Syria’s draft constitution offers only business as usual for Assad | Fares ChamseddineBy
Rambling and incoherent, this document makes the president more powerful and the state apparatus more pervasive
The grotesque charade continues as Bashar al-Assad’s regime puts forward a draft constitution for Syria for a referendum on 26 February. There is an obvious irony to Assad’s meticulous and artificial reverence to the pageantry and pomp of a republican system, which thinly veils its violent dictatorship; the shelling of Homs has been ongoing for over 19 days. But the constitution itself makes for some interesting reading, for it shows that the regime has dropped the charade of being a Ba’athist party dominating society. Instead, an examination of the constitution shows us that politics in whatever future-Syria that Assad thinks he will be a part of is going to be dominated by a very powerful president and a pervasive state apparatus.
The constitution itself, available in English, starts off with a particularly long preamble that is as boring as it is irrelevant. Jumbled and inconclusive, it affirms the country’s “Arab” identity and rants about the dangers and obstacles of colonialism and imperialism, as well as the Zionist enemy. Furthermore, not once, unlike the 1950 Syrian constitution’s preamble, does it ever say “we the representatives of the Syrian people”. The preamble lectures the Syrian people, and it speaks at them, but it never states by what authority this document is coming into existence.
The body of the constitution is a rambling and long list of articles – 157 to be precise. Frustratingly, it again insists that the president should be “part of the Muslim faith”. Furthermore, one theme running throughout it is that the lines between the branches of government are blurred, and it is much later in the document that the nature of the relationship is spoken of. Clearly it seems far more important for the framers to lecture on Syria’s Arab identity and imperialism first, as if the people demonstrating on the streets in Syria are doing so for that reason primarily. Throughout the document, rights are not inherent for the citizens, to be protected and enshrined by the constitution, but guaranteed and granted by the state. This is a curious nuance that deserves contemplation.
There are also bizarre articles enshrining physical education, the sacredness of marriage and protection of the environment, while article 40 says that the state undertakes to provide employment for all citizens – I’m not sure why or how a “state” can do that. If the only fault with this draft was that it was poorly written and structured then perhaps Assad could be forgiven. But the most important parts of it, those related to the governing of the country, show us an extremely powerful role for the presidency and a pervasive state apparatus, which is something that many Syrians should be very wary of after 40 years of dictatorship.
In article 55 the legislative authority is placed with a people’s assembly, and while article 100 says that the president must issue laws passed by the people’s assembly, article 111 says that he can also dismiss the people’s assembly for “a reasoned decision issued by him” – so basically because he says so. Article 116 appears to allow for a form of Syrian populism, as the president can appeal to the citizenry through referendums, to pass laws that are immediately binding and that bypass the people’s assembly, which contradicts article 55. Article 117 says that the president cannot be held responsible for what he does in the line of his duties, apart from high treason, in which case he will be tried before a supreme constitutional court. But article 141 states that the president is a member of this same supreme constitutional court, and in fact it also states that he appoints each and every member of it. The supreme constitutional court has no right to question the constitutionality of laws passed by the president of the republic through public referendum, Article 148, and can only scrutinise the people’s assembly in the laws it passes. This jumble of articles appears to enshrine populism, which is deeply worrying.
In article 132 we are told that the judiciary is independent, but that the president and a higher council of judiciary guarantee that independence. Oh, and he presides over this council, too, by the way.
Nowhere in the draft is the Ba’ath party ever mentioned, and in a sense that is to be expected as this instrument has long ago ceased to be of any real importance to the regime. With Assad still in power, the new constitution simply allows him to continue with business as usual, albeit without the anachronism of socialism and one-party rule – and with demagoguery enshrined in the constitution.
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from Fares Chamseddine