Assad: Protests in Egypt, Tunisia mark 'new era'

Syrian president says Arab leaders will have to enact democratic reforms as increasing number of Facebook pages call for protests in Damascus.

bashar assad 311 (photo credit: AP)
bashar assad 311
(photo credit: AP)
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 stated.
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.
Click here for full Jpost coverage of unrest in Egypt
Click here for full Jpost coverage of unrest in Egypt
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 clear yet."
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.