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    The Benevolent Dictator

    The Wall Street Journal today published a long interview with Bashar Assad, which included questions on the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt, as well as on reform in Syria. Assad’s comments are… well, sometimes quite breathtaking and revelatory in their arrogance and disconnection from reality.  (I’ll leave it to someone else to comment on the many foreign policy questions Assad addressed.)

    On the question of internal reform, we have statements such as:

    As for the internal [i.e. internal changes], it is about doing something that is changing; to change the society, and we have to keep up with this change, as a state and as institutions. You have to upgrade yourself with the upgrading of the society. There must be something to have this balance…” and later on,  “But at the same time you have to upgrade the society and this does not mean to upgrade it technically by upgrading qualifications. It means to open up the minds. Actually, societies during the last three decades, especially since the eighties have become more closed due to an increase in close-mindedness that led to extremism. This current will lead to repercussions of less creativity, less development, and less openness. You cannot reform your society or institution without opening your mind. So the core issue is how to open the mind, the whole society.”

    So for reform to happen we need to upgrade Syrian citizens like we upgrade computer software, because apparently people are too close-minded and extremist to deserve reform.

    And Syria is stable because:

    “ We have more difficult circumstances than most of the Arab countries but in spite of that 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 between your policy and the people’s beliefs and interests, you will have this vacuum that creates disturbance. So people do not only live on interests; they also live on beliefs, especially in very ideological areas.”

    I might be wrong, but is Assad saying that for Syrian citizens their ideological beliefs are more important than their personal interest, so that’s why they won’t create “disturbance”?

    Another interesting idea from Assad is that reform starts with dialogue – and here we get a surreal/bizarre lesson on how to conduct dialogue with your subjects – whoops sorry – citizens:

    “… dialogue is practice and you need to train yourself on how to make dialogue. When you do not talk, and suddenly you talk, you happen not to talk in the proper way or productive way. We are learning, but we are learning from ourselves. You do not learn from anyone in this world. When you have reform it should be national reform. You can learn, if you want, from other experiences or from some of the aspects in those experiences, but you cannot embrace the whole experience. The first thing you have to learn is how to conduct dialogue and how to make it productive.”

    There are also interesting lessons from a dictator on transparency with citizens:

    in Syria, we have a very important principle which I adopt: if you want to be transparent with your people, do not do anything cosmetic, whether to deceive your people or to get some applaud from the West. They want to criticize you, let them criticize and do not worry. Just be transparent with your people and tell them this is the reality. What you do today could be bad now but very good next year.

    So being transparent with citizens is telling that the reality is… nothing will happen? Your situation will remain the same?

    All in all, Assad’s comments on internal reform and democracy demonstrate again precisely why Arab regimes and dictators are so out of touch with reality. There are definite echoes of Mubarak’s first TV address following the strikes – the arrogant attitude of a dictator who sees his role as benevolently granting certain humans rights to citizens when he believes they deserve them. And what’s even more revealing is their own construct of the ‘citizen’ – a simple-minded person who has to be ‘guided’ by the wise benevolent ruler towards enlightenment and chastised when he/she abuses the rights that the wise ruler gave him/her.

    Luckily for us, January 14th 2011 and January 25th 2011 proved that Arab citizens are exactly the opposite of this patronizing image that their leaders have of them: they know exactly what their rights are and they want them NOW. Not in 3 years, or 7 years, or after ‘dialogue’ Mr. Assad and Mr. Mubarak – Arabs want their full human rights, NOW!

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