|Bashar al-Assad’s speech came on the heels of demonstrations across Syria [AFP]|
Did Syrian president Assad meet the high expectations ahead of his speech?
No he didn’t. Syrian officials had promised a historical speech. Instead, we were treated to a bombastic political speech interrupted by more of the same parliamentary chorus of support for the ‘brother leader’.
It must have been disappointing for those hoping, at a minimum, for the lifting of the brutal emergency regulations that de facto ban all political dissent, never mind the other urgent political and economic demands.
Anything but humbled by recent unrest, the president was either in denial over the widespread opposition to his regime, or indifferent to the authenticity of calls for better living conditions, an end to the systemic corruption and paternalism, as well as the need for urgent political reforms.
What explains the hesitation when the president claims that reforms have already been adopted?
Assad has repeatedly claimed that his country wasn’t exactly ready for democracy. Some explain that perhaps he’s not ready to abdicate total power.
Although he first spoke of reforms ten years ago, the Syrian president claims that reforms were studied in 2005, and were merely delayed because of regional developments. He insists there are no obstacles, merely delays to these reforms.
However regionally, it’s clear that despite the wide unrest, Assad sees no urgency in responding to popular pressure. The complication of the situation in Libya, leading to internal violence and international intervention and great destruction, will clearly dissuade many Syrians and Arabs from attempting more of the same in Syria.
Moreover, internationally, statements coming from Washington haven’t been that menacing. In fact, Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, spoke of the destructive Libyan regime, but of the potentially reforming Syrian presidency.
Likewise, Europeans who have been overzealous on Libya and the use of military intervention, have been silent on Syria and its own internal unrest.
Lastly, domestically, the hundreds of thousands who demonstrated in favor of the regime, by hook or by crook, have given the regime a sense of confidence, false or otherwise. Just like in Bahrain, the regime has tried to divert attention away from the calls for political and economic justice by warning of sectarian violence instigated by foreign enemies who seek to destabilise Syria.
What does that mean to the future of reform in the country?
Assad’s supporters claim that the president didn’t announce any major reforms because he’s not a dictator who can slap down constitutional changes without the proper discussion in parliament, in partnership with the people.
Other Syria observers reckon Assad wants to avoid compromising under pressure at all costs, a sign of weakness he can’t afford politically, they claim.
But it seems there is never a good time for reform in Syria. Indeed, events from 9/11 to the 2008 Israeli invasion of Gaza, through the invasion of Iraq, and the 2005-2007 complications in Lebanon have been counted by the president as reasons for not instituting reforms.
Assad reckoned that he would gain his people’s loyalty as long as he satisfied, at least symbolically, their national Pan Arab aspirations. Indeed, he long argued that Syria is different from Egypt and Tunisia because of its unique Pan Arab struggles.
In reality, Arabs can’t live on or by national slogans. Pan Arabism is a mere mirage if not motivated by, and translated into, concrete political and economic freedoms and prosperity for each and every individual Arab nation. That’s what the Arab revolution is all about and Syria, as Assad likes to claim, is part and parcel of the Arab world.