Delayed reforms risk hurting reconciliation efforts in Syria
In politics, timing is everything. Syria's pledge yesterday to lift the emergency law that has been in place for nearly half a century appeared to be a serious concession to serious disturbances across Syria. Were it to be enacted, it would have a widespread impact on the country.
Yet even if the Syrian president Bashar Assad could deliver such reform, will it - with the wind of revolution at their backs - be enough to placate the protestors?
Presidential adviser Bouthaina Shaaban on Sunday said that the decision to lift the emergency law has already been taken and will definitely happen. By last night nothing appeared to have happened and further violence was reported.
Twelve people were killed at the weekend during anti-government protests, bringing the death toll to 61 in the last week. Crucially, the protests took place in Latakia, a stronghold of the Syrian regime and a city where the influence of the Allawites - the minority Muslim sect that dominates the Syrian leadership - is firm. Protests that started in Deraa, in the south, have even spread to the capital Damascus.
In a country where the state's security apparatus clamps down hard on any sign of dissent, such public displays of anger are unprecedented in recent memory.
Thus far, it is reform rather than outright revolution that most Syrians say they seek: protestors have been demanding freedom and an end to emergency law, but not yet attacking the person of Mr Assad himself.
Tackling the emergency law would be a big step for a regime like Syria's. In place since the 1963 coup that brought the Baath Party to power, it remained in place throughout the three decade rule of Hafez Al Assad and the decade his son has ruled. The law has long been one of the chief targets of reformers: it gives the government wide powers of arrest and interrogation, as well as allowing surveillance of phone calls and other communications.
Ms Shaaban suggested repealing the law would be one of a number of reforms, including opening up the media and discussing the establishment of political parties. The question is, will the reforms be big enough, delivered fast enough, for the people to be satisfied?
This is not, after all, the first time Mr Assad has talked about reform. Since he took over the presidency 11 years ago, he has positioned himself as a reformer, chiefly of the economy rather than politics, arguing that the people wanted bread before freedom.
For the last 10 years, Syria has pursued a programme of liberalisation, slowly opening up the economy and speaking of the Chinese model as an example. Yet this liberalisation has not brought prosperity to the majority of Syrians, especially outside of the main cities, while enriching regime stalwarts.
Changing to a market economy has been painful, particularly for poorer Syrians who rely on the subsidies that keep the price of staple foods and fuel artificially low.
Unemployment is serious; officially just over 10 per cent, but in reality much higher, with many university graduates unable to find work. Underemployment, where people accept jobs they are overqualified for, is rife.
More concerning for the government is that two-thirds of those unemployed are under 30. This youth bubble is the biggest threat to the stability of Syria. A bloated bureaucracy can no longer provide work for these young people, who resent languishing at home without productive roles or having to relocate to Europe or the Gulf for work. Corruption too remains a problem, along with anger that favoured elites in the country get unfairly large slices of the economy.
True, the global downturn has had an impact as it brought hardship to countries everywhere and street protests have rocked the US and UK, as recently as last week. Yet the lack of real, wide-spread reform such as was promised by Mr Assad in his early years in power , coupled with the continued rise of the police state, has led to disaffection. Political reforms that would have made the government more responsive to the people have not been enacted. The result is that Mr Assad has not been able to deliver economic prosperity, a fact that fuels the current protests.
The question now is, with the outbreak popular protests across the Arab world, can Syria's leaders make reforms deep enough and fast enough to satisfy a gathering pace of protests?
Mr Assad remains personally popular, either through genuine affection or because of fear of what may come after. There are few international neighbourhoods as tough: Iraq and Iran, Israel and Saudi Arabia cast shadows. The stability - illusory in some ways - of the country is an important factor in the president's legitimacy, as is the enforced secularism of the state that protects religious minorities.
And yet the timing of these reforms still matter. This is a crucial moment in the history of the Middle East. Arab publics have brought down two Western-backed regimes; with outside help, they may bring down a third.
Reforms that a few weeks or months ago would have been seen as revolutionary now may not satisfy, or, more significantly, may be perceived as signs of weakness. With the shedding of the blood of protestors, anger against the government may escalate and their demands may change. They may begin to demand something that Mr Assad cannot deliver.
Every government comes to a point in its trajectory where it can no longer influence what happens, regardless of what it does. The question the palace in Damascus will be asking today is: Has that point already passed?
Published: March 29, 2011 04:00 AM