Bill of Rights

What does the Syrian constitution say about citizenship and how might this change?

Photo by Fadi al-Hamwi

Photo by Fadi al-Hamwi

With the escalation of the unrest in Syria and the accompanying surge in political dialogue, there has been a resurgence of discussion about the concept of citizenship.

In his book Guide to Citizenship, Hassan Abbas, a Syrian researcher, wrote that it is not enough to define citizenship as acquiring a nationality and enjoying the civil and political rights it offers. The definition includes active participation in public life.

“Freedom is the legal status quo of the citizen meaning that a citizen is free to choose between becoming an active citizen who participates in public life or…being a passive one,” Abbas wrote.

“Citizenship means the right of citizens to participate in all aspects of life,” Adel, a young theater critic who asked to remain anonymous, told Syria Today. He explained that the concept combines rights and duties, but that in Syria, duties trump rights.

“Limiting citizenship to Syrian Arabs is unacceptable,” Maalouf declared. “A citizen must be any person who lives in this land and has specific rights and duties.”

Until recently, broader duties and rights as citizens went ignored, he argued, because people were more concerned with their everyday struggles.

“Through chatting with friends or with the grocer, I have a perception that the majority of people here have a similar direction in life: to secure a living for their families,” he said. “What has been happening [since the unrest started] put this view to the test. Things are bigger than that.”

The outline
Lawyers interviewed by Syria Today argued that deficiencies in ensuring citizens’ rights in Syria come from flaws in the constitution, where the state defines its idea of citizenship and organises the relationship between the government and citizens. Others said that the constitution guarantees adequate rights to citizens; however, the problem lies in many laws which are, in fact, unconstitutional.

In his speech last month, President Bashar al-Assad said that the new media, parties and electoral laws will allow “citizens to participate in making decisions, monitor and denounce” activities of the state. Making this change, Assad said, might require revising the constitution or issuing a new one.

President Assad said that no changes will take place before September and if any do occur they will be based on what the national dialogue meetings, held in July, recommended. It called for the establishment of a committee to “offer suggestions” that would create a “contemporary and new” constitution that “ensures political collectivity, social justice, the sovereignty of the law and basic human rights”.

Contradictory rulings
To implement citizens’ rights, as outlined in the Syrian constitution, articles from the very same constitution must be changed and effectively applied.

People’s political and civil rights can be found in the first chapter of the constitution titled “Basic Principles”. It grants all citizens personal freedom, equality before the law, participation in the political, economic, social and cultural life of society, the freedom of faith, the right (and duty) to work, free obligatory education, the right of free and open expression, freedom of the press and the right to demonstrate peacefully.

However, articles like number 8 – which grants the ruling Ba’ath party a monopoly on political power in the country – contradict and effectively negate the right of citizens to participate in political life.

Nazih Maalouf, a lawyer and former judge and the manager of Syria Court, a legal website that covers human rights and other legal issues in Syria, said the constitution includes many contradictory articles. For example, it states that all Syrians have equal rights and opportunities, but another article says that the country’s president must be Muslim and that legislation must be based on Islamic jurisprudence.

“Syrian women cannot pass down citizenship to their children, and they do not have the right of equal inheritance, or even [the right] to take independent decisions in many cases; like marriage, or travel,” Diala, a 27-year-old working in a private bank who asked to remain anonymous, said.

Syrian constitution states that all Syrians have equal rights and opportunities, but at the same time says that the country’s president must be Muslim and that legislation must be based on Islamic jurisprudence.

Anwar al-Bouni, a lawyer and head of the Syrian Center for Legal Studies, said that problems like these come from laws that contradict the constitution.

“In the Syrian constitution, there is no discrimination between men and women, but discrimination exists in some laws like the nationality one [which prevents Syrian mothers from passing their nationality to their offspring],” Bouni said.

Recently, a committee was set up to study the draft bill about amending Article 3 of the Nationality Law, which includes granting nationality to the children of Syrian women married to non-Syrians.

Another measure that contradicts the notion of universal equality came in with the constitution of 1961, which was drafted following a military coup that ended three years of union between Egypt and Syria, when the Syrian republic was first defined as Arab. This remained unchanged.

“Limiting citizenship to Syrian Arabs is unacceptable,” Maalouf declared. “A citizen must be any person who lives in this land and has specific rights and duties. Equality and people’s general liberties must be established by the constitution regardless of their religion or ethnicity.”

A new constitution, if amended or overhauled, should more clearly delineate citizens’ rights in order to prevent such contradictions in the future, he said.

“Individual liberties must be addressed by the constitution and should not be governed by laws because laws are subject to change, according to who is in power and are easy to play around with,” Maalouf explained. “The constitution is obligatory and is not easily changed.”

Challenges to change
“Changing the constitution alone is not enough. There should be a new constitution,” the veteran lawyer Bouni said.

According to Bouni, the power of the country’s constitutional court is restricted. It is supposed to be able to strike down unconstitutional laws. But the president, according to the constitution, assigns the members of the constitutional court to four-year posts, limiting the court’s independence. Another article in the constitution states that only the Syrian president or a quarter of the parliament can challenge unconstitutional laws.

As a result, the system is crippled, Bouni added.

“Obviously, they [members of parliament] are not going to issue unconstitutional laws and then refer them to court. Consequently, there are hundreds of unconstitutional laws in Syria and no one can challenge them,” he explained. “Since the establishment of the constitutional court not a single Syrian law has been challenged as unconstitutional.”

I published this article together with Syrian journalist Alma Hassoun in Syria Today

We used only first names for interviewees who wished to remain anonymous.

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Behind the Scenes

Political disagreements and production cuts are affecting the creation of television series for Ramadan this year.

Unshoodat Al Matar Film Set Location 1

The success of Syrian dramas is their ability to convey the social and political concerns of Syrians and Arabs. This year, however, what used to be a strength has turned into a weakness. The outspoken views expressed by some Syrian drama professionals towards the unrest in Syria has caused production companies to deny work to certain artists and has also prompted some activists to boycott dramas made by people with whom they disagree. Further, the economic impact of the unrest that began in March is also impacting the funding available for producing new dramas.

Both factors are causing a decrease in the film industry this year, and this drop will be visible during Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting that begins in August. Many Arabs recognise this season as being as much a time for watching drama series as it is a time for religious devotion. Arab and Syrian production companies release their soap operas during Ramadan.

While there are no exact figures on the number of Syrian soaps that will be produced this year, drama professionals say the number will be far fewer than the 30 series that, according to statistics provided by the state news agency SANA, were aired during Ramadan last year.

Production down
Although political disagreements are hurting drama production, the economic impact of the unrest is the main hindrance in the production of television series.

Syrian producer and actor Firas Ibrahim said in an interview with Shorouk News website that major Syrian production companies stopped several soaps that were planned for this Ramadan season due to financial worries. While he said he is not planning to stop the production of his drama series Fi Hadret al-Gheyab (In the Presence of Absence) about the life of late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, he said he is worried that it will not achieve the financial success he anticipated.

“With demonstrations sweeping over the Arab World, there has become a real marketing crisis because of a fall in advertisements that are the main financers of TV series,” Ibrahim told the website, adding that channels that used to pay about SYP 95m (USD 2m) for a series are now only paying SYP 9.5m (USD 200,000).

According to Ibrahim, some television channels are not signing contracts with studios to buy rights to air series currently in the making because of concerns that, because of the unrest, the production companies would fail to complete the series in time to be broadcast during Ramadan or that they will not attract viewers.

Boycotting drama
Drama, like political dialogue, is also becoming polarised in the current climate. Increasingly, there are online campaigns by young Syrian activists to boycott both series that feature pro-government artists and those that feature people who support the opposition. This division makes it harder to convince advertisers to invest in Syrian soaps this year, since it reduces audience size.

“No sane advertiser would invest in a series that is boycotted by the audience,” said a young woman from Damascus who is a member of a campaign to boycott pro-government artists and asked to remain anonymous.

Activists published lists of pro-government and opposition artists and named them as “shameful” or “honourable” according to which side the activists support. The founder of a Facebook page to “dishonour” pro-regime artists, who asked to stay anonymous, said his page’s “followers” are not only boycotting dramas that feature pro-regime artists but also the channels that broadcast them.

“The boycott has already started. When I asked [people] to boycott (Syrian actor) Abbas al-Nouri’s programme on MBC channel, the followers not only agreed but even asked to boycott all channels that work together with artists from the shame list,” the founder of the page, which had more than 19,661 followers at the time Syria Today went to print, said.
Manea’ al-Jarba, founder of a Facebook page that lists artists who support the ‘Syrian revolution’, said he compiles the lists according to the artists’ statements to the press and their posts on social-networking sites.

Even Egyptian activists, who compiled their own shame lists during the Egyptian revolution, started an online campaign that calls upon the Egyptian production companies to terminate their contracts with pro-government Syrian artists.

There is only one shame list by pro-government activists, but Syria Today could not reach its founder. In addition to listing opposition TV professionals, the list also names politicians and other public figures who support the Syrian revolution. The list had 1,123 followers by the time Syria Today went to print.

Joelle and Rasheed 1

Infighting
Perhaps more interesting than the economic impact of unrest on Syrian television and its effect on viewership is the drama it is causing behind the scenes. Disputes among drama professionals over the unrest in Syria are aggravating the challenges to producing television series this year.

A petition signed by more than 300 Syrian actors, writers and other TV professionals calling for the Syrian government to “lift the food siege imposed on Dera’a” and to provide the city’s children with food and medical supplies sparked tension between drama professionals. The artists released the statement, dubbed the ‘milk petition’ – because of its request that residents be given milk and other necessities – following the Syrian military operation that started on April 25 in the southern city of Dera’a against what the government alleged were “terrorist groups”.

The signatories were criticised in a campaign by other drama professionals and media spokesmen in both official and some private Syrian media. Famous directors such as Hesham Sharbatji went as far as publicly calling those who signed the petition – including his daughter, director Rasha Sharbatji – “traitors” in a programme on the private Syrian TV channel al-Dunia.

In a statement published shortly after the “milk petition”, 22 Syrian film production companies announced in a statement that they would boycott all its signatories. The companies described the petition’s “fabricated claims” as “a political statement masked as a humanitarian call” that aims to “offend both the Syrian nation and its government”.

Some Syrian production companies also called for rescinding the Syrian Order of Merit that President Bashar al-Assad granted Muna Wasif, the famous Syrian actress and mother of prominent opposition figure Ammar Abdulhamid in 2009, because she had signed the petition.

In an interview with the official Syrian TV, director Laith Hajo said that the Syrian artists’ union also discussed firing members because of their political views.

“We demanded lifting the emergency law and now every Syrian citizen is creating his own emergency law and giving himself the right to randomly attack and fire others,” Hajo told the channel.

As a result, TV professionals reported concerns that they will lose their jobs.

“They [Syrian production companies] want to stop me from working because of my humanitarian call,” Mey Skaf, a Syrian actress who signed the petition, said. So far, she added, none of her contracts had been cancelled.

Attempts at reconciliation
Moves by public personalities to address these disputes have so far failed. A meeting organised by a Palestinian figure to bring opposing drama professionals’ views closer ended without resolution – there was an argument and several attendees walked out. All footage of the meeting captured by local media was seized by the authorities and could not be aired. Drama professionals, some of whom attended the meeting, did not reply to Syria Today’s repeated requests for comment.

President Assad also met a number of Syrian drama professionals, including the actress Wasif, who described the meeting as “transparent and civilised”. During the meeting, Assad asked the artists to stop their accusations and stressed that “the word traitor is not included in our dictionary”, Wasif told the Syrian media following the meeting.

Still, Syrian artists continued to argue publicly over their political stances.

The founder of the Facebook page to “dishonour” pro-regime artists said he believes that regardless of the artists’ views and the boycott campaigns, few people will watch television series this Ramadan anyway.

“Arab news channels are all that Syrians watch these days,” he said. “People from both sexes and all age categories are breathing politics. I don’t expect things to settle down before Ramadan and therefore this year’s drama season will suffer a huge blow unless it focuses on politics and the current Arab revolutions.”

Facebook page founder Jarba agreed, adding: “The Arab World is busy today reshaping its identity, which is taking place on the ground and not on the screen.”

I published this article in Syria Today magazine.

Let’s Take This Online

Is Syria’s new online political debate turning nasty?

Syrian online political debate - Caricature by Ala Rustom

Syrian online political debate – Caricature by Ala Rustom

In Syria, Facebook is getting political. Just a few months ago, logging on to the then-blocked social-networking site to write about your day at work, a film you saw or a romantic break-up meant using proxies to bypass the government’s internet security.

Changing netscape

Now that Facebook is freely accessible, Syrians are regularly using it to express their political views. Discussing politics used to be a major taboo in Syria. But since the revolution began in mid-March, many young Syrians are openly discussing politics online as well as in the street for the first time. But that has not been a wholly positive change. Syrian Facebook users living both in Syria and abroad said that what began as a forum for political discussion quickly turned into a shouting match. Users started blocking and in some cases even reporting their ‘friends’ accounts to Facebook because of their political views. Some are going as far as calling those who disagree with their views traitors and calling for their execution. “The discussions I’m seeing on Facebook are depressing and dangerous,” Hassan Abbas, a Syrian researcher in cultural issues, said. “People are no longer discussing their opponents’ argument but their morals.” He believes that abandoning logical argument and attacking the moral veracity of people is the most dangerous element of what is happening on Facebook today. “It is important that discourse remains interactive,” Abbas added. “It’s depressing as this moment requires a high level of awareness and selflessness and to focus our efforts on the future of Syria.” Syrians often post links or comments about sensitive topics online, which can cause heated exchanges and even lead to the break-up of otherwise solid friendships. This is what happened to Mohammed Ghazi, a 21-year-old mechanical engineering trainee. “Sometimes my friends post things on Facebook or Twitter that are very different from what I know they think,” Ghazi said. “I posted a video of a pro-government demonstration and several of my friends deleted me after we argued about it.” Syrian Facebook users first started changing their profile pictures to reflect their political stance during the revolution against Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia. Since March 15 many now reflect their views on domestic politics. Plain black images are used to signify mourning for those who were killed, while pictures of President Bashar al-Assad and illustrations of inter-religious and ethnic solidarity are also popular. Syrian users have also established hundreds of ‘groups’ to promote their political views. “I was constantly being added by friends — without my permission — to groups in support or against the demonstrations taking place now in Syria,” a young Syrian Facebook user, who requested anonymity, said.

Virtual ‘warlords’

As the unrest escalates, conflict between pro-government Facebook users and the opposition is growing more aggressive, forcing other users to take sides or be criticised by both. “If you criticise the demonstrators then you are called a coward and if you criticise the regime you become a traitor – this is depressing,” the young Syrian said. “In the past, I had to bypass internet security to access my Facebook account to speak my mind because the website was blocked. Now that it is no longer banned and easy to access, I’ve deactivated my account because I couldn’t take all the fighting and accusations anymore.” Bassam al-Kadi, founder of Syrian Women’s Observatory, who has been attacked online by both pro-and anti-government figures, believes that instead of discussing the current revolution in Syria, Facebook is being used to promote political propaganda and to mobilise people. “Facebook today resembles a warfront rather than a political platform. Political participation means discussing solutions, the balance of forces, etcetera, and not throwing accusations at each other,” Kadi said. “Facebook users are acting now like ‘warlords’ who, instead of addressing people’s minds, speak to their emotions and polarise them.” “[Facebook users] don’t represent the whole of Syrian society but they do reflect part of the Syrian reality today,” Hassan Abbas said. According to Marwan Kabalan, a politics professor at the University of Damascus’s faculty of political science, the conflict is the result of decades-old policies of exclusion and marginalisation. Since the seventies, young Syrians could not actively participate in their country’s internal politics. The one-party system in Syria and the lack of independent political institutions and liberties deprived them of the means to do so. Young Syrians interviewed by Syria Today said that expressing their views on politics used to equal “trouble”. They believed that leading an active political life was “dangerous” and “pointless” since they “couldn’t change anything anyway”. “Our generation was raised to believe that politics, religion and sex are three major taboos that should never be broken,” Zeina Qahwaji, a 25-year-old Syrian living in Damascus, said. Abbas added that, though politically inactive, young Syrians have deep political awareness. “When you can’t express your political awareness, you try to express it through art or religion or simply pack up and leave the country,” he said. Following the recent events in Tunisia and Egypt, however, some young Syrians’ attitudes towards politics changed. “What I saw in Egypt gave me hope that young people can have a say. I saw it happening. It is possible!” a young engineer in his thirties, who asked to remain anonymous, said. “It is no longer possible to be a viewer. Whether you are pro or against [the government], you have to take a stance,” Mohammad Ghannam, a 32-year-old engineer living in Damascus, said. According to Kabalan, the lack of the traditional means of political participation in Syria, such as political parties, cultural clubs and other organisations, has led young Syrians to find other ways to voice their political views, mainly through social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter as well as by marching in the street.

Reform needed

Establishing new parties that truly reflect the aspirations of the young generation along with an independent judicial system and a new media law that allows freedom of expression and transparency are also crucial to help the youth effectively participate in the country’s politics and push economic reform, Kabalan said. “You cannot have a more competitive economic life if you do not have a more competitive political life,” he added. The new Prime Minister Adel Safar on May 1 promised political reform. He said it is part of a comprehensive package of reforms that the government is preparing in the coming weeks. A committee responsible for issuing new laws regulating parties and elections is also going to be formed “to ensure a more effective role for parties in society”, Information Minister Adnan Mahmoud later said. Young Syrians want political change. “I never had the chance to choose before. I didn’t choose my religion, my name and it’s the same with politics. I had to repeat the Ba’ath slogans as a student at school. I would like to have other choices as well,” Qahwaji said. Since March 15, Syria has undergone political and social changes that cannot be easily reversed. “When you know that you have more political rights and you are able to express them, it is difficult to reverse gear and go back,” Kabalan said. “Let us not fear the side effects that might come with granting political rights to the young generation.”

I published this article together with Syrian journalist Alma Hassoun in Syria Today magazine.

You can download here a pdf version of Lets take this online