Party Congress earlier this month made it clear that the authorities are focusing on developing a market economy. This is no doubt an important step as well as the appointment of Abdullah al-Dardari – a non-Baathist from Damascus who is also head of the State Planning Bureau – to the post of deputy prime minister for economic affairs. But economic reforms marching alone will not be enough if Syria’s internal problems are to be tackled seriously.
As Nabil Sukkar, a former World Bank economist, stressed, any economic reforms must pay attention to social justice and development if Syria is to avoid the chaos of rapid economic reform.
Also, economic reform without political reform is as useless as one hand trying to clap. Syria has hundreds of qualified men and women who are more than eager to share their expertise with the authorities if they are willing to listen.
Ordinary Syrians are eager for more openness. During my last evening in Damascus, a young Syrian man complained that although he had completed his master’s degree in pharmacy, he could not find a job and could not afford to open his own pharmacy.
Another young man said he came across more and more people who were openly criticizing the authorities. He used a phrase I have heard repeatedly during my time in Cairo: “We have broken the barrier of fear”.
When I asked him what he thought had helped people break that barrier of fear, his answer was very similar to one I heard from a young man at a demonstration in Cairo just a few days before I flew to Damascus. And I’m sure I would hear it in many other Arab capitals besides Cairo and Damascus. “People are speaking out because of unemployment and poverty. They can’t take it anymore. They’ve had enough,” he told me.
It sounded like the “Kifaya” that I’m hearing in Cairo.