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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On Distrust of the Media

It has never been easy to be a journalist in Syria. Hell no! Getting an interview means repeated calls, faxes and emails and a series of delays but finally you’d get what you want. Since the unrest began this March, this is no longer the case.

The unrest has shaken everyday Syrians’ views of the press. The authorities’ decision to limit local and foreign journalists’ access to unrest areas made most reporting on the unrest inaccurate. Syrians have been watching with dismay events that they’ve witnessed reported differently on the screen. Instead of trying to make their voice heard, however, a great many have chosen to turn their back to the press and look for the news from neighbours, friends and relatives. “That’s the one thing I can be sure of,” one of my interviewees said.

Speaking to the media also has a price. Celebs, once considered national symbols, were turned into traitors by the media in the blink of an eye because they made their views on the unrest public. Close monitoring by the secret police of the opposition and mass arrests of “vandals” since the beginning of the unrest also made Syrians wary of speaking their minds to the press.

Since the beginning of the unrest, people have been increasingly reluctant to give me phone interviews preferring to meet in person. Instead of me asking the questions, I’d often start the interview answering their questions: Who do you work for? Who is the owner of the magazine? What do you think of the Syrian revolution?

Several sources refused to give me an interview because they suspected the magazine might be “pro government”. Many others, including old acquaintances, simply did not reply to my repeated emails and calls. Those who agreed to talk often asked me not to reveal their real identity or warned: “are you sure you wanna publish this?”

Whether out of fear from Syrian authorities or distrust of the media, it is better to keep away from journalists, a young man told me quoting an old Arab saying: “The door that lets the wind in better be closed.”

Scared Off

Prolonged unrest is keeping tourists away.

Only last year, Damascus ranked seventh on the New York Times list of top destinations. Since political unrest began in mid-March, however, the alleys of Old Damascus – one of the main tourist attractions in Syria – have emptied. Tourism and small businesses are suffering. Shop owners who used to be busy all day selling goods are now sitting in front of their shops, drinking tea and hoping for customers to pass by.

Syria was previously known as a country with beautiful ruins, a green coast and rich cultural traditions. News of tanks entering major cities and thousands of refugees crossing into Turkey has now fostered the perception of Syria as a country of violence and war.

Warned away
The US and EU countries have issued travel warnings against visiting Syria and international insurance firms have cancelled coverage for travellers. Together, this has caused a significant dip in tourism, Rami Martini, chairman of the Syria Federation of Tourism Chambers said in an interview with Al-Khabar, a local Arabic-language business weekly.

Most airlines flying to Europe have reduced their flights due to lowered demand. In June BMI rolled back its daily service from Damascus to London Heathrow to just four flights a week. Other airlines to have reduced their services include Austrian, Germania, Malév and Turkish; while Cyprus and Lot have cancelled all flights.

As a result, the businesses of hoteliers like Somar Hazim, owner of Beit Rose Hotel in Old Damascus, have been badly hit. According to Hazim, occupancy at his hotel decreased from 90 percent last year to 5 to 10 percent this year, forcing him and other hotel owners to reduce staff. According to Al-Khabar, occupancy rates in Aleppo are close to zero.

“As demand is decreasing, competition is growing and prices are going down. A room that I used to rent out for SYP 5,700 (USD 120) is rented now for about SYP 3,100 (USD 65),” Hazim said. “Our only guests are foreigners who study or work here and their relatives who come to visit.”

The absence of tourists has also affected small businesses, such as the antique shop owned by Nasser Ideen al-Shahrour in Sarouja near Old Damascus. Shahrour said he sometimes goes 15 days without a sale.

“I cannot guarantee anything now. I buy a gram of silver today with SYP 50 (USD 1) and tomorrow the price might be SYP 55 (USD 1.1),” he said. “This means I can’t have fixed prices and this is affecting demand which is already badly decreasing.”

The downswing
Syria’s reputation for safety and its improving marketing strategies boosted the country’s tourism industry during the last two years. Annual tourist revenues totalled SYP 389bn (USD 8.2bn) last year, or about 13 percent of GDP. With dwindling oil revenues, tourism was a crucial foreign currency earner for Syria. While the expected total revenue from tourism in March, April and May was predicted by the Federation of the Syrian Chambers of Tourism to be SYP 23.8bn (USD 500m), the chamber said that income was 30 percent lower than expected in March and has decreased significantly more in recent months.

In its 11th Five-Year Plan, the Syrian government set the goal of attracting 5.1m more tourists a year by 2015; the current annual total is 9m tourists – including travellers transiting through the country.

Lamia Aasi, Minister of Tourism, said during a recent meeting of tourism professionals in Aleppo that there has been a “very sharp” decline in the number of tourists entering Syria. She said that, in May, tourism numbers were 32 percent compared to this time last year, because virtually no European tourists are visiting the country now. Aasi argued it was a “strategic error” to depend so heavily on business from European tourists, with the European market too subject to the changes of global politics. In contrast, she claimed, Asian markets are “only affected by natural circumstances or economic crises”.

She added: “Our long-term strategy is to target Asian markets such as China, Malaysia, Philippines, Russia and Iran which did not suffer a decrease in the number of religious tourists coming to Syria.”

According to Bassam Barsique, director of marketing and development at the ministry, domestic tourism, which makes up 22 percent of total revenue, was unaffected by the crisis. Some major tourism investment deals were unaffected, too. In an interview with Arabian Business, Jumeirah Group, a UAE hotel management firm, said that despite the political uncertainty in Syria, it is continuing with a project it started in November last year to manage the 350-room, five-star Jumeirah Syria Towers hotel built by Souria Holding in central Damascus.

The ministry has also completed a study aimed and finding ways to reduce prices to attract more tourists. It is also rescheduling loans for tourism facility owners and is granting them exemptions on payment of interest and fines.

Even if things calm down, Hazim, the hotel owner, is not optimistic about the future. He said he believes that the harm done to the country’s image cannot be easily undone.

“It will be difficult for the tourism sector to recover quickly,” he said. “Tourism is the first sector to be hit, and the last to recover. It is because it is a profession that depends on a place’s reputation.”

I published together with Muhammad Atef Fares 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

Behind the Legends / Sultan Basha al-Atrash

Syria’s revolutionary heroes of the struggle against the Ottomans and the French in the first half of the 20th century have become national symbols for Syrians. Their names are used during the current Syrian revolution against the Assad regime as symbols of national unity and struggle for freedom. More than acts of bravery and leadership, the heroes of the past revolution were real people with families, homes, interests and quirks. I looked beyond the textbook tales to find out more about who these key figures really were. I profiled Sultan Basha al-Atrash, a revolutionist from Suweida.

Sultan Basha al-Atrash (1891-1982)

Sultan Basha al-Atrash (1891-1982)

Down From the Mountain

Sultan Basha al-Atrash was a serious leader from a patriotic place.

A simple farmer who loved working in the field is how the people of Al-Qrayya – a village 20km south of Suweida – remember Sultan Basha al-Atrash. He was a man who expressed his love for the land in all he did and said, in part by helping to lead the revolutions against the Ottomans and the French.

“The Basha used to criticise people who sit on rugs in the field. He always said: ‘Don’t put any barriers between you and your field,” said Maan al-Atrash, a 40-something grandson of Sultan Atrash’s nephew. He used the honourific term Basha, given to Atrash for his contribution to the revolt by King Faisal, the leader of the Arab revolt against the Ottomans.

It is his connection to his field and not to politics that led Atrash to fight against the Ottomans and the French, his relatives told Syria Today during a recent visit to the village. “He was not a politician, he did not understand politics,” Nadia al-Atrash, a 60-something granddaughter of Atrash’s cousin said. “He was a fighter who loved his land. He used to always say: ‘What was taken by the sword can only be retrieved by the sword’.”

Symbol of chivalry
In spite of his stern attitude, Atrash was popular among his community, Nadia Atrash said. People even consulted him about their personal problems.

“He was always very serious. No one ever heard him laughing. He used to say ‘men don’t laugh’,” she said. “Still, people respected him because he was honest and evenhanded. He had a down-to-earth manner, eating together with the workers on his farm.”

Today, photos of Atrash hang in houses throughout the Druze mountains, his statues dot its main squares and his name is mentioned in local folklore. Two years ago, a museum dedicated to his life opened in al-Qrayya.

Walking around al-Qrayya is like going back to the Middle Ages. People here still take pride in medieval knighthood and enjoy narrating old-fashioned myths about manhood and fighting. Words like “courage”, “honour” and “loyalty” are all that Maan Atrash and his friends talk about. He said he regrets that these principles are no longer valued.

“The chivalry of the fighters during the Great Syrian Revolution is out of fashion these days,” he said.

Fighting the Ottomans
Favourite among the tales is recounting the life story of the town’s most famous inhabitant. Basha Atrash’s military approach is attributed to his studies at the Ottoman Military Academy in Istanbul. The execution of his father by the Ottomans in 1913 for refusing to acknowledge their reign left deep resentment in Atrash, who joined the revolt against Ottoman rule as soon as he could.

That chance came in 1915 when Atrash, who was conscripted into the Ottoman army, defected and joined the Arab army of Sultan Husayn. The then 31-year-old Atrash served as commanding officer and roamed the villages of the Druze Mountains, encouraging men to fight.

Nadia Atrash pointed out proudly that it was women from the region who sewed the flag that the fighters raised in Damascus as a sign of liberation in 1918.

Maan al-Atrash, a 40-something grandson of Sultan Atrash's nephew / photo by Adel Samara

Maan al-Atrash, a 40-something grandson of Sultan Atrash’s nephew / photo by Adel Samara

French opposition
By 1920, France was in control of Syria. In 1925 Atrash was elected the leader of the Syrian Revolution, Omar Arnao’ut a 91-year-old companion of the Basha’s son Mansour, said.

“The National Revolution Assembly, consisting of prominent Damascene and Syrian revolutionary figures, selected Atrash to be their leader. They chose him because his soldiers played the biggest part in the fight against the Ottomans and the French,” Arnao’ut said.

The revolt was finally crushed in 1927 and Atrash was sentenced – together with many other rebels – to death. He fled to Jordan where he stayed until he was pardoned by the French in 1937. Following Syrian independence in 1946, Atrash declined political office.

“He said that politics has its men. He is a farmer and the son of a farmer. His place is in the fields,” Najeeb Atrash, brother of Maan Atrash said.

Historical facts are based on official documents from the Historical Documents Centre in Damascus and the book Steel and Silk by political analyst Sami Moubayed.

This article was published in Syria Today magazine.