On February 26, Syrians — at least those who can enter the streets without being shot — will have the opportunity to vote in a referendum on a new draft constitution. Fares Chamseddine examines the details.
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.