Image Credit: Illustration: Roula/©Gulf News

As the Syrian protest movement enters its fifth month, showing no sign of withering away, most Syrians are adamantly seeking to cancel Article eight of the constitution that designates the Baath party as ‘leader of state and society'. This demand has been a high priority for Syrian protesters since the beginning of the current uprising in March. Cancelling Article eight will effectively mean the end of five decades of Baath party rule.

No wonder that until recently Baathists have refused to discuss the fate of the article, claiming that given the Baath party's secular outlook, staying in power was the only guarantee to prevent radical Islamists, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, from taking over. After the outbreak of demonstrations, pragmatic Baathists have, however, become more open to discuss the issue, believing that to survive the current crisis the Baath party has to reform from within. Otherwise, simply put; it will collapse.

In fact, since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, doubts have sharply risen about whether the other wing of Baathism can survive after the demise of its twin sister in Iraq. The current crisis has made this question all the most pressing as calls for political change gain more momentum.

The present dilemma of the Baath party emanates from the fact that it has for long refused to recognise the changes which have taken place in the region and the world over the past two decades. Many Syrian Baathists claim that their party still enjoys wide public support and that it has survived greater upheavals, including the 1967 defeat with Israel, the collapse of the Soviet Union and more recently the American occupation of Iraq. This optimism might be overstated this time not least because the Baath party itself is in the eye of the storm.

Indeed, the Baath party was very popular when it was first established. It emerged as a revolutionary movement - its main objective was to combat colonialism, social inequality and Arab disunity; hence its slogan: Arab unity, freedom and socialism. For decades this slogan constituted a legitimacy formula for the Baath and through it the party won the support of the poor, the dispossessed and the angered masses at the loss of Palestine in 1948. Yet after coming to power in 1963 the party exhausted itself by internal rivalry and factionalism. The conflict was mainly between the historic civilian leadership of the party and its military wing.

The conflict ended in 1970 when president Hafez Al Assad, the father of the current Syrian leader, took over power and eliminated most of his rivals. In addition, the socialist policies of the Baath party and the struggle against the old bourgeoisie required mobilising wider sectors of the society, digging into ever-deeper social strata.

Loyalty to the regime

This policy led to the emergence of new leaders of lower class quality who represented not the dominant upper and middle-class values but radical ideologies. Furthermore, since the mid-1970 the rule in Syria became increasingly authoritarian and Baathism became a mere mobilisation tool to control the state and rule over the masses. The harsh state reaction to the rebellion of the Muslim Brotherhood in the early 1980s turned Syria into a police state. Loyalty to the regime became the parameter for granting government jobs and privileges. By the time President Bashar Al Assad succeeded his father in 2000, socialism had become an outdated economic system lacking ideological vigour and a vehicle to enrich and protect the interests of senior Baath figures.

For the past 10 years, Al Assad has struggled to redefine the role of the Baath party and its relation with the state and society. His success was limited, however. This time he hopes that the reforms he promised to introduce, including the cancellation of Article eight of the Syrian constitution, might essentially require sacrificing the Baath party's supremacy on Syria's political life. Will that be enough to wither the storm and survive yet another crisis? We have to wait and see.

Dr Marwan Kabalan is a lecturer in media and international relations at the Faculty of Political Science and Media, Damascus University, Syria.