SPIEGEL Interview with Syrian President Assad "Poverty Is a Greater Concern for Most than a Democratic Constitution"
Syrian President Bashar Assad discusses initial stabs at democracy in his country, the outlook for peace in the Middle East and Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon.
Syrian President Bashar Assad: "We don't care if this is the Chinese model or something else. Our actions reflect the needs of our country."
Mr. President, there are tentative movements toward democracy here and there in the Arab world. But there is little evidence of that in Syria. Why not?
Assad: Well, it just happens that the Arab states develop at different rates and under different historical conditions. Egypt, for example, has not experienced as many coups as Syria. Besides, Cairo signed a peace treaty with Israel, whereas we remain in neither a state of war nor a state of peace with Israel. Incidentally, our development only began a few years ago, so of course expectations will vary widely. But the main issue is that we in Syria have at least opened up a dialogue about it.
SPIEGEL: But it's taking longer than many would like.
Assad: The pace of our development depends upon the challenges that we must face, which we cannot always influence. For example, we have to deal with foreign powers meddling in our internal affairs.
SPIEGEL: You mean the Americans' demands for more democracy and for putting an end to support for terrorists?
Assad: The more meddling there is, the slower the pace of development in Syria. After all, the democratic process should pervade the entire country. Naturally, the unresolved Middle East conflict also slows down development. And then there is the question of what should be our greatest priority -- political development or economic growth.
SPIEGEL: Are they mutually exclusive?
Assad: There is a tremendous gulf between the two objectives. To promote growth, we urgently need help from the European Union. For many of the Syrians I meet, poverty is a far greater concern than the outlook for a democratic constitution. Besides, there is also terrorism, which stands in the way of democratic development. We simply have to act as quickly as possible to keep things moving forward.
SPIEGEL: But you don't exactly make it easy for your fellow Syrians. Political parties are permitted, but they are immediately prohibited as soon as they form, while members of the opposition are arrested.
Assad: But you've been talking to opposition leaders in our country. If we were to arrest them all, there wouldn't be enough space in our prisons.
SPIEGEL: Most members of the opposition with whom we spoke have spent many years in prison.
Assad: But now they're out again. You can't simply equate the situation in the West with the situation in our country. Take religion, for example. In Great Britain, an author published a book in which he claimed that Jesus Christ had children. Such statements don't trigger civil unrest and bloodshed in Europe. But write similar statements about Islam in Syria and you might see bloody uprisings.
SPIEGEL: What does that have to do with real opposition in Syria?
Assad: When we put someone on trial, we're not trying him as a person. Instead, what concerns us is that he does not attack the population's religious and ethnic structure. The umbrella of stability must not be damaged. We gave the go-ahead for the formation of parties two months ago, and we are currently taking a very close look at these parties. I certainly don't dispute the contention that we do not have a well-developed system of political parties yet. I simply wanted to show you where we have to be cautious.
SPIEGEL: What exactly are you afraid of?
Assad: Developments like those in Algeria since 1991. At that time, the government misjudged the people, and the Islamists threatened to assume power. To this day, the Algerians are paying the price for this miscalculation with their own blood.
SPIEGEL: Look at the example of Riad Seif, a self-made businessman and member of the Syrian National Assembly. He criticized the omnipotence of the monopoly and was sentenced to five years in prison.
Assad: He questioned the unity of the nation, and we happen to have a law that calls for penalties for those who assail the mosaic of the various ethnic and religious groups.
SPIEGEL: Wasn't Seif merely questioning the distribution of power?
Assad: No, no one is put on trial for attacking me personally. But assaulting the composition of Syrian society is simply too explosive.
SPIEGEL: Journalists, too, are prevented from doing their work and sometimes even thrown in prison. When will you have true freedom of the press?
Assad: We have never locked up anyone because of his personal opinion.
SPIEGEL: A correspondent for a large Arab newspaper, Al-Hayat, was recently sent to prison for several months.
Assad: That's a different issue. Under Syrian law, a journalist is not allowed to report on military matters. This may be wrong or right, but that's just the way it is.
SPIEGEL: You said that fighting poverty is more important than democracy. Does this mean that you intend to emulate the Chinese model: economic liberalization without political reforms?
Assad: When I say that the economy takes priority, it certainly doesn't mean that we relegate political reforms to the back seat. The economy may have taken priority in the last five years -- that's because it is important to improve the general standard of living. It's a dangerous thing when someone gets up in the morning and has nothing to eat. If I say to that person, "I intend to allow you to have political parties," how will he responsd? We don't care if this is the Chinese model or something else. Our actions reflect the needs of our country.
SPIEGEL: When will there be a recognizable democratic multiparty system in Syria?
Assad: It took us five years to achieve a societal dialogue. Now we are in the second phase, in which we begin discussing parties. It won't happen that quickly. For example, the same process took three years in Morocco.
SPIEGEL: Will it happen before the 2007 general election?
Assad: It's very likely, but you just can't make long-term predictions in our corner of the world. I cannot afford to make mistakes. Instead of jumping forward too quickly and possibly falling on our faces, we prefer to divide our tasks into smaller steps.
SPIEGEL: How do you propose to prevent the Algerian model -- the formation of religious parties that are democratically elected, but then act undemocratically?
Assad: Once again, we cannot apply Western standards to development in the Orient. In Germany, you may have a religious Christian party, the CDU (Christian Democratic Union), but it has effectively assimilated itself into the fabric of the country. In return, your history prevents you from having any large nationalist parties. Our experience has shown us that the situation in Syria became stable because the entire society is secular. We must preserve that.
- Part 1: "Poverty Is a Greater Concern for Most than a Democratic Constitution"
- Part 2: NEXT PAGE: Assad says UN investigation will clear Syria of allegations it was involved in the killing of Lebanon's former leader.