Last Updated January 18, 2001 14:06
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Cultural forums: pseudonym for Syria’s new political activities


Open discussion forums represent opening up of Syrian society.


By Maher Chmaytelli - DAMASCUS

Open forums where political issues can be freely debated are growing in number in Syria, representing the increasing openness sparked by the accession of Bashar al-Assad to the presidency.

There are some 10 well established discussion forums held in the capital Damascus, which has a population of four million. They are held in people's houses, and according to economist Aref Dalila who attends them, "there are clear calls for freedoms, in the context of the law and the constitution".

Forums are also held in other towns and cities and "reflect the transition from a period of bans to a period of openness which could result in future in laws covering political activity" outside the government, he says.

The format of these discussion sessions has evolved gradually because of "the limitations imposed on the media which only covered government policies" and of "the ban on all organised non-governmental activity, be it political or union-based," he adds.

The precursors to these forums first saw the light of day under the late president Hafez al-Assad, the father of the current head of state. The first began functioning in 1986 and was run by the Association of Economists, but its debates were limited to the economic running of the country, according to Dalila.

The move to political debate occurred after the accession of Bashar al-Assad in July, a month after the death of his father.

"Prior to that, any criticism on the political front (meaning of the authorities) was couched in reference to the economy," Dalila says. "Now, we start with the political element."

Discussion in these forums normally starts with a lecture on a particular theme, followed by contributions from the floor, made up primarily of intellectuals and academics.

The most recent group to be formed in Damascus is "Jamal Atassi's forum of democratic dialogue." The first meeting, held on January 14, focussed on political reform with more than 200 people, including former political prisoners, taking part in a house so overcrowded that people had to sit on the staircases.

Jamal Atassi, who died in March 2000, was one of the first members of the pan-Arab Baath party which took power in Syria in 1963. He reverted to the Nasserite tendency in the 1960's and at the end of the 70s declared his opposition to the regime of Hafez al-Assad, which nonetheless tolerated him as he confined his activities to an intellectual context.

"The forums represent a healthy development. They allow for dialogue. You can listen to other people's ideas," says his daughter Sarab Atassi, who is an historian specialising on the old city of Damascus and helped organise the first conference.

Dalila says that only one forum has been officially approved by the authorities. That is run by a Baathist member of parliament, Suheir Rayyes, in the port city of Latakia in the north-west of the country.

Rayyes confirms she got the green light in August 2000, but does not know if she is the only one in that position. She says that it is a "cultural forum" and that the lectures, which will start in a month's time, will not be addressing political issues.

The ideas raised in the political meetings are not totally ignored by the official press. The Ath-Thawra daily, which runs an opinion column called "questions" every Saturday, includes ideas raised by intellectuals taking part in the forums.

However, it is difficult to work out just what impact these ideas have on the population at large.


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