Embattled president promises end to 48 years of emergency law, more ‘humble’ government, and action on unemployment
Syria’s embattled president, Bashar al-Assad, has promised to end 48 years of emergency law and instigate further reforms, but failed to satisfy those protesting against his 11-year rule.
In a speech to his new cabinet, Assad said restrictions would be lifted by the end of the week. He blamed the month-long protests on a “conspiracy” and said stability remained his priority but reform was needed to strengthen the country.
Syria’s protest movement, which has gathered momentum in recent weeks, swelled to unprecedented levels on Friday as thousands of people marched on Damascus from surrounding areas.
Assad’s tone was more conciliatory than in a previous speech to parliament on 30 March, directing ministers to become more accountable and humble. “Citizens need security and services, but also dignity. We want to engage in dialogue with the unions and with national organisations,” he said.
Protesters rejected Assad’s move as too little, too late. They said continuing arrests and a state media campaign to blame violence on armed gangs was deliberately inciting anger towards protesters. “The tone was different but there were no concrete reforms again; many still don’t trust emergency law will be lifted,” said an analyst in the capital, Damascus, who asked for anonymity. “If he had made this speech on 30 March, it may have been different, but now it is too late.”
The protests this week have resulted in fewer deaths than the previous week, in a sign the regime may be trying to calm dissent, according to latest reports.
The protesters have demanded an end to emergency laws and more freedoms. But they have also called for an end to abuses by the security services and the release of all political prisoners. Both topics were notably absent from Assad’s speech.
Instead he talked about Syria’s media, its municipal elections and political parties and, in reference to claims of ministerial corruption, said that ministers should provide details of their income and property. He also acknowledged the country’s economic troubles, calling unemployment “the biggest problem”.
Activists accuse Syrian leaders of framing the demands of protesters in economic rather than political terms – although in eastern areas of the country financial worries are their priority.
“Assad still didn’t talk about the reason for the crisis in the country,” said Razan Zeitouneh, a lawyer and human rights activist in Damascus. “And he ignored the main demands of the people: freedom and democracy.”
Mmore than 1,000 women were reported to have held a protest in the coastal city of Banias. Protests in this heavily repressive state were unthinkable before March, when activists inspired by uprisings sweeping the Arab world broke through a barrier of fear. Further demonstrations are being planned for Sunday, which is a national holiday in Syria.