Syrian President Bashar al-Assad doesn’t think Syrian can handle democracy, he suggest a baby steps!! “If you want to start, you have to start with 1, 2, 3, 4 “
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who inherited a regime that has held power for four decades, said he will push for more political reforms in his country, in a sign of how Egypt‘s violent revolt is forcing leaders across the region to rethink their approaches.
In a rare interview, Mr. Assad told The Wall Street Journal that the protests in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen are ushering in a “new era” in the Middle East, and that Arab rulers would need to do more to accommodate their people’s rising political and economic aspirations.
WSJ: We had a lot to ask you before, last week. And now we have even more to ask you about.
President Assad: This is the Middle East, where every week you have something new; so whatever you talk about this week will not be valuable next week. Syria is geographically and politically in the middle of the Middle East. That is why we are in contact with most of the problems forever, let us say, whether directly or indirectly.
WSJ: Thank you again for seeing us. We appreciate it. Maybe we can start just with the regional situation which is all over the news. As the president of Syria, how do you see what is happening in Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria, and Jordan? How do you see the region changing and eventually, what does that mean for Syria itself?
President Assad: It means if you have stagnant water, you will have pollution and microbes; and because you have had this stagnation for decades, let us say, especially the last decade in spite of the vast changes that are surrounding the world and some areas in the Middle East, including Iraq, Palestine, and Afghanistan, because we had this stagnation we were plagued with microbes. So, what you have been seeing in this region is a kind of disease. That is how we see it.
If you want to talk about Tunisia and Egypt, we are outside of this; at the end we are not Tunisians and we are not Egyptians. We cannot be objective especially that the situation is still foggy, and not clear. It has not been settled yet. So, whatever you hear or read in this period cannot be very realistic or precise or objective. But I can talk about the region in general more than talking about Tunisia or Egypt because we are one region. We are not a copy of each other, but we have many things in common. So, I think it is about desperation. Whenever you have an uprising, it is self-evident that to say that you have anger, but this anger feeds on desperation. Desperation has two factors: internal and external. The internal is that we are to blame, as states and as officials, and the external is that you are to blame, as great powers or what you call in the West ‘the international community’, while for them, the international community is made up of the United States and some few countries, but not the whole world. So, let us refer to the latter as the ‘greatest powers’ that have been involved in this region for decades.
As for the internal, it is about doing something that is changing; to change the society, and we have to keep up with this change, as a state and as institutions. You have to upgrade yourself with the upgrading of the society. There must be something to have this balance. This is the most important headline. Regarding the west, it is about the problems that we have in our region, i.e. the lack of peace, the invasion of Iraq, what is happening in Afghanistan and now its repercussions in Pakistan and other regions. That led to this desperation and anger. What I tell you now is only the headlines, and as for the details, maybe you have details to talk about for days if you want to continue. I am just giving you the way we look at the situation in general.
WSJ: What sort of changes? How would you define the changes that are happening?
President Assad: Let us talk about what has not changed till today. Until today we have only two new things but if you want to talk about something new in our life, you have new hopes and new wars. You have a lot of people coming to the labor market without jobs and you have new wars that are creating desperation. So, one is internal and the other is external. Of course, if you want to talk about the changes internally, there must be a different kind of changes: political, economic and administrative. These are the changes that we need. But at the same time you have to upgrade the society and this does not mean to upgrade it technically by upgrading qualifications. It means to open up the minds. Actually, societies during the last three decades, especially since the eighties have become more closed due to an increase in close-mindedness that led to extremism. This current will lead to repercussions of less creativity, less development, and less openness. You cannot reform your society or institution without opening your mind. So the core issue is how to open the mind, the whole society, and this means everybody in society including everyone. I am not talking about the state or average or common people. I am talking about everybody; because when you close your mind as an official you cannot upgrade and vice versa.
This is from the inside. From the outside, what is the role of the West? It’s now been twenty years since we started the peace process in 1991. What have we achieved? The simple way to answer this question is to say is it better or worse? We can for example say that it is five percent better than before we started the peace process. I can tell you frankly that it is much worse. That is why you have more desperation. This is the end result. If you talk about the approach, I always talk about taking the issue into a vicious cycle of desperation especially when you talk about peace. I am talking now about peace. You have other factors: you have negotiations, and then exaggerated hopes followed by failure; and then comes another hope and another failure. So, with time the diagram will be going down, and that is what has been happening: a little bit up and more down. This is one example about peace.
Internally, it is about the administration and the people’s feeling and dignity, about the people participating in the decisions of their country. It is about another important issue. I am not talking here on behalf of the Tunisians or the Egyptians. I am talking on behalf of the Syrians. It is something we always adopt. We have more difficult circumstances than most of the Arab countries but in spite of that Syria is stable. Why? Because 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.
WSJ: If Syria is more aligned with its people in terms of its foreign policy, why is political reform such a challenge internally? This is something that you have been working on but people feel that there is not a lot of progress that has been made.
“President Assad: We started the reform since I became a president. But the way we look at the reform is different from the way you look at it. For us, you cannot put the horses before the carriage. If you want to start, you have to start with 1, 2, 3, 4… you cannot start with 6 and then go back to one. For me, number (1) is what I have just mentioned: how to upgrade the whole society. For me as a government and institutions, the only thing to do is issuing some decrees and laws, let us say. Actually, this is not reform. Reform could start with some decrees but real reform is about how to open up the society, and how to start dialogue.
The problem with the West is that they start with political reform going towards democracy. If you want to go towards democracy, the first thing is to involve the people in decision making, not to make it. It is not my democracy as a person; it is our democracy as a society. So how do you start? You start with creating dialogue. How do you create dialogue? We did not have private media in the past; we did not have internet or private universities, we did not have banks. Everything was controlled by the state. You cannot create the democracy that you are asking about in this way. You have different ways of creating democracy.”
WSJ: Because the feeling is that when you do that before you open up the minds of the people, then the outcome is extremism?
President Assad: No, not because of that but because the dialogue is practice and you need to train yourself on how to make dialogue. When you do not talk, and suddenly you talk, you happen not to talk in the proper way or productive way. We are learning, but we are learning from ourselves. You do not learn from anyone in this world. When you have reform it should be national reform. You can learn, if you want, from other experiences or from some of the aspects in those experiences, but you cannot embrace the whole experience. The first thing you have to learn is how to conduct dialogue and how to make it productive. So, we started having dialogue in Syria through the media which was six or seven years ago. Today is better than six years ago, but it is not the optimal situation. We still have a long way to go because it is a process. If I was brought up in different circumstances, I have to train myself and, to be realistic, we have to wait for the next generation to bring this reform. This is first. Second, in Syria, we have a very important principle which I adopt: if you want to be transparent with your people, do not do anything cosmetic, whether to deceive your people or to get some applaud from the West. They want to criticize you, let them criticize and do not worry. Just be transparent with your people and tell them this is the reality. What you do today could be bad now but very good next year. So, the time is important for the reform depending on how much you can move forward.
Back to the stagnation factor, we need flowing water but how fast is the flow. If it is very fast, it can be destructive or you can have flood. Therefore, it should be flowing smoothly.