This commentary was published in Asharq al-Awsat in 02/02/2011
In an extremely defiant interview that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad gave to the Wall Street Journal (31st January 2011), al-Assad spoke frankly about a series of demonstrations and protests taking place in a number of Arab countries, saying: "If you didn't see the need for reform before what happened in Egypt and Tunisia, it is too late to do any reform."
Important and accurate words, from the president of an Arab state at a highly sensitive time, whilst the majority of Arab regimes have remained silent. Perhaps someone observing President al-Assad’s strategy might ask: why would the Syrian President choose to comment, at this particular time, on attempts to change the political regime in two Arab countries? Furthermore, what is the nature of the reform, or change, which he has pledged to Syria and the Syrians in the coming phase?
Bashar al-Assad spoke at length –during the interview – about his vision for the world of internal Arab politics. He talked about governance, popular legitimacy, reform, and religious extremism, and he ended [the interview] by describing the correct process – according to his point of view – to achieve democracy in Syria. It can be said that the importance of this interview lies in the fact that the Syrian President spoke – perhaps for the first time – about the future of the Syrian regime, from an internal perspective, ending with eloquently conclusions similar to what can be found in books such as Ibn Khaldun's "Muqaddimah" or Machiavelli's "The Prince.". Talking about the recent events, al-Assad said: “Whenever you have an uprising, it is self-evident to say that you have anger, but this anger feeds on desperation. Desperation has two factors: internal and external. The internal [factor] is that we are to blame, as states and as officials…if you want to talk about the changes internally, there must be different kinds of changes: political, economic and administrative. These are the changes that we need."
According to President al-Assad, Syria is immune to what happened in Tunisia and Egypt. He said: “Why is Syria stable, although we have more difficult conditions? Egypt has been supported financially by the United States, while we are under embargo by most countries of the world. We have growth although we do not have many of the basic needs for the people. Despite all that, the people do not go into an uprising. So it is not only about the needs and not only about the reform. It is about the ideology, the beliefs and the cause that you have. There is a difference between having a cause and having a vacuum”.
To summarize the President’s (extensive) words, what happened in Egypt and Tunisia was the product of “despair”, and a lack of “hope” and “dignity”. He added that “You have to be very closely linked to the beliefs of the people. This is the core issue. When there is divergence between your policy and the people's beliefs and interests, you will have this vacuum that creates disturbance. So people do not only live on interests; they also live on beliefs, especially in very ideological areas. Unless you understand the ideological aspect of the region, you cannot understand what is happening.”
As for al-Assad’s proposed solution, it is not the immediate application of democracy, because the people need to develop, and perhaps it will be the "next generation" that will practice democracy in the future. [Al-Assad said] gradual reform should be undertaken, to develop society, and society’s participation in the decision-making process must be taken into account. “If you want to be transparent with your people, do not do anything cosmetic, whether to deceive your people or to get some applause from the West. They want to criticize you, let them criticize and do not worry.”
I find myself in agreement with the Syrian President – when ballot box principles are immediately applied to societies, democratic values do not instantly become part of their consciousness, and the process does not achieve the desired results. Reform must be gradual, so that people can keep pace with the change. These are wise words on a theoretical level, but applying such principles on the ground is another matter!
The Syrian President was right in saying that countries such as Egypt and Tunisia have achieved economic growth, and made great strides in opening up to the outside world, yet despite this, uprisings have occurred. However, I disagree with the President when he says that “ideology” – in Syria’s case, Baathist ideology – and a “cause” – i.e. resistance – are safeguards against an internal vacuum. The era of cross-border ideology is over, and a human being today is no longer an anonymous individual of the people, but rather he has his independence and personal freedoms. When a regime uses a ‘cause’, whether this is the liberation of the Golan Heights, or Palestine, this does not provide security when faced with demands for civil and political rights. Here, let us reflect on the ‘Wali al-Faqih’ regime in Iran, which the president referred to as a model of popular will, despite the fact that it was built to resist and stand in the face of the West. Massive youth protests emerged demanding regime change in 1996, 1999, 2003 and 2009, which were all suppressed by the use of force. During the latest Iranian elections, millions came out to object to what they perceived as electoral fraud, and how did this “resistance” regime deal with the people? The ‘Basij’ gangs cracked down and suppressed hundreds on the streets of Tehran. The Revolutionary Guard was forced to reinstate Ahmadinejad by force to preserve the regime, and send the young members of the opposition to the Revolutionary Courts.
Finally, those young protestors participating in the demonstrations today are not doing so because of a ‘cause’, or an ‘ideology’, but because they want to change their miserable living conditions. It is perhaps a cause for concern that at the same time they do not have an alternative vision for the future. Likewise, their movement is being led by passion and enthusiasm, and thus the future of their aspirations are not assured should they return to their homes, as the outlawed parties will move to monopolize the current opportunities, and ride the wave of change.
All that the observer hopes for is that governments take the initiative to absorb these lessons, and work so their societies can avoid the pitfalls of these painful ordeals.