Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Why Assad Didn't Learn His Lesson

Syrian President Bashar Assad's speech this morning raises an important puzzle. In academy-speak: What accounts for variation in regime learning in response to popular protests calling for its ouster?

But in policy-speak: why didn't Bashar Assad get the message that giving a big staged speech with no actual reforms or concessions just aggravates people and raises antagonism against the regime? Both Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt suffered for their speeches which were widely out of touch with the tone of public discourse in their own countries.

The answer may be the result of two factors.

First, the more oppressive the state, the greater the separation between government and people. This puts policy elites and heads of state out of touch with the tone of public opinion.

Second, elites in dictatorships spend considerable time trying to ensure the prevalence of the regime over time. Over time, this constant struggle may lead to paranoia about instability which impairs the ability of these elites to accept that a) reforms are necessary and b) they can create regime prevalence. It is unclear whether Assad honestly thinks the protests are an Israeli conspiracy, but these conspiracy theories have been present in the speeches of Mubarak, Ben Ali, and Gaddafi as well. It may very well be that these dictators became the victims of their own propaganda.

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