Syria marks today the 30th anniversary of the coup that brought Hafez al-Assad to power, half a year after his death and succession by his 35-year-old son Bashar amid a campaign to open up Syria's sluggish economy.
The country will fete the Assads' rise much as it did in years past, with mass assemblies and conferences and parades showing off Syria's warplanes. All workers will be asked to volunteer their labor, including on Friday, usually Muslims' day of rest.
The newspapers have in recent days stepped up their praise of the elder Assad, lauding him for the rural development and educational improvements since the 1970 "Rectification Movement," in which then defense minister Assad purged rivals within the Baath socialist Party that has ruled Syria since 1963.
Bashar al-Assad invoked his father's achievements in his July inaugural address, in which he called for modernization of the economy without a full embrace of Westernization. The young president's key partner has been Prime Minister Mohammed Mustapha Miro, appointed several months before Hafez al-Assad's death.
Miro immediately started work on a plan to modernize the banking sector, nationalized in 1963, in hopes of attracting investors. Syria has since given the go-ahead for banks with private capital and a special bank geared toward investors. Foreign bankers will also now able to set up in free-trade zones.
But experts meeting at a conference in Damascus last week agreed Syria needs to begin to liberalize without delay if it wants to attract the billions of dollars the country needs for urgent modernization of its infrastructure.
"At present there is no long-term funding for the Syrian private sector," stressed an official of the International Finance Company (IFC), an arm of the World Bank. "The banking sector is inefficient," added Sami Haddad, IFC director for the Middle East and North Africa.
Syrian banks' poor service and heavily bureaucratic slowness send customers en masse into neighboring Lebanon, whose banks can be found just an hour's drive from Damascus. Syria is also considering the creation of a stock exchange, although any privatization of state companies is still out of the question.
"The three sectors — public, private and joint — are the base of economic development in Syria," the government newspaper Tishrin said Monday. "Thirty years after the Rectification Movement, Syria is growing more than ever with this economic diversity," it added.
But there are even a few signs that the economic liberalization is yielding political reform. In a groundbreaking step, Syrian MP Riad Seif called Monday for more freedom for parliament and an honest judiciary. "It is wrong to think that it is possible to create an atmosphere likely to encourage local, Arab and foreign investment without political reform," Seif said.
"Breaking the political monopoly is a precondition for applying the principles of transparency, equality of opportunity and putting the right person in the right place and making the rule of law prevail," he told the parliament.
In foreign affairs, however, Syria has changed little, remaining one of the Israel’s most hard-line opponents. The younger Assad reiterated Syria's position Sunday to leaders of Islamic countries meeting in Doha, telling them any peace needs to be based on UN resolutions calling for Israel's withdrawal from territories it conquered in 1967, especially the Syrian Golan Heights.
Bashar al-Assad has also continued his father's policy toward Lebanon, where Syria has been the main powerbroker since 1991, despite increased Lebanese calls for a reassessment of the countries' relationship. — (AFP, Damascus)
by Roueida Mabardi
© Agence France Presse 2000
© 2000 Mena Report (www.menareport.com)