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Assad was reading from the same script as Ben Ali
and Mubarak

Syrian protesters can draw
consolation from the fact that the fallen Tunisian and Egyptian dictators used
similar language

Bashar al-Assad,
the Syrian president, addressing the country on Monday. Photograph: AFP/Getty
Images

When Bashar
al-Assad
made his third speech in response to Syrian protests on
Monday, much of his rhetoric was oddly familiar to observers of the past few
months of the Arab spring.

As if reading from the same dictators’ playbook, Assad’s address had the
same mix of promises and threats, concrete plans and conspiracy theories, as
those of other leaders before him in their attempts to save their jobs.

Syrian opposition activists drew some consolation from the fact that two
recently ousted Arab leaders, Tunisia‘s
Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt‘s
Hosni
Mubarak
, had each given three speeches that failed to satisfy their
people before their downfalls. Perhaps, the rebels suggested, the “three
strikes and you’re out” rule would apply to Assad too.

Supporters of the Syrian leader could meanwhile point to a fellow survivor
of the Arab spring, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, who has made half a dozen defiant
speeches since the revolt against him took off in February, and is still
hanging on in Tripoli.

Much of Assad’s speech could easily have been made by Ben Ali, Mubarak or
Gaddafi.

The Syrian leader likened alleged conspiracies against him to
“germs”; Gaddafi referred to rebels as “vermin”. Assad
sought to draw a distinction between a population with some legitimate
complaints and a small minority of criminals, Muslim extremists and foreign
conspirators. Gaddafi has labelled his opponents al-Qaida jihadists, adding his
own idiosyncratic variant that the protests were fuelled by milk and Nescafé
spiked with hallucinogenic drugs. In Egypt, Mubarak also warned his country
that “there is a fine line between freedom and chaos”, hinting darkly
at the “larger scheme” underlying the Egyptian protests, manipulated
by unseen forces bent on undermining the country’s stability and legitimacy.

It is an odd choice of tactics, considering how poorly it worked for Ben
Ali.

The Tunisian ex-leader turned local protests into a nationwide revolt with
the tin ear he displayed in his first speech on 28 December, threatening to
punish the protesters. In his second address on 10 January, Ben Ali made things
worse by calling them terrorists. Three days later, he realised his mistake,
switched from Arabic to local dialect and humbly promised not to run for
re-election in 2014. By then, it was far too little and far too late. He was on
a plane to Saudi Arabia the following evening, although the ousted leader told
a court on Monday that he had been deceived into leaving, having intended
simply to accompany his family to safety and then return.

Mubarak’s concessions were also far too tardy to save him and did little
but signal his deepening weakness. In his second speech in February, the
Egyptian autocrat offered not to stand for re-election in September
presidential elections, and in his third and final address to his nation on 10
February, he grudgingly agreed to delegate day-to-day control of the country to
his deputy. But by then, Mubarak’s continued tenure was the only issue on the
streets of Cairo and his failure to get on a plane drew howls of derision in
Tahrir Square. He was gone the next day.

Assad has given no hint of any readiness to leave the scene and, on that
score, appears to have decided that Gaddafi’s uncompromising example has, for
now at least, shown better results

13 Apr 2011

Hosni Mubarak: from detention to where?1

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