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Syrians Calm Over Egyptian Revolution

Despite a wave of protests spreading across the Middle East, so far the revolutionary spirit has failed to reach Syria, reports Al Jazeera.Authoritarian rule, corruption and economic hardship are characteristics Syria share with both Egypt
PTI February 12, 2011 15:55 IST
PTI
Despite a wave of protests spreading across the Middle East, so far the revolutionary spirit has failed to reach Syria, reports Al Jazeera.

Authoritarian rule, corruption and economic hardship are characteristics Syria share with both Egypt and Tunisia.

However, analysts say that in addition to the repressive state apparatus, factors such as a relatively popular president and religious diversity make an uprising in the country unlikely.

Online activists have been urging Syrians to take to the streets but the calls for a "Syrian revolution" last weekend only resulted in some unconfirmed reports of small demonstrations in the mainly Kurdish northeast.

"First of all, I'd argue that people in Syria are a lot more afraid of the government and the security forces than they were in Egypt," Nadim Houry, a Human Rights Watch researcher based in Lebanon, says.

"The groups who have mobilised in the past in Syria for any kind of popular protest have paid a very heavy price - Kurds back in 2004 when they had their uprising in Qamishli and Islamists in the early 1980s, notably in Hama."

The so-called Hama massacre, in which the Syrian army bombarded the town of Hama in 1982 in order to quell a revolt by the Muslim Brotherhood, is believed to have killed about 20,000 people.

"I think that in the Syrian psyche, the repression of the regime is taken as a given, that if something [protests] would happen the military and the security forces would both line up together. I think that creates a higher threshold of fear."

Demonstrations are unlawful under the country's emergency law, and political activists are regularly detained. There are an estimated 4,500 "prisoners of opinion" in Syrian jails, according to the Haitham Maleh Foundation, a Brussels-based Syrian rights organisation.

'Kingdom of silence'

As pages on Facebook called for demonstrations to be held in cities across Syria in early February, more than 10 activists told Human Rights Watch they were contacted by security services who warned them not to try and mobilise.

"Syria has for many years been a 'kingdom of silence'," Suhair Atassi, an activist in Damascus, says, when asked why no anti-government protests were held.

"Fear is dominating peoples' lives, despite poverty, starvation and humiliation ... When I was on my way to attend a sit-in against [the monopoly of] Syria's only mobile phone operators, I explained to the taxi driver where I was going and why.

"He told me: 'Please organise a demonstration against the high cost of diesel prices. The cold is killing us'. I asked him: 'Are you ready to demonstrate with us against the high diesel price?" He replied 'I'm afraid of being arrested because I'm the only breadwinner for my family!"

Fawas Gerges, a professor of Middle Eastern politics at the London School of Economics, says Syria is one of the Middle Eastern countries least likely to be hit by popular protests, because of its power structure.

He says the allegiance of the army in Syria is different than in both Tunisia, where the military quickly became one of the main backers of the president's ouster, and in Egypt, where the army still has not taken sides.

"The army in Syria is the power structure," he says. "The armed forces would fight to an end. It would be a bloodbath, literally, because the army would fight to protect not only the institution of the army but the regime itself, because the army and the regime is one and the same."

Popular president

But even if people dared to challenge the army and the dreaded mukhabarat intelligence service, analysts say the appetite for change of the country's leadership is not that big.

Many Syrians tend to support Bashar al-Assad, the president who came to power in 2000 after the death of his father Hafez, who had ruled the country for 30 years.

"An important factor is that he's popular among young people," Joshua Landis, the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and author of  Syria Comment, says.

"Unlike Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, who's 83, Bashar al-Assad is young. Young people are quite proud of him. They may not like the regime, they don't like corruption and a lot of things, but they tend to blame this on the people around him, the 'old guard'."

A Syrian student echoes these comments. "The president knows that reform is needed and he is working on it", she says.

"As for me, I don't have anything against our president. The main issues which need to be addressed are freedom of speech and expression as well as human rights. I believe that the president and his wife are working on that. New NGOs have started to emerge.

"Also, many things have changed since Bashar came to power, whether it has to do with road construction, salary raises, etc. Even when it comes to corruption, he is trying hard to stop that and limit the use of 'connections' by the powerful figures in Syria. However, he won't be able to dramatically change the country with the blink of an eye."

Al-Assad's tough stance towards Israel, with which Syria is technically at war, has also contributed to his popularity, both domestically and in the region.