Posted by Joshua on Thursday, July 19th, 2007
President Assad delivered a state of the nation address to the People's Assembly on Tuesday. It lasted an hour and a half. It was a much anticipated address, marking the beginning of his second seven-year term as president. (The speech has finally been translated into English by SANA, almost two days after it was given. Here it is in Arabic.)
The vast majority of the Syrians I have asked about the speech liked it. Syrians with lower incomes seemed much less critical of it than Syrians with higher incomes, but the overwhelming majority said they liked it.
Only one person I spoke to said it made him angry. He was a businessman who has lived decades in the West and wanted accountability. He hoped the President would set a time-line with benchmarks for various economic reforms. He did not accept the President's excuses for not accomplishing certain economic reforms and believes he should delegate more to experts, naming them in front of the people and giving them set dates to accomplish various tasks and holding them accountable. "If they fail, they should be fired," he said. He was not particularly interested in democracy or political reforms.
Many Syrians agree with the president that security and stability, as opposed to democracy, are the most important goals in Syria, given the present Middle Eastern realities of political instability, and violence in the neighborhood. The president spoke about democracy "in our own way," which was repeated to me by many with conviction. Syrians are buying this. Not all, but many. Bashar said it is committed to moving toward democracy and talked about having to delay the new party law, spoken about at the 2005 Baath Party Conference. Not too many people are convinced of this, but they like to hear him raise it. He admitted that many laws that have been passed have not been applied and gave security and Syria's administrative backwardness as an excuse. Some accept this as genuine. Others are more cynical.
Most of the speech was about domestic policy, a contrast to many past speeches. Syrians liked this. Many said it was a "quiet" speech, meaning it was not confrontational. He didn't mention Lebanon, which pleased many people and which was remarked on with a smile. Upper-class Syrians were relieved because so many are half or a quarter Lebanese and hate to have bad relations between the two countries. The absence of any reference to Lebanon was also made necessary by the meeting going on in France between Lebanese leaders and by Cochran’s visit to Syria yesterday, a day after the president's speech. France should have sent their delegate here before the Paris talks, but better late than never.
Syria wants a deal on the Lebanon situation and is not interested in further troubles there, so does Hizbullah and Iran. Most Syrians, although pessimistic about the ability of France to deliver much on the Lebanese front, are hopeful that the tide is running out of America's confrontational policy there. The March 14th leadership is also beginning to realize that some accommodation with Hizbullah, Aoun and Syria is required and that Bush's policies in the region are living on borrowed time.
The fact that France has abandoned its isolation policy is an indication that the dam is about to break in US-Syrian relations. Bush can continue to try to put his fingers in the dike and sabotage direct dealings with Syria, as he did to Rice's Sharm al-Sheikh meeting with Moualem by renewing US sanctions on Syria and adding a few extras a week later, but his domestic base has eroded beyond repair. President Assad made a joke about the long list of things he is being asked to do in the region by Western powers, claiming that Syria should be given a seat on the UN Security Council to reflect the power imputed to it by such demands.
Assad mentioned the word "infitah," or economic opening quite a few times. Many believed that the most important line of the speech was when the president said that he understood that the wealth from this opening was reaching only a certain section or "shariha" of Syrian society and that it needed to be broadened to reach more people. For the average Syrian who does not taste the sweets of economic reform but only its bitterness, in the form or reduced subsidies and inflation, this was important. It demonstrated the he understands the main problem of the ordinary citizen.
He also promised that he would not eliminate subsidies, which relieved many low-income Syrians, who have been listening with anxiety to all the discussion about the necessity of eliminating subsidies. Economist friends found this irresponsible. Many feel subsidies which are a heavy burden on the state should be slowly eliminated because they distort markets. (The basic pact between government and people is that subsidies and the state sector will not be eliminated until there is enough economic growth to absorb unemployment and to provide a safety-net.) He spoke about "making the question of unemployment our top priority in the coming period." The president made a joke about his commitment to keeping subsidies and the state sector that many thought was wonderful and was repeatedly mentioned to me by those I asked about the speech. He said, "There is only one circumstance in which we might cancel the role of the state or lift subsidies and that is if the Security Council passes a resolution under chapter 7 mandating it, only then… You should not be surprised if a day comes when they say that supporting the poor is a form of supporting terrorism."
The Arab press has concentrated on the President's statement that the coming months will be "fateful" or months of destiny, "maasiri." Few can figure out what he meant by this. Was he preparing the people for something? Was he referring to events in Lebanon – the presidential elections there, perhaps? The International Court? Was he referring to a possible American attack on Iran? No one can figure it out.
On Golan, Assad was clear. Syria insists on open talks with Israel and the return of all the Golan according to international law and justice. If Israel commits to this, he said, everything else is negotiable, "security and water." Everyone understood this to mean, Syria's relationship with Hizbullah, Hamas, and Iran would be on the table. Israel's response to this was negative. Israelis accused Assad of trying to place preconditions on the talks, and thus, placed a few of their own, claiming that because Syria refuses to cut relations with Iran and Hizbullah before the talks it is not serious about negotiations. No one here seems to think that talks with Israel without American backing can get far. Israel suggested renewing talks without an American role. This strikes many as hot air. Both countries, in particular Israel, have demanded large US handouts in exchange for signing a peace in the past. It is hard to believe they would be content to make peace today without such handouts and support.
The Presidents delivery was good. He was excited and a bit rushed during the first half of the speech. He used his hands a lot and on many occasions clipped the microphones that were placed too close to him. This style appeals to many in the younger generation. They like his youthful passion when talking about Syrian affairs and believe it reveals his honesty and sincerity. They liked his jokes, off the cuff remarks, and willingness to depart from the written text to explain things and elaborate. It gives the sense that he is in control and confident. It also allows him to be a bit folksy and direct.