During the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, Arabs joked that Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak were following the same playbook -- which came to be known as the Arab Tyrant Manual. NPR described it as a three-step process, including "strengthening the security service," "promise political reform," and "buy off unrest."
But there's actually a lot more to the manual than that, and its application varies from place to place depending on circumstances -- though the overall failure of these tyrants to "get it" is remarkably consistent.
In March, at the height of the revolt in Libya, a few Twitter users, led by Iyad ElBaghdadi(@iyad_elbaghdadi) and Amira al-Husseini (@JustAmira), crowdsourced the rules of this manual and compiled them using the #ArabTyrantManual hashtag. A few of my favorites:
@iyad_elbaghdadi: Say that the protests started as a pure youth movement but were "hijacked" by a foreign agenda
@L_Auvergnate: Pretend you're open for dialogue and will do the necessary while killing protesters
@iyad_elbaghdadi: Say that you "got the message" and "will act on it soon". Don't mention what "soon" means.
@EG_Freedom: Shut down communications and kill businesses even tho protesters will publish videos anyway when the inet comes back up.
@studentIslam: You never wanted to be a dictator. Your service to the people proves that.
Compare to the Syrian state news agency's summary of Assad's speech today. Some choice excerpts:
Foreign conspiracies: "President al-Assad asserted that Syria, throughout all of its history has been facing conspiracies against it for several reasons, some of which are linked to Syria's important geographic and political status and others are linked to its political stances committed to its principles and interests.
Dialogue: "A committee on national dialogue was formed for the sake of launching a national dialogue which includes all social, intellectual and political segments in Syria in an institutional approach, the president added."
Vague promises of reform: "'The urgent demands of people have been implemented before the beginning of the dialogue...we lifted Emergency Law and abolished State Security Court; we issued an organizing law for the right to peaceful demonstration. A committee was formed to set the draft bill for the new election law as another committee was formed to set legislations and the necessary mechanisms to combat corruption,' said President al-Assad."
Failure to shut down communications: "‘What do we say about these political stances? What do we say about the media pressure and the advanced phones that we're finding in Syria in the hands of saboteurs? What do we say about the falsification that we all witnessed?' President al-Assad added."
Service to the people: "President al-Assad said ‘I met people from all the spectrums of the Syrian society, demonstrators and non-demonstrators and the truth is that I consider these meeting as the most important job I've ever had as a person in charge despite the frustration and pain in the general atmosphere yet I can say that the benefit was amazing. They showed great love and amity toward me I have never felt before.'"
That said, Assad is admittedly in a bit of a pickle here. Even if he did want to take serious steps to reform, in line with the demands of Turkey and the West, a few factors might be holding him back. One is that there are a lot of other people in Syria with a vested interest in the status quo, including but by no means limited to members of his own family. His brother, Maher, controls the most elite units of the military, and his brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat, controls the intelligence services. A bevy of cousins, notably Rami Makhlouf, control the economy. Members of Bashar's Alawite sect dominate the commanding heights of the security services. All of these people stand to lose if things change, and Assad likely feels he needs to protect the interests of this wider circle -- lest some of them decide to move against him.
Then there is Assad's patron, Iran, which has reportedly supplied help putting down the uprising and has little interest in seeing a process of political reform take root in Syria. And what about the Arab Gulf monarchies? A few of them have made official statements of support to the Syrian regime, and even though they have stayed most silent, their interest is in seeing Assad weakened but not overthrown altogether. They'd like to see him brought low so that he comes begging for cash, and they can peel him away from Iran. That seems unlikely -- why would he trust them? -- but that sort of thing has never stopped Arab regimes from pursuing a given strategy.
So he's stuck with the manual.