About 14.6 million Syrians have only two weeks to read and discuss a 12-page long draft constitution before deciding whether or not to adopt it. There are two aspects to this milestone: First, to measure how many will participate in the referendum. Second, to conclude the process of reforms, given that the new constitution would be the ultimate law of the land and the "new" contract between the rulers -- or rather, the ruler -- and the governed.
It is necessary to read carefully through the articles of this draft, which was issued by presidential decree on the 15th of this month [February], in order to understand that it is no more than a referendum intended to preserve the regime -- with virtually no changes. Excluding the preamble, with its modernist and secular rhetoric, which makes reference to [Syria’s] "proud Arab identity" and regional stature, as well as the threats of imperialism and Zionism, three points of objection will become apparent to the reader:
First, the mission to "achieve comprehensive Arab unity" has been moved from the constitution's first article to its preamble. (The reason behind this [change] is a mystery to this author).
Second, the absence of any reference to the occupied Golan Heights and the duty to liberate it as part of the national and Arab obligations of Syria, which is the "beating heart of the Arab world, the frontline [of the struggle] against the Zionist enemy, and the base of resistance against colonial domination of the Arab world, its wealth and resources." (Preamble)
Third, the purely Arab Syrian identity [referred to in the document] will not help in the regime’s treatment of the non-Arab groups [on its territory], for whom the only guarantee in the constitution is its recognition of "cultural diversity." (Article 9)
Although some have praised the fact that secularism was dropped from the [language of the] constitution, it should be noted that secularism was not mentioned in the 1973 Constitution in the first place. What’s more, the two paragraphs in Article 3 that declare Islam as the religion of the president of the republic and that "Islamic jurisprudence is the main source of legislation" are carryovers from the 1973 Constitution. What was added was a clause stipulating that the "personal welfare and status of religious sects is protected and respected." Does that mean that this brotherly country has become like Lebanon in terms of the sectarian nature of questions pertaining to personal status? If so, how many personal status systems will emerge in Syria?
It is encouraging that socialism is no longer part of the state’s or regime's identity (Article 1) or of the education of citizens (Article 23 of the 1973 Constitution talked about socialist education). And, in dropping socialism, the principle of equality is dropped as well (Article 19). The regime was [no longer] socialist, even in name; but there were still elements of resistance...in the economy. The new constitution does not prescribe a free-market system, but rather lays the foundations for an economy based on planning and sustainable and balanced development.
Amendments were made to ownership rights. The 1973 Constitution accounted for three types of ownership: public ownership, collective ownership, and private ownership. But the new constitution combines the [latter two] in an ambiguous "private ownership, collective or individual."
Political pluralism [is mentioned] and [politics] can be practiced by "licensed" political parties only. That's fine. But the constitution forbids the establishment of parties on the basis of "religion, sect, tribe, region, or profession [...] or according to discrimination based on sex, origin, race, or color." Who will be measuring each of these elements to make sure political parties applying for a license are not "discriminating"? The answer is in the new party law: A committee headed by the interior minister and appointed by the head of the state! Besides, that long list of taboos is peculiar. Could they be merely a list of excuses for refusing to grant licenses to unfavorable parties? Are the parties of the National Progressive Front -- which has been considered de facto "licensed" since the issuance of the political parties law -- truly satisfying all of the above criteria? In addition, some of the text in the constitution contradicts the electoral law, which still classifies people according to occupation: Workers, peasants or independent [entrepreneurs].
We will not forget to mention the repeal of Article 8 [which says that "the leading party in society and the state is the Socialist Arab Ba’ath Party"]. But questions remain about [the effects of removing this language]. The Ba’ath Party has played a leadership role and has enjoyed a monopoly on political work in the military and among students. Does the repeal of Article 8 open the door for political and partisan activity in those two domains?
Of course, the main issue is the powers of the president of the republic. Let no one try to fool us that the problem with the constitution has to do with one-party rule. Both the old and the newly proposed Syrian constitutions enshrine a political system ruled by one individual through the quasi-absolute powers of the president.
Let us say outright that the only true amendment in the constitution is that presidential elections are now competitive -- with conditions -- and that they allow President Assad to rule for an additional 16 years. What's funny is that the person drafting the new constitution forgot to amend the minimum age of the president. The minimum age has remained unchanged since it was last amended to allow 34-year-old Bashar al-Assad to succeed his father in 2000.
The people elect their deputies to the People's Assembly, but it is the president who "invites them to convene" by presidential decree. This means that they are not deputies of the people if they do not enjoy the approval of the president, whose sovereignty is equal to that of the people (Article 60).
The president of the republic will remain the head of the executive and legislative branches. There is ambiguity as to how the cabinet will be formed, except in that the president appoints and dismisses ministers either individually or collectively. But the new constitution gives the People's Assembly more power in granting or withdrawing confidence for individual ministers or for the entire cabinet. Apart from that, the president has direct executive authority over the individual ministers and is the chairman of the council of ministers. The president can request reports from the ministers about their activities. In essence, the ministers are headed by the president while the prime minister "supervises" them (Article 98). Also, the president can issue -- and not merely suggest -- laws which are then passed by the People's Assembly. And, if he finds it "necessary," he has the power to legislate regardless of whether the People's Assembly is in session. The People's Assembly cannot abolish laws issued by the president except by a two-thirds majority. The president also has the right to hold referenda (Article 112) and freeze state institutions "in case of a grave threat to national unity." (Article 113).
The president can dissolve the People's Assembly (Article 117). And to top it all off, the president is not responsible for "his direct actions" except in case of high treason. This means that the president is not responsible for the actions of those under his command, even though he is the ultimate authority of the executive and legislative branches, in addition to being the commander-in-chief of the armed forces and the security services. Perhaps this explains the infamous statements he made to an American newspaper, in which he denied responsibility for the actions of his armed forces!
This has been a reading of Syria’s draft constitution, on which a referendum will soon be held. The new constitution is supposed to represent the embodiment and culmination of the “reforms” that the regime has been calling on the Syrian people to approve, in order to resolve the year-long bloody crisis.
Lately, protests have erupted at the heart of the regime's political and economic capital. It is a crisis that the head of the state himself describes as having the potential to divide Syria. Could things be any worse? Yes. How can there be a dialogue -- as the [regime’s] Russian and Chinese sponsors have called for -- when we already know its outcome in advance?