In his latest TV appearance, Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad did all the things that Machiavelli, the master of autocratic politics, advises despots not to do.
Assad called in his new Cabinet in full and gave them a rambling lecture.
The ministers appeared confused, not sure what they were expected to do in front of the cameras. Presumably to please the president, they started feverishly taking notes of his meandering remarks.
That made the event look like a school class with the teacher dictating to his pupils.
Not surprisingly, to some in the TV audience, that was a live demonstration of how dictatorship works: one man dictates, others write it down.
Then, Assad made his second mistake.
Speaking of lifting the State of Emergency, he said there were some, presumably within the regime, who believed that was a bad idea that might harm national security.
A dictator should never evoke ideas different from his own except in derision. A dictator who admits that there could be contradictory debate within his establishment reveals cracks in his authority.
The admission indicates that there may be hardliners within the Syrian regime who favour the “Hama option”, which means crushing the opposition with full force and regardless of the cost in human lives.
However, the world has changed since 1982 and a Hama-style massacre would not wash so easily. Under a new international treaty, the United Nations’ Security Council could launch proceedings against even heads of state on charges of crimes against humanity. (This has already happened in the cases of Serbia’s late President Slobodan Milosevic and his Sudanese counterpart Omar al-Bashir.)
It is possible that Assad wanted to distance himself from the “Hama option” in public, so that, if things go pear-shape, he could claim that he had not been part of it.
Assad’s attempt at buying insurance is understandable. Still a young man he would not find the prospect of years, if not decades, facing charges of crimes against humanity terribly attractive.
However, what may be a wise move for Assad personally is unwise in the context of despotic policies. A despot who indicates that he is prepared to feed his minions to the lions in order to safe his own hide could not expect much loyalty.
Today, some within the Syrian ruling establishment might be wondering why they should stay aboard a ship whose captain is preparing to jump.
Assad’s another mistake was to designate his opponents as “agents” of foreign powers.
This is an old tradition in Arab despotic and demagogic politics. Those who have nothing to say always claim that their critics are involved in plots hatched by foreign foes.
In the case of Assad, the problem was that three minutes earlier he had designated those killed by his security men as “martyrs” and expressed regret at their death.
Well, if the hundreds of people who have died in the Syrian uprising were foreign agents, why should the president shed tears over them?
And how could foreign plotters bring out millions of people in virtually every Syrian city?
A dictator must be consistent even in his inevitable inconsistencies. The world of the despot is black and white; in it the choice is between friend and foe. Assad’s attempt at hedging his bets, will surely backfire.
Interestingly, the only countries still thinking that the Syrian regime should be salvaged are the United States, Israel and Iran. This is why US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton insists on calling Bashar al-Assad “a reformer”. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prefers Assad to what he calls “radical Islamists in Syria.” Iran also wants Assad to stay because, since the 1970s, his regime has helped Tehran split the Arab bloc and gain influence in Lebanon.
Assad’s announcement that he had asked for unspecified reforms to be studied and recommendations made, was also a mistake.
Hafiz al-Assad would have never done that. The older Assad would not even announce what decisions he had taken and put into effect. People would learn about those decisions from speeches made by underlings, and editorials written by sycophants, praising the dictator for his latest brainwaves.
Hamlet would never have made a good dictator because he was obsessed by the question: To be or not to be?
What Hamlet did not realise was that the real question is: How to be?
Perhaps, Assad’s biggest mistake was to appear to be offering concessions from a position of weakness. A dictator who does that is doomed.
Despotic systems cannot be reformed piecemeal. They are monolithic blocs that, with change even in aspects of their structure, would disintegrate.
Assad’s TV appearance was revealing in other ways.
It showed that Assad is a divided man, hesitating over which way to turn. It also showed that the Syrian ruling elite is divided.
We know that a decade ago a promising “reform faction” had formed within the Syrian regime. That faction managed to win a number of concessions in cultural and economic policies but failed to make any headway on political issues.
The other day, some members of that faction could be seen at the top table, taking notes as Assad dictated. They looked greyer and more tired. And no one could guess what they were really thinking, except asking themselves: To be or not to be?