The 'Infitah' Politics and the Failure of Political Islam in Syria

Article excerpt

The 1970s, 1980s and 1990s witnessed a resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism unprecedented in scope. Islamists toppled the pro-US Shah of Iran in 1979 while their counterparts in Afghanistan battled against the Soviet occupation army, then fought a civil war in the post-Soviet era until the Taliban clambered to power in Kabul in 1996. Islamists in Algeria, Sudan, the Central Asian republics, etc. challenged existing power structures and Premier Nazaw Sharif waived the scimitar of Islam when he faced a legitimisation crisis in Pakistan. However, the Islamists failed to topple the dictator of Damascus, Hafiz al-Asad in their bitter struggle in the 1980s and early 1990s. Their failure can be attributed to existing coercive policies and practices as well as the Infitah politics by the Damascus regime. The term Infitah, which means an open-door economic development policy, gained currency in the Middle Eastern political literature after Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat reversed the nationalization programmes of his predecessor, Gamal Abd-al Nasser, and opened Egypt's economy to Western economic and political influence.

Syria's Infitah politics began as the country gained its independence in 1946. Post-independent Syrian leaders supported the concept of Pan-Arab nationalism and formed a union with Egypt and the United Arab Republics (UAR) in 1958, with Nasser as the president of the UAR. Nasser opted for large scale state-sponsored capitalism, nationalizing foreign banks and enterprises and introducing land reforms. The UAR collapsed in 1961 because of policy differences between Syria and Egypt. The Syrian bourgeoisie and elites associated with it did not regard Nasser's policies serving their vested interest and decided to break ties with Egypt.

The Syrian ruling class reneged on all progressive social measures and restored the private means of production. The radical segment of the bourgeoisie represented by the Baath party were dismayed with conservative policies, and began to organize its rank and file members in the army, seizing power in 1963. It supported nationalization of banks, insurance and mercantile companies. Polarization plagued Syria between 1963-1970. The urban-based opposition led by the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), the merchants and the landed families advocated a free market economy and a return to pristine Islam of the Prophet Mohammad's era. Although social and class conflicts impaired the Baath party's unity, the MB could not effectively challenge the ruling party's domination of Syrian politics until the late 1970s. The moderate faction, comprised of members of the urban-middle class, adopted a reformist policy aimed at securing the co-operation of capitalists for national development and the radicals, who represented the interests of the provincial lower middle classes and the peasantry, and supported a violent overthrow of the urban middle class through a revolution from above. Interparty struggle was further exacerbated by sectarian differences.

General Salah Jadid and his supporters believed in a collectivist state-run economy. The conservatives concentrated around General Hafez al-Asad, supported accommodation with the private sector, expansion of the Baath party by allowing the participation of non-Baathists, and strengthening the armed forces. While continuing interparty struggle the ruling bourgeoisie succeeded in implementing a number of reforms. The implementation of land reforms partially destroyed the power base of the landed aristocracy and paved the road for the ascendancy of the petty bourgeoisie (dependent classes of salaried officials and white-collar workers) in both the economic and political arena.

Power struggles within the party toppled Jadid's government when the conservatives headed by Asad seized power through a military coup in November 1970. Asad was elected president with 92 per cent of the votes cast, in March 1971. Asad's immediate objective was to consolidate the state apparatus, legitimize his rule and liberalize the economy. …