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12/24/02 - SYRIAN SPEAKS OUT - 2002-12-26

A member of the Syrian parliament has spoken out for reform. “A new constitution and [a] new parliamentary elections law are the key for the process of modernization and development,” said Munther Mousalli [MON-zer mo-SELL-lee]. “Otherwise, [Syria] will keep running but going nowhere.”

The truth of Mr. Mousalli’s words is self-evident. For nearly four decades, Syria has languished under the dictatorship of the Ba’th socialist party. Until his death in June 2000, Syria was ruled by Hafez Al-Assad [HAH-fez ahl-AH-sahd]. The country is now in the hands of his son, Bashar [bah-SHAHR].

At first, the new Syrian ruler eased up somewhat on the repression. Hundreds of political prisoners were reportedly released, and groups were allowed to issue manifestos calling for reform. But in 2001, the Syrian government began to crack down again. Political activists were jailed.

There were hopes that Syria’s economic prospects would improve under Bashar Al-Assad’s rule. This was badly needed after years of negative economic growth and wages that were rising slower than the cost of living. But despite much talk of opening up the state-controlled economy to competition and free markets, little has actually been done. Syria’s economy remains hampered by bureaucratic restrictions, lack of legal safeguards for trade and investment, and endemic corruption.

That is the context for Munther Mousalli’s recent call for constitutional reform in Syria. It is a positive sign that he could say what he did without being jailed. But the test will be whether some action is taken to give the Syrian people more of a voice in their government and economy. Syrians deserve to have the same basic rights, including the right to self-rule, that people everywhere else should have.

As President George W. Bush put it, “No people on earth yearn to be oppressed. . .or eagerly await the midnight knock of the secret police. . . . America will always stand for the non-negotiable demands of human dignity: the rule of law; limits on the power of the state; respect for women; private property; free speech; equal justice; and religious tolerance. America,” said President Bush, “will take the side of brave men and women who advocate these values around the world.”