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Bassam Haddad: Most people want profound reforms but are haunted by sectarian strife in Iraq

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PAUL JAY: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. In Syria on Friday, despite severe crackdowns on protests, demonstrators hit the streets again. But the resistance or opposition was hoping for thousands, tens of thousands of people, and instead it was perhaps as many as 5,000, in some places a few hundred. To talk to us about the significance, or lack thereof, of Friday’s events and to give us more historical context into what’s taking place in Syria is Bassam Haddad. He’s director of Middle East Studies Program at George Mason University and a visiting professor in the Department of Public and International Affairs. He’s the author of Business Networks in Syria: The Political Economy of Authoritarian Resilience. And he’s cofounder of, which is a blog and in-depth site about events taking place in Syria. Thanks very much for joining us, Bassam.


JAY: So, first of all, talk about what happened Friday. The people, protesters, opposition were hoping for a big turnout, and apparently they didn’t get it.

HADDAD: On Friday, a few hundred people, in some places more than 1,000, came out in protest to continue the string of protests since last week against the Syrian regime, calling for freedoms in various regards. And the significant thing about this is that not as many people turned out as was hoped by the protesters. And this is a departure from the earlier trend in various other regimes, including Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and so on, whereby the moment the president or the person in charge spoke, we noticed a couple of things. First, they made concessions quickly, and secondly, they basically assumed that the next step would be also one that is guided by the protesters. In contrast, what President Bashar did is that he did not make any major concessions, at least not in any concrete form. There was talk about lifting the emergency law and the formation of the committee, yet another committee, which is a very sensitive word in Syria because there are committees everywhere and very little gets done. But another committee was supposed to be formed to discuss the question of the emergency law. And then the second thing that–in other words, there were no concrete declarations. The second issue is that President Bashar made it clear to whoever’s listening that the initiative is not with the protesters, that the initiative is with the Syrian leadership in terms of what happens next. And that was certainly a departure.

JAY: So this is where he says, we’re planning the reforms anyway; we didn’t need you to come out into the streets to make us create reform.

HADDAD: I mean, he was careful in wording this. He did admit that they are late in actually formulating and/or implementing reforms. The speech was certainly not something that protesters were looking for. It was disappointing. It actually could backfire on the Syrian leadership in the long run, although in the short run it seemed to satisfy a segment of the population that was concerned about the impending chaos.

JAY: Well, that’s the question. Did masses of people not hit the streets Friday because they were somewhat satisfied with the speech? Or because they were afraid of repression? Or both?

HADDAD: Well, a lot of analysts have been emphasizing and waiting for the speech and then the after-speech effect. I think this is a mistake. In the Syrian case, if we notice what has been happening, we notice the following. The first protests before this speech began to subside, on the one hand, in terms of the intensity, in terms of numbers, and in terms of the clashes with the state–not that there weren’t any, but statistically speaking, we saw a decline in all of those variables between the moment the protests flared up and the moment before Bashar gave his speech. Secondly, the other issue is that right before he gave his speech, a day before, there were hundreds of thousands of people all over Syria out in the streets supposedly supporting the regime. Of course, schools were closed, of course, a lot of this was orchestrated, and certainly the regime had a role to play, but it is not a function only of a regime orchestration; it is also a function of a desire among a large group of or a large segment of the Syrian population to avert crisis, catastrophe, chaos, and sectarian strife.

JAY: Okay. Now, that’s one of the cards that Assad and the Syrian elite play, if I understand it correctly: it’s us or it’s chaos. In other words, you need a strong central state to hold so many diverse communities, ethnic groups, and religions together in one country, and that there’s some sympathy for that amongst the people. People are afraid that if the state, a strong state, were to fall, there would be civil war, and are afraid of, some people have said, a kind of an Iraq style situation. Is that correct?

HADDAD: The Syrian regime simply wants stability and order like any regime in the world, especially if it is largely or in most cases wholly unaccountable to its people. So this is what the motivation is from this side. From the side of the Syrian people, those who would like to avert crisis–and that does not mean that these guys have not been to the streets either, in some capacity, but the majority of Syrians have not yet taken to the streets. However, it does not mean that any alternative to the regime is going to be chaos and strife. This is the point that the regime is driving home; it is not the point that the people are necessarily convinced by. They’re simply in a situation where they don’t want to take risks. The minds of people in Syria, many people in Syria, have not yet been freed of the chaos and nightmare that happened next-door in Iraq.

JAY: And of course all that’s happening at a time when oil prices are up, grain prices are up, corn prices are up, meaning food prices are going to be skyrocketing. So you’ve got this convergence of a perfect economic storm: high unemployment and high food prices. Thanks very much for joining us, Bassam.

HADDAD: Thank you.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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