London, Asharq Al-Awsat – In a rare interview with the Wall Street Journal Syrian President Bashar al-Assad described the Middle East as suffering “a kind of disease” due to decades of stagnation, and stressed that it is up to Middle Eastern leaders to “keep up with change, as a state and as institutions.” Speaking at the same time that anti-government protests in Egypt have entered their eighth day, al-Assad said “you have to upgrade yourself with the upgrading of society…this is the most important headline.” Al-Assad also clarified his vision for Syria, saying that he intended to push through political reforms this year that aim to initiate municipal elections, grant more power to non-governmental organizations, and establish a new media law. Al-Assad, who took power in Syria in 2000 following the death of his father, former President Hafez al-Assad, also said that “you cannot reform your society or institution without opening your mind” adding that “if you have stagnant water, you will have pollution and microbes.”
A number of analysts have speculated that Tunisia’s “jasmine revolution”, which inspired the protests that are currently taking place in Egypt, and across the region, could see the Arab world entering a new era of greater democracy. However al-Assad told the Wall Street Journal that “this is a new era, but it did not start now…it started with the Iranian revolution.” President al-Assad refused to comment directly about what is happening in Tunisia and Egypt, saying that “the situation is still foggy, and not clear…it has not been settled yet.” However al-Assad did stress that the situation in his country is stable, saying that this was 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.” Al-Assad also stressed the importance of development, saying that this means “to open up the minds” adding that “during the last three decades, especially since the eighties, [societies] have become more closed due to an increase in close-mindedness that led to extremism.” He added that “today is better than six years ago, but it is not the optimal situation.”
On the same day that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s interview was published in the Wall Street Journal, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood issued a public statement addressed to the people of Syria. This statement began “Oh people of Syria, its Arabs, Kurds, Circassians, and Turkmens, of various religions and sects, either the Levant night must become clear for those who are waiting on the edges of their seats, or you must fill the earth with your cries until these reach the highest level…saying no to injustice, corruption, and no to poverty, hunger, deprivation, and unemployment.”
Asharq Al-Awsat spoke with former Syrian Muslim Brotherhood Secretary-General Ali Sadreddine Bayanouni who confirmed that the situation in Syria is far worse than that in Egypt, which this week witnessed huge anti-government protests resulting in Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak pledging not to stand at Egypt’s next presidential elections, scheduled for September. Bayanouni told Asharq Al-Awsat that at the very least, the Egyptians have a media outlet and are able to talk about and demonstrate against the situation in the country, whilst it is dangerous for a Syrian citizen to even whisper such concerns. He also made reference to human rights lawyer Haitham al-Malih, aged 80, who has been imprisoned for more than a year in Syria for pursuing human rights cases. Bayanouni also spoke about a young Syrian blogger Tal al-Molouhi, who was arrested last year for making statements against autocracy. Bayanouni also told Asharq Al-Awsat that there are thousands of political prisoners in Syria, and he denounced government restrictions that include a travel ban on hundreds of government critics, Syria’s emergency laws, as well as the prohibition of any [political] opposition.
The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood statement discussed 10 points, including “constitutional change to ensure the end of totalitarian rule, removing Article VIII of the constitution that imposes single-party rule; removing the emergency laws and the martial laws; eradicating corruption and prosecuting the corrupt, as well as recovering any money, and quickly resolve the problems of poverty, unemployment, starvation, and illiteracy.” In addition to this, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood also called for “the immediate withdrawal of all the suppressive steps and decisions taken which have resulted in the arrest of teachers, university professors, for their religion or beliefs or their commitment to Islam.”
The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood statement also called for all imprisoned Syrians to be released, and an immediate end to Syrian citizens being imprisoned for their ideological or religious beliefs. The Muslim Brotherhood also demanded the formation of a national government that reflects the will of the people and which represents every segment of Syrian society. The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood said that they believed that the Tunisian revolution could prove to be the spark that would incite the Syrian people to demand their rights if the Syrian regime continues to ignore them. Syrian Muslim Brotherhood Secretary-General Mohamed Riyadh Al Shaqfa has called on the Syrian regime to learn from what happened in Tunisia and return to popular decisions for the sake of national interests. He said “if the [Syrian] regime continue to ignore the views of the people and corruption and discrimination continues, we will incite the people to demand their rights until this reaches the point of civil disobedience.” Al-Shaqfa also threatened to resort to the street and civil disobedience if the Syrian regime continues its policy of restricting and suppressing the freedoms of the people of Syria.