Only three days separated the speech given by King Mohamed VI of Morocco, and that of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, yet the differences between the two were huge. On one hand, we heard the King of Morocco address his people more than 5 times as “my dear people”, telling them that he is their “first servant”, before he announced a series of detailed constitutional reforms to expand the powers of the Moroccan government and parliament and strengthen the judiciary’s independence. He said that the objective of these reforms is to establish a regime based on “royal, constitutional, democratic, parliamentary and social [legitimacy].”
On the other hand, we heard Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, in his speech at Damascus University, mix the call for national dialogue with talk of a conspiracy, branding protestors as conspirators and saboteurs, and even describing what is happening in Syria today as something that “has nothing to do with development or reform, but rather sabotage.” It is true that he spoke of national dialogue being the “title” of the forthcoming stage and also touched upon the issues of constitutional amendments and the political parties’ law, yet he failed to provide specific proposals or a clear outlook on the situation, leaving matters vague and ambiguous. Despite his talk of how the necessary resolution of this crisis must be a political one, his rhetoric in other parts of his speech appeared to contradict this, particularly when he said that “there is no political solution for those who carry weapons and kill”, and that “there can be no reform through destruction, sabotage, or chaos.”
Someone may argue that a comparison between the two speeches is inappropriate because the circumstances in each country are different, as are the events they have experienced, even if both countries share the same climate of protests and demonstrations calling for reform and change. Yet the reality is that there is a strong basis for a comparison, although we do acknowledge that popular protests are by no means perfectly replicated whenever they spread from one country to another, because each country has its own circumstances and aspirations.
What necessitates this comparison is that King Mohamed VI and President Bashar al-Assad, two men of similar age, assumed power at almost the same time and in similar circumstances. They both came to power during a period where there was widespread talk about the emergence of a new young leadership in the region; a leadership that carried with it the promise of change and reform. King Mohammed VI came to the throne after his father King Hassan II passed away in 1999; this was within the framework of a clear monarchical hierarchy, which determined the mechanism governing the transfer of power and ascension to the throne. As for President Bashar al-Assad, he came to power in 2000 following the death of his father President Hafez al-Assad; this was within the framework of a republican system that does not stipulate hereditary rule, and in fact it should reject this in principle. Nevertheless, many welcomed Bashar al-Assad and believed that he would lead Syria towards genuine reform, openness and political pluralism.
Morocco proceeded to work towards openness, and adopted its “Equity and Reconciliation” plan, thereby turning over a new page of openness with opponents across the political spectrum. As a result, prominent political dissidents became prime ministers and various parties successively formed cabinets. It is true that the pace of reform subsequently slackened and that the Moroccans today are demanding greater measures, criticizing certain practices in the political arena, and seeking transparency, an end to corruption, and an independent judiciary, yet they still support their king and do not want to abolish the monarchy; rather are calling for reforms to transform it into a constitutional monarchy, whilst others want to see it become a parliamentary monarchy.
In Syria, some measures were taken towards economic openness, and promises of political reform were made without being fulfilled. It will be recorded in history that President Bashar al-Assad acknowledged that his regime delayed in implementing reform, which led to the situation reaching the state that it did in Syria, with regards to widespread protests. Had he realized this mistake in time for his first speech and responded with a series of quick reforms, national dialogue between all factions of society and the opposition, and constitutional amendments, Syria would have avoided the “difficult days” that he spoke about in his last speech. Had he done all this, the people of Syria would have avoided much suffering and bloodshed. The protestors in Syria took to the streets to demand freedom and dignity, political reform, and an end to corruption, yet they did not chant anti-Assad slogans at the very beginning, nor did they initially demand the ouster of the regime. It was the regime trying to tighten its security grip and resorting to brutally suppressing the protesters that pushed Syria towards this “defining moment”. The scenes of killing, torture, and mass arrests only intensified the protests, and the demands of the protesters for the overthrowing of the regime.
In his speech at Damascus University, President al-Assad once again failed to understand the protesters message, calm the anger of the Syrian people, or adopt a clear policy of genuine reform to be implemented within a specific timeframe. He should have taken urgent steps to pave the way for his promised national dialogue, a dialogue which he branded as the “title” of the forthcoming stage, and a political way out of the crisis. The tone of his speech was confused, his messages were contradictory, and his talk of reform was vague. He also threatened to pursue and hold the protesters accountable, labeling them saboteurs and conspirators. Furthermore, measures previously announced by the regime, and which initially seemed positive, are not being implemented in a measured manner on the ground. For example, the announcement that the Emergency Law was to be lifted did not end the military and security campaigns, nor did the general amnesty end the widespread detentions [of Syrian citizens] or secure the release of all political prisoners.
On the other hand, Morocco did not resort to the violence adopted by the Syrian regime in confronting the protests. Instead, the King decided to respond to the demands of reform by making specific promises following his speech in March. He sought to fulfill his promises with sensible measures, something that enabled him to declare specific and clear constitutional reforms, which will be put to a popular referendum next month. Most importantly, his speech bore a reconciliatory tone, a tone that did not betray the protestors or underestimate their demands, or regard what happened as a foreign conspiracy. Rather, the declared constitutional reforms have helped to establish citizens’ rights with the inclusion of an article that ensures the protection of all human rights. This inclusion “guarantees fair trials, criminalizes torture, arbitrary detention, and all forms of discrimination and humiliation, in addition to guaranteeing the freedom of expression and opinion, and the right to access information.”
In his latest speech, President al-Assad said “the strength of the state stems from the strength of the people…let the people and the state come together.” If only President al-Assad had interpreted this into concrete and specific reformative measures in response to the people’s demands. Had he done this, his speech could have offered reassurance and hope, in the same manner as King Mohamed VI’s speech.