DAMASCUS // During a routine session of the Syrian parliament recently, something unexpected happened - a member proposed that harsh emergency laws be reviewed.
Abdul Karim al Sayed, an independent MP from Aleppo, said the state of emergency imposed in Syria should be evaluated by a committee of MPs, which would then recommend changes.
Emergency laws give the authorities sweeping powers to arrest anyone suspected of "endangering public security" or of "disturbing public confidence". Under these laws, countless human rights activists and opposition figures have been imprisoned over the years.
The issue was not scheduled for discussion, and it came as a surprise at the February 23 parliament sitting, according to officials and other MPs. A pro-government official at the session recalled it with anger, saying it was "neither the time, nor the place" to raise the subject.
The proposal was rapidly quashed. Those present say Syria's justice minister defended emergency laws as essential given the state of war with Israel and, when the speaker put the proposed review to a vote in the chamber, none of the other 249 MPs supported it.
"Having an MP ask about the emergency law is a surprise, all the others keeping their mouths shut is expected," said a Syrian civil rights campaigner. Parliament is not known as a hotbed of opposition. Elected every four years, it has no real decision-making powers and its members must acknowledge the exclusive right of the Baath Party to rule.
Although the attempt to usher in reform of the emergency laws failed, and received no coverage in domestic media, it comes at a critical time.
This week, Syria marked the 48th anniversary of the Baath Party's rise to power and almost five decades under the emergency laws. It was the Revolutionary Command Council's second communique, issued on March 8, 1963, after the Baathist coup, which imposed the de facto martial rule that continues to this day.
Crucially, the stillborn attempt at reform comes with the Middle East convulsed by uprisings against entrenched regimes, ruling under similarly fashioned legislation. Egypt, Tunisia and Libya have seen revolutions aiming to sweep away laws giving the security apparatus unlimited powers, and restricting the civil rights of ordinary people.
The Syrian authorities insist they do not face that kind of popular discontent, defending their record of gradual economic modernisation and political stability. However, some officials have acknowledged that change must now be accelerated, and the Syrian president, Bashar Assad, has spoken of wanting to push through municipal elections and other legislative reforms.
But it remains unclear if the state of emergency is being reconsidered as part of any reform agenda.
Since the February 23 parliamentary session, Mr al Sayed, a former member of the Syrian Democratic Party, one of the country's weak political opposition groups, has been reluctant to discuss the matter further. He did, however, confirm he had asked for the legal review.
An independent MP, Mohammad Habash, who was not present in the session, said he "hopes and expects" that the state of emergency would be lifted this year, as part of "a formula that guarantees national security, and at the same time lets people feel relaxed and satisfied".
"During the 10th Baath Party congress in June 2005, one recommendation was to reduce the instances in which the emergency law was applied," he said. "Now we think it is a suitable time to ask what has happened to that recommendation."
Umran Zaubie, a lawyer and Baath party member, confirmed the congress would be held this year and would discuss "all issues".
"In 2005, the emergency law was not on the schedule for discussion, but it still came up," he said. "Everyone has the right to talk about this issue. It's healthy to examine these things."
Mr Zaubie said that freedoms were "squeezed" in all countries during times of war but insisted the emergency law had not been widely used in Syria for more than a decade.
"It's important to distinguish between the letter of the law and the reality of how that is implemented," he said. "According to the law, the minister of interior has a free hand, in reality that is not applied."
On Tuesday, 12 Syrian human rights groups called for the state of emergency to be lifted and political prisoners freed, saying public freedoms were "subject to continuous violations".