Protests in Arab world mark new era, Syria's Assad says

Protests in Arab world mark new era, Syria's Assad says

The popular revolts in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen are ushering in a "new era" in the Middle East, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told the Wall Street Journal in an interview published Monday.

"If you didn't see the need of reform before what happened in Egypt and Tunisia, it's too late," Assad said in a rare interview, acknowledging that Arab leaders needed to do more to make room for their people's rising aspirations, DPA reported.

But he also questioned whether this was "going to be a new era toward more chaos or more institutionalization? The end is not clear yet."

Egypt entered its seventh day of anti-government protests with tens of thousands of demonstrators taking to the streets, demanding the ouster of President Hosny Mubarak, 82, who has ruled for close to three decades.

Many of the protesters have taken their cue from Tunisia, where president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali relinquished his post on January 14 after a revolt against his 23 years in power.

Assad, 45, and his late father, Hafez al-Assad, have run Syria for nearly 40 years. In the interview, he said Syria was stable, and that his people would give the government more time to implement reforms.

"You have to be very closely linked to the beliefs of the people ... when you diverge ... you will have this problems, this vacuum that creates disturbances," Assad said.

"People do not only live on interests; they also live on beliefs ... Unless you understand the ideological aspect of the region, you cannot understand what is happening."

He described the internal and external factors that have caused "desperation" in the Middle East, including the lack of reforms by Arab governments, high unemployment, the Iraq invasion, and the conflicts in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

"The internal is that we are to blame, as states and as officials, and the external is that you are to blame, as great powers or what you call in the West 'the international community'," he said.

But he also acknowledged that political reform in Syria hadn't moved forward as quickly as he had thought after coming to power in 1999.

Like in Egypt, Syria has a draconian emergency law that allows for arrests without charges. It also has a one-party political system and a government-controlled media, the report said.

Assad said he would push for reforms that would open up his country - starting with legislation to kickstart municipal elections, promote the involvement of non-profit groups and a new media law.

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