Between the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1916 and promulgation of a permanent constitution in 1973, Syria adopted several constitutions, all reflecting an amalgam of West European (chiefly French), Arab, and Islamic political cultures. The initial impetus to constitutionalism came from Syrian nationalist leaders of the post-World War I era who had been educated in the West during the late nineteenth century. These leaders proposed a Western-style parliament and a separate, independent judiciary as a counterbalance to the untrammeled power of Ottoman and later French Mandate administrators. The system of government envisioned by Syrian nationalists and legal scholars was to provide for popular participation in the political process and constitutional safeguards of personal and political rights.
Constitutionalism failed to take hold, however, because of unremitting postindependence instability. A change in government leadership through a coup or a countercoup was almost always followed by a constitutional change intended to buttress the new political order.
In 1987 the governmental structure was based on the Permanent Constitution of March 13, 1973. This charter is similar to the provisional constitution of May 1, 1969, as amended in February and June 1971. The Constitution provides for a republican form of government in what it calls "a democratic, popular, socialist, and sovereign state" and stipulates that the people are the ultimate source of national sovereignty.
The Constitution reaffirms the long-held ideological premise that Syria is only a part of the one and indivisible "Arab nation" that is struggling for complete Arab unity. Syria is constitutionally declared still to be a member of the Federation of Arab Republics (FAR), which was inaugurated in April 1971 by Egypt, Syria, and Libya. Although the FAR was short lived, its constitutional formula provides a framework for ongoing Syrian efforts at unity with other Arab nations.
Among the principles in the Constitution is the stipulation that the president be a Muslim, that the main source of legislation be Islamic fikh(doctrine and jurisprudence), and that the Baath Party be "the vanguard party in the society and the state." In addition, the state is directed to safeguard the fundamental rights of citizens to enjoy freedom and to participate in political, economic, social, and cultural life within the limits of the law. Free exercise of religious belief is guaranteed as long as such exercise does not affect public order. In keeping with the Arab character of the nation, the purpose of the educational system is described as creation of "an Arab national socialist generation with scientific training"--a generation committed to establishment of a united Arab socialist nation.
The Constitution's economic principles not only set forth a planned socialist economy that should take into account "economic complementarity in the Arab homeland" but also recognize three categories of property. The three kinds are property of the people, including all natural resources, public domains, nationalized enterprises, and establishments created by the state; collective property, such as assets owned by popular and professional organizations; and private property. The Constitution states that the social function of private property shall be subordinated, under law, to the national economy and public interests. However, expropriation may occur only with just compensation.
Governmental powers are divided by the Constitution into executive, legislative, and judicial categories. The Constitution is notable for strengthening the already formidable role of the presidency; the framers of the Constitution were clearly more concerned with the supremacy and stability of presidential powers than with the issue of checks and balances among the three branches of government. Official concern for political and governmental stability is reflected in the relatively difficult procedures for amending the Constitution. A bill to amend the Constitution may be introduced by the president or one-third of the members of the People's Council (parliament), but its passage requires approval by a majority of three-fourths of the People's Council as well as by the president.
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