Syrian President Bashar Assad is talking publicly about government reform as his countrymen prepare for anti-regime protests in the wake of popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.
"If you didn't see the need of reform before what happened in Egypt and Tunisia, it's too late to do any reform," the Syrian leader said in a rare interview published Monday on the front page of the Wall Street Journal.
He mentioned one planned law that would create municipal elections and another that would liberalize Syria's draconian restrictions on civil society groups, though he spoke mostly in generalities.
Mr. Assad said he does not fear an uprising, claiming that his government, which supports the Islamist militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah, is "very closely linked to the beliefs of the people."
Syria has been under emergency law since 1963, allowing it to suspend certain rights, including freedom of assembly. Most human rights activists consider it one of the more repressive countries.
Despite Syria's police-state atmosphere, the Internet simmered with reports of a nationwide "day of rage" on Saturday, which would roughly coincide with the 29th anniversary of the Hama Massacre, in which Syrian forces killed thousands of civilians while quelling a revolt by the Muslim Brotherhood.
Several activists declined to comment about specific protest times and locations for fear the information could fall into the wrong hands, but said they were cautiously optimistic that something was in the offing.
"The officials are worried, no doubt," said Ammar Abdul-Hamid, the Syrian founder of the Tharwa Foundation, an organization devoted to democracy promotion in the Middle East. "Assad doesn't like to talk about political reform, so the fact that he's doing it in an interview with the Wall Street Journal speaks volumes.
"But you're talking about a regime that is very successful — maybe the most successful in the Middle East — at suppressing dissent."
Mr. Assad inherited power in July 2000 from his father, Hafez Assad, who had ruled since 1971. His regime has been watching events in Tunisia and Egypt, as well as situations in Algeria, Yemen, Sudan and Jordan.
On Saturday, Syrian police broke up a solidarity protest in front of the Egyptian Embassy and reportedly deployed army units to areas inhabited by the country's restive Kurdish minority.
"Most of the highest-profile dissidents are in jail, under house arrest, or in exile," said Mr. Abdul-Hamid, who himself was forced to leave Syria in 2005. "But the danger to the regime is not from the dissident leaders — it's the young people who are frustrated with the lack of freedom, with the lack of jobs, who have created their own underground networks to communicate with each other. And these leaderless networks can be easily politicized if the time is right."
Ahed al-Hendi, Arabic program coordinator at CyberDissidents, a group that fights Internet censorship in the Middle East, echoed Mr. Abdul-Hamid.
"The situation in Syria is much harder than in Egypt or Tunisia," he said. "The last big political demonstration in Damascus was four years ago — about 200 people protesting the emergency law — and they were attacked by regime thugs. So we have no illusions, but we have hope that if enough people can overcome the fear barrier, the rest will follow."
Mr. Hendi, who was jailed in his native Syria in 2006 for anti-regime activities and later sought asylum in the U.S., also lamented that Syrian protesters could not count on one of the Arab world's key revolutionary aids, coverage by the popular Qatar-based news agency Al Jazeera.
"For Al Jazeera, you see, there are two types of dictatorships — pro-American ones and pro-Iranian ones," he said. "If you're a pro-American dictatorship, they go after you. They leave the pro-Iranian ones, like Syria, alone."
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