Syrians hadn’t seen anything like it in 20 years.
Rising to his feet at a meeting in the Jamal al-Hadasi political club in Damascus (an establishment named after a circa 1950s Syrian politician), Ali Abdullah, a well-known leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, read out a message from the group’s chief, Sadr a-Din Banouni, who lives in exile in Europe.
The Brotherhood, he said, not only rejects the idea of any sort of confrontation [with Bashar Assad’s regime] but also the establishment of an Islamic republic in Syria.
“We are fighting for an enlightened, pluralist state,” Banouni wrote.
The Syrian Brotherhood, more then its Egyptian counterpart, appears to have undergone a transformation. Its zealots sound as though they have stepped outside their long decades of narrow, violent struggle to seek legitimacy as a respected political party representing broad national interests.
Twenty-three years ago, Bashar’s father Hafez Assad sent tanks to mow down an entire district of the northern town of Homs and massacre of 25,000 people in order to obliterate the Muslim Brotherhood.
Both sides are now striving to end the long blood feud.
Banouni’s letter was read out to 400 members of Syria’s intellectual elite hours after interior minister General Ghazi Canaan ordered the security and intelligence services to desist from shooting at political demonstrators. Hosni Mubarak ordered his forces to exercise a degree of restraint unheard of in the Arab world against Muslim Brotherhood protests in Egypt’s main cities. Syria went a step further. Security forces were ordered to stay out of the country’s cultural life. They were given a list of 70 types of events and cases in which they were forbidden to interfere.
Syrian communists reinvent themselves as democrats
Applicants for government jobs will not longer be required to bring a police certificate of good conduct. Nor will permits be needed for wedding receptions and funerals.
These changes have generated some political momentum in Damascus.
The Syrian Reform Party led by Farid al-Gadari, a recent visitor to Washington whom Assad’s regime had frequently referred to as a CIA agent, is preparing to open a political headquarters in Damascus.
The once powerful Syrian Communist Party has adjusted to contemporary mores by jettisoning its old-hat hardline leader Riyad Turk and replacing him with the liberal Abdullah Osheh. It has also dropped the old name in favor of the more fashionable Democratic People’s Party.
In a recent working paper, Ima Shweidi, director of Syria’s quasi-governmental Strategic Affairs Institute, dared to write: “President Bashar must undertake drastic changes and grant the Syrians political liberties that lead the country towards a democratic leadership.”
“Political reform,” he insists, “must also produce changes in the way Syria handles its public relations. (See separate article in this issue.)
“One must recognize,” he wrote, “that President Bashar shook the hand of Israeli president Moshe Katsav at Pope John Paul’s funeral in April.” When it happened, the Syrians denied the handshake took place.
Shweidi went on to say: “On one hand, Assad understands that Israel is no longer the key that will open the door to the improvement of its relations with Washington. But on the other hand, it will impossible to break out of the American trap without Israel.”The writer concludes: “Using Syria’s power and influence over the Palestinians would be the best way for Damascus to prove to the United States that, recent events in Lebanon notwithstanding, Assad’s government is solidly behind Bush and his call for democracy in the Middle East.”