The past seven days in Syria really could have taken place in 1987, not 2007.
If two events show us that nothing has changed, it is the parliamentary elections, and the sentencing of human rights campaigner Anwar Al-Bunni.
The embarrassing contrast of Syria’s polls taking place on the same day that France voted for its new president wasn’t lost on many observers outside the country. One point kept being repeated: part of parliament is ‘reserved’ for the Baath. Yes, there are many independents, who do fight a genuine campaign, and who won dozens of seats. But Syria is no France.
The focus on Syria feels like it has more than a tinge of hypocricy. Hariri bought off opponents in Beirut – so that almost all of the capital’s voters had just one choice on their ballot paper: a Hariri candidate. And what of the Gulf states, where until recently women’s voice was surpressed. Or Egypt, where anti-Mubarak bloggers are detained and raped by police, and where politicians are jailed en-mass (Ayman Nour and the Muslim Brotherhood). Or Saudi Arabia, where no-one votes.
Should any of this come as a surprise? Did we really expect a change since the last elections in 2003? There hasn’t been any pretence of political reform. How can we complain that there hasn’t been enough movement, and then act surprised when we realise we’re still standing in the same place?
The election period has just drawn attention to that stagnation. And it takes the focus away from the very real economic progress. Growth has gone above 5%, the World Economic Forum praised Syria’s improvements on rooting out corruption – one year after an anti-corruption drive was launched, and foreign private banks have sprung up. Tourist developments are underway across the country, funded by Saudi and Qatari money. It’s part of Syria’s aim to attract 7 million tourists into the country, to fill the gap left by the dwindling oil reserves.
Seven years ago, few believed much would change in Syria’s economy. Not enough has happened, but there has been just enough to surprise us all. Maybe we shouldn’t be so dismissive of the promised political reform.
And now, Abdullah Al-Dardari – the former UN economist who came back to Syria to head up the economic reform – looks set to be announced as the country’s new Prime Minister.
That would really show how much of a priority economic reform is.
It would also signal a significant political shift: Al-Dardari is a non-Baathist.
The self-inflicted pain wasn’t limited to the elections, though. Human rights campaigner Anwar Al-Bunni has been given five years in jail.
I didn’t agree with much of what he said – especially what appeared to be his support for Farid Ghadhry, who advocates a US military invasion of Syria. But I agree with his right to say it. Syria’s opposition is what makes this country strong. I believe that whatever our political opinions, we will all suffer if there is a lack of debate. Bunni’s voice is vital.
Over the past few years, the trend has been towards releasing political prisoners, and makes Bunni’s treatment even more shocking – many were expecting him to be released, not sentenced. Other human rights campaigners claim Syria has no more than a few dozen political prisoners left in jail (excluding the Muslim Brotherhood). Amnesty International puts the figure at around 600 (including the MB).
Of course, there have been arrests and subsequent quick releases – the reveolving door. In most cases, people are held for a matter of weeks or months, and we can only hope Bunni will be face a similar fate and be out by the summer.
No such chance for a rebirth of the Sandmonkey. One of Egypt’s most outspoken bloggers has signed off for the final time. The neo-con made many enemies, but no-one, it seems, can compete with the might of the Big Enemy.
We have to hope a similar fate never befalls Syria’s blogosphere. It remains a strong and independent voice amid the turmoil and despair.