DAMASCUS // The Syrian president Bashar al Assad yesterday ordered his new government to lift decades-old repressive emergency laws and offered condolences for the hundreds killed in a month of uprisings.
Addressing his newly appointed ministers and the nation in his second televised speech since public protests began, Mr Assad said he expected the replacement of martial rule with antiterrorism laws by no later than next week.
"After that, we will not tolerate any attempt at sabotage," he said.
Lifting the draconian state of emergency, which allows the security apparatus to act with impunity, has been a central demand of anti-government protesters taking part in intensifying demonstrations.
Friday's protests were the largest yet, according to activists.
In contrast to the much-criticised appearance before parliament last month in which he announced no clear-cut changes, Mr Assad yesterday struck a serious tone, and made direct reference to the civilians and security personnel who have been killed. About 200 demonstrators are estimated to have lost their lives at the hands of Syrian troops, who have used live ammunition against crowds, according to human rights monitors.
"We are sad for the blood of any person who has been injured or sacrificed and we send our condolences to those people who have lost loved ones," he said.
Speaking of the "gap" between the Syrian authorities and the general public, he said people wanted to live with "justice and dignity", not simply with security and services.
He also talked about the "curse" of corruption, which he said was undermining development and needed to be replaced with transparent governance and support for small businessmen, not just large companies.
The most successful, wealthiest firms are owned by members of the president's extended family or his closest political allies, to which he made no reference.
The economy was key, Mr Assad said, with massive unemployment, especially among young Syrians, a major problem. Economists estimate up to 20 per cent of Syria's youth are jobless, a much higher rate than official statistics claim.
"When people feel the horizon is limited, they feel depression; and this depression can lead to despair," Mr Assad said.
He mentioned political reforms, saying that a law allowing for opposition parties would be considered by the new government. He also said legislation covering the media would be discussed, and that the judiciary had to be strengthened.
As in his previous speech, Mr Assad referred to a foreign conspiracy fuelling unrest in Syria. But he also acknowledged there were other causes and did not repeatedly talk of foreign elements being to blame.
Whether his latest comments will stem public dissent may be tested immediately. Today is Syria's independence day, typically a time for large public gatherings that may turn into a mass show of dissent against the government. Pro-regime rallies are also likely.
While yesterday's speech was widely viewed as an improvement on Mr Assad's previous public address, those supporting the protests warn it did not include the bold steps they wanted to see.
"It took the government two minutes to introduce the emergency laws in 1963, so why is it taking so long for them to lift them?" said one Syrian who is backing the demonstrations. "They need to stop talking about removing the laws and they need to just do it, the president can order it in a minute."
An independent Syrian political analyst said that much of the speech was a repeat of the first address made by Mr Assad when he inherited office from his father in 2000. Back then, he was hailed by many as a natural reformer and the man who would usher in a new dawn of freedom in Syria.
"This speech reminded me of the summer of 2000, but the times have changed. That was 11 years ago and people are demanding actions, they will not be content any more to listen to promises," the analyst said.
"Maybe this speech would have worked a month ago, but I suspect it has already been superseded by events, everything is moving so quickly now."
Critics of the regime also pointed out that it made no direct reference to releasing thousands of political prisoners held in the nation's jails under emergency laws, or to scrapping Article 8 of the constitution, which makes Syria a one-party state under the Baathists.