Among the more idiosyncratic innovations of dictatorships is the mass demonstration in favor of the regime. Normally, countries organize elections to gauge the popularity of their governors. In Syria on Tuesday, Bashar Assad’s operators ordered out the multitudes to say how much they loved their president. However, the effort, like the excesses in the choreography, also represented a paradoxical admission that quite a few Syrians perhaps did not share that view.
The public expression of approval, soon followed by the resignation of Syria’s government, was a transparent move by Assad to increase his leverage and offer absolutely nothing to a still embryonic, but surprisingly widespread, protest movement. On Wednesday Assad made a long-awaited speech, but issued only vague promises to introduce reform and combat corruption. The president framed the protests in Syria as the consequence of a plot by unnamed outsiders to sow dissension, therefore as a confrontation the regime needed to win. A confrontation is quite possibly what Assad will have assured thanks to his speech. The Syrians were anticipating much more. All week the president’s people affirmed that a decision to lift the state of emergency had been taken. Many in Syria will now feel that they were fooled.
By week’s end we will know better if Assad’s gambit has worked. If disgruntlement grows and Syrians take to the streets in greater numbers, his regime has provided itself with an excuse to return to violence. But it will not be easy for Assad to resolve the dilemma faced by other Arab leaders forced out of office during the past three months, or still under pressure to leave. Brutality by the security forces will only engender greater discontent and mobilize more people against the Assad system; genuine reform, in turn, will raise expectations and ultimately bring the Assads’ edifice crashing down.
The president’s principal difficulty is that the political structure built by his father was designed to impede change. Hafez Assad left behind an inflexible machine in near-perfect equilibrium, with members of the political and military elite, as well as the separate security and intelligence services, aligned in such a way that the president could play them off against one another. In this manner, the regime was able to prevent the formation of coalitions that might organize a coup.
At the same time, the regime’s Alawite-dominated nucleus, with its control over the institutions of subjugation, developed an implicit alliance with a Sunni entrepreneurial class, even as prominent members of the larger Assad-Makhlouf clan, above all the president’s cousin Rami Makhlouf, came to dominate the business community. All this greatly reinforced the web of interests underpinning the Assad regime, rendering a strictly sectarian reading of today’s events in Syria too narrow. Most significantly, authentic reform would require a prior dispensation from powerful political and economic actors who have absolutely no intention of relinquishing their privileges.
Assad’s advantage is that regional states, as well as the United States, prefer him to the prospect of chaos in Syria. In the end the president’s fate will be in the hands of his own people. However, rare were those Gulf Arab leaders who did not made the call to Damascus this past week to lend Assad support. Iran is even keener to see the president carry on, as is Israel, with whom Syria has been the best of enemies, the two having maintained a peaceful border for almost four decades. And the U.S. secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, serenely assured us some days ago that Assad was a cut above Moammar Gadhafi for not having deployed the air force against his own people.
The irony is that one of the Arab world’s less progressive individuals yet managed to capture the mood of the moment in Syria. In a sermon delivered last Friday, Sheikh Yusif al-Qaradawi proclaimed, sympathetically, that the train of Arab revolution had reached Syria. The Assad regime was left reeling by the remarks, interpreting the sheikh’s words as a denunciation of Alawite-led rule. Clinton and others share Assad’s anxieties, and worry that an uprising in Syria might play out in favor of Sunni Islamists. And yet for as long as the United States and other democratic countries surrender the rhetoric of freedom to the likes of Qaradawi, they will only strengthen the credibility of the Islamists at the expense of Syrians who advocate a non-sectarian, consensual, broadly national approach to reform.
In several of the recent Arab revolts, once a threshold of popular dissatisfaction was reached, regimes were incapable of holding back the tide. What began as the expression of specific beefs soon morphed into irrepressible demands for freedom and a change of leadership. A grand narrative took over and the public’s ambition followed. Can Bashar Assad successfully counteract the grand narrative of liberty that many Syrians have started to embrace? His address makes this far less likely.