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
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
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
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