As tensions escalate in Egypt, it is impossible to predict what’s going to happen next there or anywhere else in the Middle East. Having said that, I will now ‘predict’ that Syria will not be the next ‘Arab dictatorship’ domino to fall. No, my friends, Syria will not go the way of Tunisia or Egypt. I am not saying I do not wish this to happen, rather, I am ‘predicting’ what I think won’t happen there. The conditions just aren’t set up for it. And I don’t think the planned protests will really set anything in motion as we have seen in Egypt.
There are literally scores of articles, tweets (check #angrysyriaday, #syriarevolution, or search for يوم الغضب السوري) and newscasts predicting that the regime in Syria will be the next casualty of mass protests in the Arab world. Some, more cautiously, disagree. I am in this latter camp.
Syrian president Bashar al-Assad said that Syria wouldn’t be affected by the unrest currently gripping the streets of Egypt ‘because his country is different.’ How is it different and what are the differences that will supposedly shield Syria from getting caught up in the string of revolts?
Bashar al-Assad has been in power since the summer of 2000 when his father, Hafez al-Assad, passed away after 30 years of iron-fisted rule. Al-Assad, unlike Ben Ali or Mubarak, is relatively young at 45. He is also far more popular than either the former Tunisian dictator or the current, embattled Egyptian one. He stands up to the west and is tough with Israel.
Not everyone likes him, of course. But if you don’t like him, expressing that opinion can be dangerous to your health. Freedom of expression is relatively non-existent in Syria. Kurds, who make up 10% of Syria’s population, are particularly aware of this and suffer disproportionately under the repressive regime there.
Protests against the regime in Syria are scheduled for later today and again tomorrow in Damascus, Aleppo and other major cities. Opposition groups in Syria have planned the ‘Day of Anger/Rage’ protests for Saturday, but the Islamic Independent Democratic Current planned today’s protests, which are scheduled to begin after Friday prayers. At this point it seems that events have been blurred into one long protest.
Mohamed Masri of the Centre for Strategic Studies in Amman says that ‘[w]hat’s happening in Egypt is going to reshape the region.’ That’s a given. In some places this will mean a thorough house cleaning from top to bottom. In others it will mean only minor adjustments to the status quo. Syria I believe will fall into the category of ‘minor adjustments.’ But even these minor changes could come at a heavy price.
One journalist said to AlJazeera about the planned protests in Syria, ‘I think the day of anger will turn out to be no more than a day of mild frustration.’
However, given the regime’s penchant for non-tolerance of disobedience and ruthless repression of dissent, the other possibility is violent suppression of the protests. Some reports, including those from the Kurdish Democratic Unity Party (Yekîtî), say that the Syrian military has already deployed army battalions in Aleppo and al-Qamishli (Qamişlo), two urban centres with substantial Kurdish populations. In fact, the deployments in Aleppo have been in the Kurdish neighbourhoods of Ashrafiyyeh and Sheikh Maksoud. Extra police are out around the city as well.
Two nights ago, according to Human Rights Watch, Syrian security forces violently dispersed a candlelight vigil held for Egyptian protestors held in Bab Touma, a Christian neighborhood in old Damascus. The police beat those gathered and arrested activists.
While preparing his military to put down the protests, Bashar al-Assad is also talking of reform and implementing measures in the hopes of pre-empting any unrest. Since Ben Ali’s dramatic departure from Tunisia, al-Assad has announced a $250 million aid package for families in poverty and a 72 percent increase in heating oil subsidies.
This, however, has been in concert with the deployment of security forces, the reduction of Internet access, the closing down of Internet cafés, and the confiscation roof antennas and satellite dishes in some places like Aleppo. In other words, al-Assad is saying ‘I’m offering you reforms, on my terms; don’t ask for anything and don’t protest.’
In his lengthy interview with the Wall Street Journal a couple days ago he said he would push through political reforms this year aimed at initiating municipal elections, granting more power to non-governmental organisations and establishing a new media law. He said that the ongoing protests in the region were ushering in a ‘new era’ in the Middle East, and that Arab rulers would need to do more to accommodate their people’s rising political and economic aspirations.
A savvy leader, he understands that he must change. But he will not appear to change due to pressure from protesting Syrian citizens. The ‘new era’ will be on his terms, if it comes at all to Syria. The big question, of course, is whether or not the Kurds in Syria will be included in the ‘reforms.’ Will their political and economic aspirations be accommodated or constrained even further?
What’s really at the core of these protests around the Middle East? Christopher Hitchens summed up what he thought were factors in provoking these mass demonstrations happening at the moment. It is not poverty, unemployment, dictatorship or repression, he said. It is more a factor of indignity and shame. ‘People do not like to be treated like fools, or backward infants, or extras in some parade.’
The indignity and shame stem from the poverty and bleak living conditions brought about by the dictatorship and repression. So I’m not sure if I’d separate them completely. However, I will agree that dignity is key. Just the other night we saw vigils in Damascus with participants holding up signs that read: bread, freedom, dignity.
Organisers of this weekend’s scheduled protests demand an improvement in living standards, respect for human rights, freedom of speech for all Syrian citizens, and greater influence for Syrian youth. Greater dignity.
According to some, Facebook and Twitter have been at the forefront of the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia. And it is through Facebook that Syrians are currently mobilising, albeit many of the organisers are in Europe or elsewhere in the Middle East.
David Kirkpatrick, author of the book ‘The Facebook Effect’ said that ‘[m]any countries where Facebook is popular have autocracies or dictatorships, and most of the countries have passively tolerated [its] popularity. But what’s happened in Egypt or Tunisia is likely to change other countries’ attitudes, and they’ll be more wary of Facebook operating there.’
Well, Facebook doesn’t have to worry about Syria. Syria didn’t tolerate Facebook before (it has been banned since November 2007) and certainly doesn’t tolerate it now. Traditional Syrian media are tightly controlled and this is reflected in the government’s approach to online media and expression.
Syria is consistently ranked as one of the world’s worst web oppressors, ranked at #3 (Iran is #2). Internet penetration is low at 17.7% and more people are working there to censor the Internet than develop it. While blogs are bringing in new voices, which previously had no outlet, and challenging the norms and expectations governing public political discourse, the Syrian regime keeps a tight lid on the Internet and most in the country probably have no idea that all these Facebook groups exist and are calling for demonstrations. So is social media just a sideshow here?
Thousands have mobilised online on Facebook. They come from a small group of the population in Syria and mostly from those outside the country: Syrians in Europe, Egyptians, other Arabs, human rights activists from around the globe, Kurds, etc. There are and anti-government groups (Day of Rage/Anger) and pro-government groups (Salute President Bashar Assad). We saw what happened in Tahrir Square in Cairo when Mubarak unleashed the pro-government forces. It will be far, far worse if Assad allows clashes like this to occur. His forces will not gallop into Omayyed Square on camels either. It will be nothing short of mayhem.