What do Syrians want?

While the Arabist is certainly correct in noting the banality of President Bashar al Assad’s speech to his new council of ministers yesterday, I confess I read the whole thing on al-bab.com 

What he presents is basically his reform program, which is offered in a more or less explicit trade for an end to the demonstrations. The major features of the reform program are these: citizenship for Syrian Kurds, lifting the state of emergency, a law regulating demonstrations (one that he anticipates will eliminate the need for organizing demonstrations!), possibly a law permitting political parties, a law on local administration and another on media, plus of course all the implementation required.

Like most political speeches, this one is most notable for what it omits: no freedom of speech or association, no free and fair elections, little consideration of corruption (none at the higher levels, but mention of bribes at the lower levels), and nothing to speak of on rule of law or an independent judiciary.

In fact, the concept of the state that Bashar puts forward would be inconsistent with these ingredients. He says at the opening:

What’s important at this stage is for us to reach a state of unity, unity between the government, state institutions and the people. We are supposed to be moving in parallel when we move in the same direction. In this case we maximize the outcome and the achievement. The more we distance ourselves from the Syrian population, the weaker our strength and the less our achievement.

And this appears towards the end:

What’s important is that we and the population are one party, not two parties. The citizen is our compass, and we get along with our citizens in the direction they identify. We are here to serve our citizens; and without this service there is no justification for the existence of any one of us. What is important is for the citizen to feel his or her citizenship in every sense of the word.

But clearly your citizenship does not allow for expressing your opinions freely, or having your disputes settled fairly by independent judges observing the rule of law, or voting freely. Rather your citizenship consists in state officials detecting your needs and responding to them.

This is an authoritarian concept of the state, perhaps even a totalitarian one. The question for Syrians is whether this is what they are demonstrating for, or whether they want a government that they choose freely rather than one provided by an allegedly benevolent Bashar. We’ll see in coming days whether the bargain Bashar offers–a state that is not created by its citizens but is purportedly responsive to them, in exchange for quiescence–is what Syrians want.

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