Since this issue has been in the news a lot and I study Syrian politics in detail I figured I would put my two cents in regarding the issue of the Emergency Law in Syria. The Emergency Law of 1963 was instituted after the Neo-Baath takeover of Syria led by Jedid and Assad overthrowing the more militaristic (yes that is possible) right wing government that had been in power more or less since 1961. Jedid controlled the government more than Assad until 1963 and enacted many laws, regulations, and reforms to “help” Syria develop into a more stable, egalitarian, and important state in the region. The Emergency Law is a byproduct of a 17 years of constant instability and warfare with Israel. It was justified as a necessity to fight imperialism from the West and its allies in the region, i.e. Israel and “reactionary” states in the region. When the Neo-Baath were still consolidating their power from 63-66 the Emergency Law was used to marginalize opposition from merchants, Islamists, and foreign reactionary forces. At first some of these groups were paid off or given lip service but certain Islamist forces were marginalized after the re-writing of the Syrian constitution when they rose up against the Neo-Baath’s omission of Islam and the role of it anywhere in the document. Minus these initial battles during the consolidation of the Neo-Baath Syria state the Emergency Law has been used more against individuals and smaller groups before they get larger and influential.
The biggest usage of the Emergency Law since the 1960s-70s was during the transition of power from Hafez Assad to Bashar Assad. During this time there was a movement, different from the current one, demanding changes to the constitution and workings of the state. The main group during this time was the Lawyers Union and they started what was called the Statement of 99, which turned into the Statement of 1000. Which was a list of requests for liberalization of the economy, liberalization of the power structure, and elimination of the Emergency Law. It was a non-politically aligned group that did not ask for sweeping reforms, but reforms to help Syria adapt to the changing world and allow more Syrian participation in the decision making processes. Bashar “ran” on a platform of reform and change and at first ignored what was then called the “Damascus Spring” movement until it became large enough where he had to make a decision. Bashar it seemed what some of the reforms but felt pressured by the Old Guard of the Baath party to try and marginalize this group and make an example out of them. Bashar ended up doing a mixture of things to try and placate to the Statement. First he replaced a number of Old Guard officials to allow himself an image of reform and to allow himself to reform things he felt would be enough. He also liberalized to a point certain key institutions such as banks. He also released 600 political prisoners, 380 of which were from the Muslim Brotherhood. This allowed him a little breathing room but was not enough to quell the euphoria of reform among the movement. Eventually he marginalized the groups in what is called “Damascus Winter” by mostly remaining Old Guard and government officials who felt threatened by the possibility of a multi party system. The movement was eventually arrested or marginalized to the point that they have not had the impact or power since 2001.
Present day the removal of the Emergency Law is being considered by Assad as a way to deal with the protest movement in the South and West of the country. He may see this as a way to reflect the possibility of a multi-party system being addressed and implemented. Even if a multi-party system were adapted in Syria I do not the see the possibility of Assad’s place being threatened. On the contrary it is the advisors, officials, army, and hand-picked and favored businessmen that are more the pushing force to keep the status quo going. Since 1963 and 1970 in particular these elites have had exclusive rule of Syria through a privilege system. They wish to keep their privileges as close and personal as possible and know that in a freer political and economic system they would have to give up a lot of privileges. The issue therefore is not “Does Bashar want to get rid of the Emergency Law,” but instead does he wish to upset his support system enough and set a possible precedent for future reform where his privilege is generally not threatened.