After Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's speech on his country's uprising on Monday, some analysts were quick to point out the similarities between Assad's words and those employed by other embattled dictators during the Mideast uprisings, with Twitter user Iyad El-Baghdadi even reviving his snarky, crowdsourced #ArabTyrantManual hashtag. Assad, like Tunisia's Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, Libya's Muammar Qaddafi, and Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh before him, promised vague reforms by an unspecified date and blamed criminals, extremists and foreign conspirators for trying to generate chaos that only he could prevent.
There's another similarity, however. Ben Ali and Mubarak each stepped down after delivering three speeches that failed to pacify protesters, and Monday's speech, Assad's third since Syria's revolt erupted in March, sparked renewed protests (they coincided with pro-government rallies). The connection isn't lost on Syrian activists. As Abdullah Aba Zaid told Reuters, "Just as Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak fell after the third speech, we are hopeful this will be the speech that will bring his downfall."
So, will the Arab Spring's three-speech rule apply to Assad, or will the Syrian leader, like Qaddafi and Saleh, survive to deliver many more defiant speeches? Comparing the three speeches delivered by Ben Ali, Mubarak, and Assad suggests that Ben Ali and Mubarak both chose to take a hard line initially but quickly grew more conciliatory as they grew more desperate, resigning promptly when, as El Mustapha Lahlali at the University of Leeds puts it in a recent study, they failed to convince protesters that their offers of reform were sincere. Assad, meanwhile, has promised reform more gradually and grudgingly, spacing out his public statements and never entertaining the notion of stepping down or changing his narrative about the uprising being fueled by conspirators.
Speech #1 (12/28/10): Ben Ali promises more jobs but threatens to apply the law with "firmness" to the "minority of extremists and mercenaries" who he blames for ten days of protests over unemployment sparked by the self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi.
Speech #2 (01/10/11): As protests spread across the country, Ben Ali gets more specific about how he'll address unemployment--pledging 300,000 new jobs--but takes a harder line on protesters, claiming they're responsible for "terrorist acts."
Speech #3 (01/13/11): Only three days after his second speech, Ben Ali strikes a much more conciliatory tone, vowing not to seek reelection in 2014 and demanding that security forces not use firearms on protesters. He takes responsibility for the turmoil in the country, claiming he was "deceived" by advisers, and, in a first by a Tunisian president, gives his speech in local dialect rather than classical Arabic. A day later, when the speech and a state of emergency failed to diffuse the crisis, Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia.
Speech #1 (01/28/11): As protests engulf Egypt, Mubarak fires his Cabinet and promises political and economic reform but refuses to step down and defends his crackdown on demonstrators, calling the protests "part of a bigger plot to shake the stability and destroy legitimacy."
Speech #2 (02/02/11): Mubarak caves a little, saying he won't seek reelection but will remain in power until September to ensure a smooth transition of power. But he still claims the destabilizing protests have been "manipulated by political forces" and refuses to suffer the same fate as Ben Ali. "I will die on the soil of Egypt," he declares.
Speech #3 (02/10/11): Amidst feverish anticipation that he would announce his resignation, Mubarak declares that he will delegate day-to-day authority to Vice President Omar Suleiman but still refuses to resign. Like Ben Ali, Mubarak bowed to pressure and stepped down the very next day.
Speech #1 (03/30/11): Addressing an intensely supportive parliament, Assad promises vague reforms (his cabinet had resigned the day before) and blames "conspirators" for stoking chaos, vowing to defeat the foreign "plot" against the country.
Speech #2 (04/16/11): Assad pledges to lift Syria's long-standing emergency law within the week but warns that he "will not be lenient toward sabotage" and predicated reform on "maintaining internal stability."
Speech #3 (06/20/11): Assad calls for a "national dialogue" and suggests constitutional amendments that could allow for political parties other than his ruling Baath Party. But he tempers those concessions by declaring that "saboteurs" are hijacking the Syrian's people legitimate demands for reform and again puts stability ahead of reform.
So, what do analysts think about whether Assad's third speech could be his last? The Atlantic's Max Fisher thinks "cracks are beginning to show in Assad's regime" as the unrest batters Syria's economy, military, and diplomatic relationships. "That Assad felt compelled to make this morning's address--something his fellow Arab leaders have done only at their lowest points in the battles against popular protests--should be a sign that the situation in Syria, though still bleak, could be rapidly turning," he wrote yesterday. Indeed, The Jerusalem Post's Jacques Neriah thinks Assad will run out of time when Qaddafi falls from power. "The moment Qaddafi steps down," Neriah writes, "Syria will experience all the attention of the Western powers, especially if the turmoil and armed suppression persist."
Others disagree. The Guardian's Julian Borger, for example, writes, "Assad has given no hint of any readiness to leave the scene and, on that score, appears to have decided that Qaddafi's uncompromising example has, for now at least, shown better results." Syria experts tell Reuters that they believe Assad will "fight to the end, and start to regionalize the conflict by inciting violence in Lebanon, Turkey, and across the borders with Israel." Still, Reuters adds, "the international community is starting to plan for a Syria without the Assads."