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Egypt Reacts to Death of Assad

Aired June 10, 2000 - 1:41 p.m. ET



JIM CLANCY, CNN ANCHOR: Hafez Al-Assad, the president of Syria, passed away, it was announced on Saturday -- passing away at the age of 69 after ruling Syria for some 30 years. He cut a path of a different kind in the Middle East. On one hand, he ruthlessly crushed his opposition at home. On another, Hafez Al-Assad was a man filled with surprises.

He backed Iran during the Iran-Iraq war, defying the wisdom that --conventional wisdom that would have predicted he would side with his Arab neighbors. He also stubbornly stuck to one position in the Middle East peace process and that is that every square inch of land on the Golan Heights must be returned if there was to be peace between Israel and Syria. Hafez Al-Assad, again, dead at the age of 69.

Reaction has been pouring from around the world. In the Arab world, certainly one of the main partners of Hafez Al-Assad, was president Hosni Mubarak of Egypt.

Joining us now is Ben Wedeman, our bureau chief in Cairo.

Ben, what continues to be the reaction there?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN CAIRO BUREAU CHIEF: People were stunned at the death of President Assad. He was a man that not everybody particularly liked, but he was widely respected. And an indication of the sort of position he had is that for the last couple of hours, the main television channel here in Cairo, has been running directly the programming out of Damascus: the prayers for the president and the speeches out of the Parliament.

Egyptians have known Hafez Al-Assad for more than 30 years, and during that time, Assad played a central role in the very frequently rocky relationship between Egypt and Syria. The two countries went to war together against Israel in 1973. And that was a moment many people here remember fondly as a high point in unity between the two countries. But it was just a few years later, in 1977, when President Sadat went to Jerusalem for his historic peace initiative. And with that, relations between Egypt and Syria underwent a profound and severe rupturing.

And it was only until many years later, until the mid 80's, that President Mubarak, Sadat's successor, really started to build bridges with Syria again. And since then relations have been somewhat better and certainly in recent years, Egypt has been trying very hard to bring Syria into the peace process, to play a role, a middle-man role, between Egypt and Israel.

Egypt, of course, has been the first Arab country to sign a peace agreement with Israel. And it was trying to bring Syria into the same process. President Mubarak has made several trips recently to Damascus trying to engage the Syrians. And he and his top officials have been fairly sympathetic to the Syrian position on the question of the Golan Heights.

The question here in Cairo is what comes next. Certainly President Assad was one of the most experienced leaders in the Middle East. And now he's being followed by a man many people believe -- Mr. Bashar, Dr. Bashar, Al-Assad's son -- is relatively untested. So the Egyptians are certainly going to try to play a positive and helpful role as far as Syria is concerned in the peace process, but they, like many others, want to wait and see what comes out of the current transition of power -- Jim.

CLANCY: Ben Wedeman, we've seen an outpouring of support -- heard of it in Damascus. I am just wondering, publicly, how well liked was President Hafez Al-Assad in Egypt? Of course, he had been a foe of the Egyptians after Camp David and before that reconciliation in the mid 1980's, a very adamant for of Cairo.

WEDEMAN: Well that's correct. But it's also worth remembering that many people here in Egypt were opposed to the peace agreement that President Sadat signed, and many Egyptians looked to the Syrians, to President Assad and his very hard-lined position, his very uncompromising position on the question of peace with Israel. And he was -- he had a lot of respect among ordinary Egyptians as an Arab leader who really stuck to his guns and did not compromise.

For many years, he completely rejected any notion of negotiations with Israel. And there's a very large constituency here in Egypt that was very much thinking along the same lines. Therefore, as far as his relations -- his attitude or positions vis-a-vis the peace process was concerned, many Egyptians supported his position. Of course, at the same time, there was a large number of people who were opposed to it. Many Egyptians did not feel comfortable with the somewhat authoritarian nature of President Assad's regime -- but mixed feelings is how I would best describe it.

Many people respected him as a strong man, but at the same time, they were put off by some of President Assad's more strong-arm tactics -- Jim.

CLANCY: Ben Wedeman, I'm going to ask you this as the Middle East hand that you are, having lived all over the Middle East and been in Damascus so many times. The domestic changes, you say somewhat authoritarian -- of course, as we know, he ruthlessly put down any opposition -- there was -- there is in fact no public opposition to the regime of Hafez Al-Assad in the country. But economically, over the past couple of decades, what a change in the way Damascus looks -- the feel of the entire country.

WEDEMAN: That's correct, Jim. In the earlier 1990's, the Syrians passed what's known as law number 10, which encouraged investment. They were trying to get many Syrians, who had done quite well overseas outside of Syria, to come back and reinvest their money. And certainly, I lived in Syria from the late 80's to the mid 90's, and it was incredible the change you saw. There was a lot of money coming in. There was finally many basic commodities -- which you simply couldn't find in Syria -- began to become quite common.

But unfortunately, during the late 90's, things slowed down a bit. Some of the money that was coming from the Gulf, following the did Gulf War, started to dry up -- so that by the late 90's, things began to slow down again. And there was frustration. Many people felt that, really, they had come as far as they could go as far as the economic reforms. Many people in Syria felt that you really couldn't have economic reforms -- effective economic reforms without some sort of political liberalization.

And it's worth noting that as Bashar, the son of President Assad, began to make his presence felt, there was a feeling that things were opening up politically as well as economically. And the last time I was in Syria, which was just earlier this year, I felt there was definite change in the air. People were more willing to discuss how they felt about the how the government was being -- how the country was being run. And a lot of people seemed to be putting more faith -- having real confidence in Bashar as somebody who could change things.

So, there is a certain amount of dissatisfaction with the economic situation, but you do feel a certain opening-up. There is a certain amount of optimism in Syria at the moment.

CLANCY: All right, CNN's Cairo bureau chief, Ben Wedeman, also an old hand in the Middle East -- Miles.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: For the Clinton administration, there is no higher foreign policy priority in its seven months remaining or so than to try to cobble together some kind of lasting Middle East peace agreement.

Madeleine Albright, the secretary of state, has been leading those efforts over the past many months. And until recently, at her side would have been her aid and spokesperson, James Rubin. He joins us on the line now.

James, the consensus that we've been getting from some of the experts we've been talking to today is that this puts the whole peace process, best case scenario, into a wait-and-see mode. And the consensus also is that it would put that whole wait-and-see mode beyond the scope of the Clinton administration. Is this something that another administration will have to tackle now?

JAMES RUBIN, FMR. STATE DEPT. SPOKESMAN: Well, I think it's fair to say that the Syria track was not moving that rapidly right now. Secretary Albright, as I understand it, had met with the Syrian foreign minister in the past few days, and they agreed to keep lines of communication open. But in President Clinton's last meeting with President Assad, there was a big deadlock. And I don't think people felt that the Syria track was about to take off.

On the other hand, with this change, we're going to see a profound change in the Middle East. We're going to see a time where a leader who had taken a position, who had made the decision for peace, the strategic decision for peace, but then refused to walk through the door that he

RUBIN: ... in the past few days, and they agreed to keep lines of communication open. But in President Clinton's last meeting with President Assad, there was a big deadlock. And I don't think people felt that the Syria track was about to take off.

On the other hand, with this change, we're going to see profound change in the Middle East. We're going to see a time where a leader who had taken a position, who had made the decision for peace, the strategic decision for peace, but then refused to walk through the door that he opened, succeeded by someone else, and we'll have see what pressures are brought to bear. But if it's his son, there is every reason to think that his son wants to focus on bringing Syria into the international community, breaking out of its isolation, and that really can't happen without peace between Israel and Syria.

O'BRIEN: What makes you think that?

RUBIN: That Bashar about a share wants to break out of isolation?

O'BRIEN: Right.

RUBIN: Well, we understand that he's been a strong advocate of the Internet. He's tried to bring modern communication into Syria. My understanding from my time in government was that this was someone who whole daily life was focused on the kind of life that a lot of young, modern Arabs are interested in, which is part of the global system, part of the Information Age, the TV age, and being able to participate in the prosperity that's so many other countries have through information and technology. So if he does indeed take power, he's going to start out with a strategic goal of bringing Syria into the rest of the world that will require peace with Israel, so that could make, in the end, the peace with Israel more likely.

O'BRIEN: Well, that's a pretty dangerous thing for him to be playing with, isn't it? For years and years, the opposition has been put down severely in Syria, and bringing in the Information Age, the Internet, allowing a little more open discussion can be quite a two- edged sword?

RUBIN: Well, look I am not saying that everything is going to be smooth sailing in Syria. On the contrary, I think this going to be a difficult transition. The question is, Assad, who made decision for peace, but wouldn't make the final act, and walk through the door, and made clear that he was going to hold out for nonnegotiable with an Israeli government. There was never going to be a Israeli position, I think, more forward-leaning than the one that Barak put forward: returning the Golan Heights, finding ways to deal with the early warning station on Mt. Hermond (ph), a number of issues the Israeli leader put forward, a very, very forward-leaning position, and that wasn't good enough for Assad. So my point is, if that wasn't good enough for Assad, we could have been waiting for him for a long, long time to come.

With a new leader in place, there's a chance at least, that the Syrian desire to enter the international community, to be part of the rest of the world, will overcome their traditional reluctance to make peace with Israel and the very real public pressure and private pressure that any new Syrian leader would be under not to make peace with Israel.

O'BRIEN: James Rubin is former spokesperson and aide to Dr. Madeleine Albright, the secretary of state. Thanks for being with us from London.

Let's take a look at some pictures from Syrian television. Well, just a few moments ago, there was some pictures showing some of the scenes in Damascus on the streets today, thousands of people in the streets indicating chanting, indicating expressions of mourning, and indicating also expressions of support for Dr. Bashar Al-Assad, the heir apparent to Hafez Al-Assad, who passed away earlier. We don't know specifically when, but earlier, at the age of 69.

We'll back with more coverage in just a moment.


CLANCY: Over some three and half hours here, we have been looking at the life, the times of Hafez Al-Assad, and looking really at what his contributions have been, what the problems have been across the Middle East, in particularly who his successor might be as leader of Syria, president of Syria. Of course his is son the most likely. At the same time looking, what will overall effect on the peace process. But for now, we're going to have call it a day.

O'BRIEN: We will call it a day. Jim Clancy and I will part ways. But our coverage will continue on CNN domestic as well as CNN International for our viewers all around the world. Thanks for staying with CNN. Complete the latest, the most comprehensive coverage of the death of Hafez Al-Assad and it's implications, will continue here on CNN.



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