Why Concessions Hasten a Regime’s Demise

Bashir Assad promises reforms but like Mubarak before him, he may only embolden his opponents.

For the second time in two weeks, the Syrian government said that it would end decades of emergency rule and consider the sort of political reforms that protesters were calling for. So why didn’t the people go home?

In Syria, the regime has attempted to suppress dissent with heavy force. In Egypt earlier this year, the authoritarian government of longtime President Hosni Mubarak similarly answered protests with intimidation and violence until the military made clear that it would not shoot at demonstrators. Thus began Egypt’s lame attempt at reconciliation.

Mubarak appointed a vice president for the first time during his thirty year reign who met with members of the opposition and promised the very reforms they had taken to the streets for — changes to the Constitution designed to weaken executive power; the release of political prisoners; the liberalization of the media; anti-corruption efforts. All to no avail. Tens of thousands continued to pour into Cairo’s central Tahrir Square to force Mubarak out of office. He resigned after weeks of unrest, paving the way for a military interim government that scheduled elections for the summer.

The outcome in Syria may be less predictable. Security services there appear to have the stomach for ruthless suppression while people are more fearful of their government than Egyptians were. All the same, the mere occurrence of demonstrations coupled with the regime’s professed willingness to concede to some of their demands has reminded Syrians that their government is not invulnerable.

While President Bashar al-Assad appointed a new cabinet and promised the release of political prisoners in an effort to disarm the protests, the moves suggested a weakness on the part of his government. The overtures may have been largely symbolic — the cabinet has little actual power in Syria while the release of detainees excluded activists who had supposedly committed crimes “against the nation and the citizens” — but they implicitly acknowledged that the people had reason to be dissatisfied.

By suggesting the possibility of reform in the face of mounting civil unrest, the president implicitly acknowledged the very illegitimacy of his regime. Naturally, people did not tone down their demands. Instead, the protests spread.

Assad may still able to avoid the inevitable in the short run but his police state has started to come apart at its seams. The illusion of its power has been crushed. The seemingly omnipotent security apparatus has started showing its human weaknesses. And as the world is watching, the military may think twice about rolling tanks into the streets of Syria’s cities to sustain a dictatorship that certainly has its best days behind it.

If Assad had learned from Mubarak, he would have known that the only way to keep a people oppressed in a time when information spreads so rapidly is with brutal force. The trouble is that in most nations, the people who are supposed to execute such force don’t like to kill and torture and prosecute other people they identify with, at least not for too long.