Syria stages televised debate on its future


SYRIAN VICE-PRESIDENT Farouk al-Sharaa yesterday opened a round-table discussion designed to launch a dialogue with the opposition and transform the country into a multiparty democracy. “I hope that we will reach transition to a pluralistic democratic state in which all citizens will be equal and be able to participate in shaping their country’s future,” he said.

He took the unprecedented step of admitting on national television, which broadcast the proceedings live, that the two-day conference was convened only because of the uprising. “It must be recognised that without the blood sacrifices by civilians and soldiers . . . this national dialogue would not have been held, at this high level of supervision, under the lens of the cameras.”

Critics of the government who attended the gathering at Damascus university displayed little restraint. Tayeb Tizini, a dissident writer, called for the withdrawal of the security forces from cities and towns, the dismantling of the security apparatus, and an end to “the police state”. He asserted, “That’s an absolute prerequisite, because otherwise the police state will sabotage all our efforts to tackle our problems together.” He called on the government to free all political prisoners as proof of its good intentions.

Members of the ruling Baath party, the opposition, academics, intellectuals and independents took part although figures involved in the ongoing protests boycotted the meeting.

“Political parties and human rights organisations from the opposition are boycotting because conditions are not suitable for such a conference to be held,” said Mahmoud Merhi, a Damascus-based official of the Arab Organisation for Human Rights. “How can there be dialogue when the regime continues to kill protesters and when there are more than 10,000 people in jail for their opinions?”

Opposition sources say more than 1,600 civilians and 350 security personnel have been killed since protests erupted in the southern town of Deraa in mid-March.

When President Bashar al-Assad announced the dialogue last month, he pledged to begin a comprehensive process which would deal with the problems faced by the Syrian people. The aim would be to formulate a package of reforms by September.

Meanwhile, the Syrian foreign ministry summoned the US and French ambassadors, Robert Ford and Eric Chevallier, to protest their visits to the restive city of Hama on Thursday and Friday ahead of mass protests. The ministry accused them of interference in Syria’s internal affairs.

In Egypt, thousands of activists protesting the slow pace of reform have blocked a port in Suez, begun a hunger strike in Port Said, and camped on a key site in Alexandria. Cairo’s Tahrir Square has been taken over, traffic disrupted and the massive Mogamma administrative complex shut down.

Activists say they will continue their mass action until policemen involved in the deaths of protesters are arrested, the security services and the administration are purged of former regime members, and public trials begin of Mr Mubarak and his entourage.