As editor of the Baath Party newspaper, Mehdi Dakhlallah has risen to a position of rare power within the institution that has dominated most elements of public life here for more than four decades. Now the balding, rotund intellectual is trying to tear his party apart.
In sober editorials, Dakhlallah has argued that the party is too big, too meddlesome and too removed from its founding principles of social justice, socialist economics and Arab nationalism. The young people who are joining today, he laments, are drawn only by the promise of preferential treatment in university admissions and lucrative jobs in Syria's largely state-controlled economy. He wants the party to return to its ideological roots by becoming smaller, more democratic and, most controversial to his colleagues, less influential in government.
"The Baath Party is not going to change the world," said Dakhlallah, 57, who joined amid the revolutionary fervor of the late 1960s. "Right now we're fighting to separate the party from government. This is an essential step in changing and developing this country."
A year and a half after Iraq's Baath Party vanished with the U.S. invasion, Syria's branch is under siege from within its own ranks. Dakhlallah is among a vanguard of intellectuals trying to reduce the party's influence with the blessing of President Bashar Assad, who during four years in power has grown frustrated with the opposition many of its members are putting up to his plans for economic reform.
Since the revolution that brought it to power 41 years ago, the nearly 2 million-member party has grown into a parallel government, monitoring education, political and economic policy through a network of committees from the national to the village level. Assad is slowly dismantling the system of privileges the party has accumulated, allowing him to set the pace and extent of change at a time when Syria is in the cross hairs of the Bush administration's push to bring democratic reforms to the Middle East.
Assad, the party's titular head, has selected more than a quarter of his cabinet from outside party ranks since inheriting the presidency on the death of his father, Hafez Assad, four years ago. He is purging the Baath-dominated military of senior officers by enforcing for the first time regulations on mandatory retirement age, and he may push to remove the article of the Syrian constitution that guarantees his party "the leading role in society and in the state." At the same time, fewer young people are joining the party.
But as Assad, an ophthalmologist by training, works to remove the party as an obstacle to reform, he is also trying not to upset the political base that sustained his father for three decades. He is facing strong resistance from a group of septuagenarian holdovers from his father's administration and from provincial party leaders accustomed to influencing everything from teacher promotions to the price of vegetables in the market.
Those pushing hardest for reform within the party are primarily political ideologues, such as Dakhlallah, who do not hold posts with influence over state industry or the powerful intelligence services, where most of the opposition to change is coming from. A smaller party might be more amenable to Assad's economic reforms, and a new set of leaders could emerge from among those pushing hardest for change.
"Assad encouraged introspection within the party, and it is having a big conversation with itself that is not yet resolved," said Peter Ford, the British ambassador here. "But as of now you still can't ignore the party. You must work with it."
Hani Murtada, a soft-spoken pediatrician, is fighting the party from the outside at the president's direction. A year ago, Assad appointed Murtada minister of higher education, making him one of seven members of his 25-person cabinet who is not a party member.
Murtada was given control of a system comprising four public universities and 225,000 students but with a shortage of qualified teachers, classrooms and curricula. Since then, he has licensed Syria's first private universities, created e-learning programs in a country that still blocks certain Web sites, and dismantled the privileges extended to teachers and students who belong to the party. Soon, he said, "all 17 million people in this country will be treated the same."
In the past, 25 percent of university admissions went to party members whose test scores did not meet minimum standards, usually by only a few points. Murtada said he cut that to 10 percent this year and will eliminate it altogether for the next school year. A knowledge of English, he said, is a better ticket to promotion than party membership. He allows the party's education committees to comment on appointments but not to dictate them as in the past.
"Many look at the party now as an important symbol. But as something that controls the country, that is over," Murtada said in a recent interview. "The general vision of the country has changed completely in the last three years. They once thought the state should manage everything, and we have seen this is nonsense."
Assad, according to Syrian officials and Western diplomats, is increasingly concerned by the demographic challenge facing the country. Each year 300,000 young Syrians enter the labor market, while the economy grows at only 3 percent a year, not nearly fast enough to absorb the new job seekers.
So far the most notable economic change has been the recent licensing of three private banks, a step Assad proposed three years ago. Party leaders, many of whom have substantial stakes in the state-run banks and other government-controlled entities, resisted the move until party doctrine was amended to allow Assad to proceed.
Many opposing the changes are in their seventies; the president, a generation younger, is waiting them out. He is also enforcing mandatory retirement, commonly waived for powerful military officers in the past. Western diplomats here say several hundred party members in the officer corps will be out over the next eight months, including the directors of four intelligence services.
"The end result will be to get the Baath Party out of the government and, particularly, out of making economic policy," said Waddah Abdrabbo, editor of the Economist, an independent weekly newspaper. "These people know that change is coming. They can fight it for a year or two, but in the end they will not be able to do anything about it."
Damascus University was once fertile ground for party recruiting when Soviet-style socialism and Arab nationalism captured the imaginations of many students across the Middle East. Today a broader range of political opinion is reflected in its sunny courtyards.
Dima Bawadikji, 18, said she joined the party in high school because she believed "any party member would have an easy life." A freshman studying library science, Bawadikji was the only one among five children in her family who joined the party, which in high school meant special picnics and sports days for members.
Sitting next to her on the shady steps of the journalism building, Amer Hassan, a 24-year-old student of English literature, said he joined the party a decade ago even though he "didn't know anything about it." Only a few people from his high school class in the southern province of Daraa didn't join, and he said he feared that failing to do so would hinder his ability to travel abroad, which he hopes to do some day.
"This party has been around for more than 30 years, and it's done nothing for us," Hassan said. "This president is a good one, and I respect him. But he can do nothing against these people because they run everything."
On the streets of Daraa, 70 miles southeast of Damascus, Yasseen Damara's smoky waiting room fills with men in military uniform and in the red-checked kaffiyehs of Bedouin farmers. He is the province party boss, and he is a busy man.
His calendar is filled with the weddings and funerals of provincial notables, and he is in constant contact with the provincial governor, another party member, for consultations ranging from the status of medicine in the hospital to problems with the electricity grid. Assad, father and son, look down on him from his wall as he works through committee reports on youth, economics, politics and education.
If vegetable prices in the market are too high, a party member will tell the vendor they should come down. The education committee recommends teachers for promotion, though Damara insists ability is the deciding factor. Despite his post, he said, two of his children were recently denied admission to the highly competitive local nursing school.
The changes being proposed by the intellectuals in Damascus make little sense to Damara, 51, a beneficiary of the party for decades. Land reform that followed the 1963 Baath revolution quadrupled the size of his father's tiny wheat, barley and garbanzo fields in the village of Maarea, making the farm profitable enough to sustain his family of eight. He joined the party in high school and never left.
"The party is still close to its principles, even though some individual members have made mistakes," said Damara. "It will always be the leading party. Why? Because its goals will always be supported by the people."