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Lord Risby: Syria's P W Botha moment - how a misjudged Presidential speech sparked national revolt

Lord Risby is the former Conservative MP Richard Spring.

Richard Spring Ultimately, successful political decisions arise out of personal judgment, most especially if you lead a country. No matter what advice you are given, in the end the decision is yours alone. Sometimes it may appear easier to remain in a comfort zone which in reality is a mirage, with dramatic and unexpected consequences.

The collapse of the Berlin Wall six thousand miles away removed one of the few remaining props of Afrikaner nationalism, which had successfully played on the fear of links between Black nationalist groups and Soviet Communism. South Africa had found itself at war in Namibia and Angola, as it tried to hold back radical independence movements. However for some years before, dissent had been growing within South Africa, apartheid was being sustained with increasing brutality, and political and economic isolation was on the rise.

In 1985 the then President, P W Botha, decided to address this in a  very widely trailed speech.  Expectations of change and reform were dramatically hyped. A government minister added to the pre-speech excitement by signalling the release of Nelson Mandela and the extension of the vote to Black South Africans. A delegation was despatched to London to promise changes which had been assertively demanded by the Thatcher government, to an extent still unacknowledged by the British Left.

At the last moment, to the horror of even his closest political allies, President Botha bottled it. His so-called Rubicon speech was a disaster. Fury erupted both internally and externally. Economic and investment collapse loomed. The external value of the currency plummeted. It was left to his successor F W de Klerk who - having undergone a personal conversion - led the country into dismantling apartheid, releasing Nelson Mandela and embracing full blown democracy. He recognised what a cataclysmic misjudgment his predecessor had made in a single speech. As history has accurately judged, that speech was a total misreading of the political and social reality in the country - the point of no return for apartheid.

When the Arab spring emerged in Tunisia and spread to Egypt, President Bashar al-Assad declared that Syria would be immune from the social and political unrest in other parts of the Arab world. Nevertheless, stirrings of discontent started emerging. For some time the President had talked of political reform and liberalisation, but progress had been slow. In March he decided to go to the Syrian parliament to make a speech. A considerable level of anticipation grew both locally and abroad. A government minister declared that long standing emergency laws would be lifted.

When the President spoke not only did this did not happen, but he essentially blamed the unrest on foreign saboteurs. At the last moment he had apparently changed his mind about the contents of his speech. This was a truly terrible misjudgment. Minor but genuine and entirely home-grown protest in Deraa had been put down with savage intensity, to the shock and dismay of many Syrians. The President, hitherto popular with tens of thousands of his fellow citizens, suffered a reputational collapse both at home and abroad. Violence and bloodshed have now gripped the country for over four months, and show no signs of abating. The economy is under considerable pressure and the usual invasion of free spending Arab tourists this summer has unsurprisingly not taken place.

More recently President Assad went to Damascus University and announced an amnesty, a relaxation of draconian security laws and a national dialogue with Opposition politicians - the speech he should have made in March. Many believe this was too little too late, and that the genie was already out of the bottle.
The newly legal Opposition, some of whom have now engaged with the government, is insisting that the violent crackdowns are completely stopped . This seems unlikely, given the extent to which public sentiment has been inflamed. Meanwhile the military and security forces are now clearly overstretched, with the reluctance to deploy conscripts to restore order.

Will President Assad’s original bizarre speech have the same dramatic consequences as President Botha’s speech in South Africa twenty six years ago? The echoes are obvious.  Oratory has the power to inspire and encourage change, as Ronald Reagan did so brilliantly during the Cold War. Or to give reassurance and hope as Winston Churchill did during the Second World War. But as we saw in South Africa, and are now seeing in Syria, one single speech can actually bring about the very circumstances that the speeches had been intended to avoid, changing the entire political and economic dynamic overnight.

What transpired in post-apartheid South Africa went well beyond the most optimistic expectations. It is now the indisputable powerhouse of sub-Saharan Africa. Meanwhile we wait to see what will unfold in Syria, not least for the religious minorities and Iraqi refugees who have been well protected by the Assad presidency, as Syria’s nervous neighbours watch developments there with a mixture of concern and anticipation.


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