AMMAN (Reuters) - President Bashar al-Assad said on Saturday emergency law in place for almost 50 years in Syria would be lifted by next week but ignored popular demands to curb the security apparatus and dismantle its authoritarian system.
Assad, facing unprecedented pressure for democratic reform, had earlier pledged to replace the repressive emergency law with anti-terrorism legislation, but opposition figures said this was likely to preserve tough restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly in Syria, under monolithic Baath Party rule since 1963.
“Next week is the maximum (time) limit for completion of these laws regarding the lifting of the state of emergency,” Assad said in a speech to a new cabinet he named last week broadcast by Syrian state television.
“When the lifting of the emergency law package is issued, it should be firmly enforced. The Syrian people are civilised. They love order and they do not accept chaos and mob rule,” he said.
“We will not be lenient toward sabotage,” Assad said in a speech to a new cabinet he named last week. Syrian authorities have blamed “infiltrators” for stirring up unrest at the behest of outside players, including Lebanon and Islamist groups.
Emergency law bans public gatherings of more than five people and served to throttle any public dissent until Syrians began taking to the streets a month ago, emboldened by popular uprisings that ousted autocratic leaders in Egypt and Tunisia.
Assad, 45, who took office in 2000 upon the death of his father Hafez al-Assad, who ruled for 30 years, said stability remained his priority but reform was needed to “strengthen the internal front.”
But he did not mention the main demands of tens of thousands of protesters, namely to end the tight grip of security services on everyday life, release thousands of long serving political prisoners, most of whom have been held without trial, and do away with a clause in Syria’s constitution that enshrines the Baath Party as “leader of the state and society.”
“We do not want to be hasty. Any reforms have to be based on maintaining internal stability,” Assad said.
Thousands of people marched in the southern city of Deraa, the fount of the protest wave, on Saturday chanting: “The people want the overthrow of the regime,” two witnesses said.
In the Damascus suburb of Douma, 1,500 residents staged a sit-in in the main square to demand the release of 140 local people arrested in a march on the capital on Friday, two rights campaigners said. Twelve of the detainees were freed after their heads were shaved so they could be easily identified by security police if they joined future protests, they said.
In Latakia, a funeral was held for a protester who died in a pro-democracy demonstration that was broken up by security forces on Friday. Security forces attacked a rally that followed the funeral, firing guns in the air, a rights campaigner in contact with Latakia said, and one protester was injured.
Assad said a law to allow political parties would remain under study but the issue was sensitive because it could lead either “to the break-up of society or to more national unity.”
“I think that this package will lead to more participation and more freedoms in Syria. We do not want to be hasty and bring about opposite consequences. Reform must be built on internal stability and security.”
Assad said corruption was a problem and a commission to address it should be set up, but announced no measures to end his own family’s dominance over the Syrian economy.
His cousin Rami Makhlouf, a tycoon, has expanded his businesses during Assad’s rule and he has been widely cited by protesters in their calls for an end to public corruption.
Demonstrations in pursuit of democratisation have spread through the tightly controlled security state over the past month and around 200 people have been killed in attacks by security forces, according to rights campaigners.
The West, which had been trying to coax Syria away from its anti-Israeli alliance with Iran and support for militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah, has urged Assad to refrain from violent crackdowns on disaffected Syrians.
In Paris on Saturday, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said rulers in Syria and Yemen, also convulsed by revolt against autocracy, “must realize that there is no path other than dialogue that brings a clear answer to the aspirations of their people that need to express themselves with complete freedom.”
Asked if there was a chance of conflict worsening in Syria, Juppe told reporters: “There is a risk. The only way to prevent it is to reform. There is a need to go further in Syria.”
Additional reporting by Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman and John Irish in Paris; editing by Mark Heinrich