Assad says Egypt and Tunisia revolts will not spread to Syria

President says revolts will change political equations in region but his own country is stable becaue of its ‘cause’, the opposition to a US agenda.

Syrian and Palestinian activists hold candles during a candlelight in support of the protests in Egypt in front of the Egyptian embassy in Damascus January 29, 2011. REUTERS/Khaled al-Hariri    (SYRIA - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST) *** Local Caption ***  SYR01_SYRIA-_0129_11.JPG
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DAMASCUS // The kind of political uprisings seen in Egypt and Tunisia will not spread to Syria, according to President Bashar al Assad, although he said "there is a lesson for everyone" in the regional upheaval.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, the full transcript of which was published yesterday, the Syrian leader predicted the revolts would shift how regional countries and international powers behaved towards citizens of the Middle East.

"It is something new that will change many things, at least in the way we think as governments and as officials regarding our people," he said. "This is the most important point, and the other thing that is going to change is the way the West and the great powers will look at our region."

Mr Assad said "anger" and "desperation" had been building during decades of regional stagnation. He said both Arab governments and the West had to bear responsibility, although he insisted failure by the US and Israel to deliver a comprehensive Middle East peace settlement, after decades in which hopes had been raised and then shattered, was a primary cause for the festering discontent.

"Whenever you have an uprising, it is self-evident that to say that you have anger, but this anger feeds on desperation," he said in the article. "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."

Mr Assad admitted Syria shared much in common with Egypt - both are one-party states with authoritarian rulers governing over an impoverished population, with highly criticised human-rights records. But he maintained his own country was stable because of its "cause", opposition to the pro-Israeli agenda followed by the US and its regional allies, such as Cairo and Amman.

"Why is Syria stable, although we have more difficult conditions?" he said. "Egypt has been supported financially by the United States, while we are under embargo by most countries of the world. We have [economic] growth, although we do not have many of the basic needs for the people.

"Despite all that, the people do not go into an uprising. So it is not only about the needs and not only about the reform. It is about the ideology, the beliefs and the cause that you have. There is a difference between having a cause and having a vacuum."

Mr Assad insisted that Damascus was on the path to reform, and that he expected a series of legislative changes could take place this year, including a framework for democratic municipal elections, a civil- society law and new internet media rules. Earlier reforms had been postponed, he said, because of the chaos unleashed by the US-led invasion of Iraq and instability in Lebanon.

"There are many things that we wanted to do in 2005 that we are planning to do in the year 2012, seven years later," he said, insisting that change would be controlled gradually and not rushed because haste would lead to more chaos.

Critics of the Syrian regime, both at home and abroad, bemoan the lack of political reforms, despite numerous promises that change is on its way. The country is still ruled under a decades-old emergency law that is regularly used to lock up opponents, ranging from teenaged bloggers to elderly human-rights lawyers.

In a statement on Sunday, 39 of these Syrian opposition figures, including Michel Kilo and Aref Dalila, both of whom have been imprisoned for criticism of the authorities, praised the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings, saying they were an example to all Arabs.

"We hope with all people, including the Syrians, for justice, liberty and equality for all," they said.

"This revolution has shown Arabs how closely Tunisia resembles their own countries, where power and wealth are concentrated in the same hands, and where repression and the plundering of the public purse go hand-in-hand."

In the Wall Street Journal interview, Mr Assad said ensuring security, then pushing through economic market reforms, remained the domestic priority, because political reforms meant nothing if people had no food to eat and felt unsafe.

He also made it clear that the problems of poverty is Syria were huge, something the authorities are not always willing to acknowledge.

"When I became president [in 2000] it was the economy because, wherever you go, you have poverty and the situation is getting worse day by day, and we have five years of drought and this is the fifth year where we do not have enough water," he said.