Will the wave of change engulfing the Arab world ride through Syria?
Inspired by street action in Tunisia and Egypt, Syrian oppositionists are girding for their own “day of rage” on Friday in Damascus and other parts of the country. The wave of demonstrations moving through the Arab world from the Atlantic to the Gulf of Aden is being watched by ordinary Syrians, with some apparently preparing to emulate them. Protest organizers are using the same tools employed elsewhere so far – Facebook and Twitter – to mobilize support against corruption, repression, and economic hardship and in favor of better conditions, freedom of speech, and human rights. Some 9,000 people have reportedly signed up to the Facebook page dubbed the “2011 Syrian revolt against Bashar Assad.”
Lest anyone doubt that Syrian officialdom takes the protests seriously, Bashar al-Assad, president of Syria since 2000, gave an unusual interview to the Wall Street Journal earlier this week, pledging future domestic reform. Assad said Syria would push through political reforms, grant more power to non-governmental organizations, and ease economic conditions. While claiming the Middle East had entered a new era, he chillingly pointed to the 1979 Iranian revolution as the source of that new beginning.
Syria and Egypt have much in common. Both have been largely secular republics whose current regimes came to power through military coups. Both have been led by leaders who sought to have their sons take over when their rule ended; in Syria’s case, it worked, and Bashar al Assad took over without a public shout when his father died in 2000. Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak had also been grooming his son to take over, but this encountered resistance within Egypt and may have been a contributing cause to the current unrest. So close were Egypt and Syria at one time that in the late 1950s they united themselves into one country – the United Arab Republic – but that lasted no more than a few years.
Since then, the two have been competitors to be the leader of the Arab world. Egypt ultimately took the pro-western route, allied itself with the U.S., and made peace with Israel. Syria looked east, allied itself with Moscow and then with Teheran, and has since led the “rejectionist front” in the Arab world. Egypt, for all its repression, has allowed freedoms unknown in Syria. Newspapers in Egypt brook a degree of public dissent and criticism unknown in Syria. Islamic parties, while suppressed in Egypt, have been actively decimated in Syria. If Egypt under Mubarak has been authoritarian, Syria under the Assads has been an absolute dictatorship sowing fear throughout his society.
Assad is no doubt watching very closely as events unfold in Egypt and likely lamenting Mubarak’s hesitance to move quickly and in full force against the domestic unrest. That was the lesson the younger Assad learned from his father, who brutally mowed down the city of Hama with tanks, killing tens of thousands of its inhabitants, when Islamic radicals rose up to challenge the regime in 1982. Assad the elder taught his son to rule with an iron fist and with a tight security apparatus, and to brook no dissent. This has kept in power their Alawite sect, which constitutes only some 10 per cent of the country. Three-quarters of Syria’s population are Sunni Arabs who look upon the Alawites as suspect.
It would not be surprising for Assad to generate orderly demonstrations with minor demands that he could then meet in order to prove his progressive bona fides. Yet anything that looks like a popular challenge to the Assad rule will surely be met with a swift and vicious response. While Syrians hoping for change are looking to Tunisia for the model they would like to see replicated at home, they know that serious protests will end up looking more like the violence we see on the streets of Cairo today. Syrians have not demonstrated a willingness to pay that price since demonstrations first broke out in Tunisia last December. If they are willing to do so, then Syria could prove to be a flashpoint for real popular unrest. How Syrians interpret events in Cairo today will help determine the choices they will make in the days and weeks ahead.