Syrian President Bashar Assad addressed the protests in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen, saying they spell the beginning of a "new era" in the Middle East in which Arab rulers will have to enact democratic reforms. Assad's comments came in an interview published in Monday's Wall Street Journal.
The Syrian leader's recognition of the need for reform in the Arab world came as an increasing number of calls for mass protests in Syria were being seen on Facebook. According to the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) website, multiple Facebook pages are calling on the Syrian masses to take to the streets on February 5 in peaceful demonstrations against Assad's oppressive regime.
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The organizers of the Syrian "Day of Rage" are demanding an improvement in living standards, respect for human rights, freedom of speech for all Syrian citizens, and greater influence for Syrian youth.
Despite the calls for protests in Syria, Assad maintained in the Wall Street Journal
interview that he is closer to the grassroots of his nation than
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak because of his anti-US stance and
confrontational relationship with Israel.
"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…you will have this vacuum that creates disturbances," Assad
Assad said that he would enact some political reforms this year, but he
indicated that he is unlikely to institute sweeping changes like those
being called for in Egypt and Tunisia. He stated that Syria needs time
to improve education and build institutions prior to democratizing the
country's political system.
The Syrian president said that he had envisioned political reform in the
country moving more quickly than it has since he took control following
his father's death in 1999. However, he stated that if political
reforms were made rapidly, as protesters in Egypt are requesting, the
resulting situation could be worse than that they are currently facing.
"Is it going to be a new era toward more chaos or more
institutionalization? That is the question," Assad said. "The end is not
Last week, Syria prevented a demonstration in solidarity with Egyptian
protesters in front of the Egyptian embassy in Damascus and is on high
alert for the spread of protests to its territory, MEMRI reported. There
have also been reports that Syria has restricted access to Facebook in
light of the social networking website's role in helping to organize the
protests in Egypt and Tunisia. Syria's semi-official news agency SANA
has denied the reports. Several thousand people have registered as members of Facebook pages calling for anti-regime and anti-Assad protests in Syria, but the numbers are relatively small compared to those of Egyptian and Tunisian activists.