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Protests in the Middle East

The Arab awakening reaches Syria

Mar 21st 2011, 15:02 by The Economist online | DAMASCUS

IT HAS taken a while, but this weekend Syria joined the list of Arab countries whose citizens have taken to the streets. After Friday prayers, protests were held in Damascus, the capital, as well as Banias, Homs, Deir Ezzor and Deraa in the south. The last of these was by far the best attended, with up to 2,000 people, according to eyewitnesses.

The violence has since risen. Security forces attempting to control the crowds shot and killed at least four protesters. Then on Saturday a funeral for two of them turned into another protest, which was dispersed with tear gas and fire-engine hoses. Yesterday thousands marched again, calling for an end to 48 years of emergency law, and more freedoms. One person was reportedly shot. The BBC said buildings had been torched, including the headquarters of both the ruling Baath party and the Syriatel mobile network owned by Rami Makhlouf, the business-tycoon cousin of the president, whose wealth stirs much comment and resentment. Information is hard to come by: Deraa is in semi-lockdown. Nobody is allowed in and there have been interruptions to telephone and internet services.

Syria has traditionally enjoyed a two-fold stability: it is one of the most authoritarian countries in the world and many on the streets like the president, Bashar Assad. These demonstrations mark the biggest unrest in the country since he inherited power from his father in 2000.

Small protests started on Tuesday when a group gathered in the Hamidiyeh market in Damascus. On Wednesday, a silent sit-in by known activists demanding the release of political prisoners was violently dispersed. Since then the focus of the protests has changed, with momentum now coming from outside the capital and from the general public.

Why Deraa? It is a sleepy city of around 300,000 some 100km (62 miles) south of Damascus in a tribal Sunni area of olive groves and farmland. The spark appears to have been the arrest of more than a dozen teenagers last week for painting anti-regime graffiti on a wall. Two women were subsequently arrested. With poverty levels also rising as water levels have dropped, local anger appears to have reached a tipping point.

The government, previously adept at public relations, has floundered in its response. It has used force against its citizens and simultaneously accused infiltrators of dressing up as high-ranking officials and ordering forces to shoot. But it has also made concessions, reducing the duration of the loathed military service, releasing the teenagers and announcing an investigation. Faisal Kolthoum, Deraa's governor, has been removed from his post.

There are signs the crisis in Deraa could be solved. A group of prominent locals has presented a list of demands to the government. These include the end to emergency law and the dismantling of the local security office, but not the removal of Mr Assad. Friday's protesters had different motives in different parts of the country. In other areas, such as quiet Damascus, many disbelieve the news leaking out or prefer to turn a blind eye. Some activists want to pull back, viewing the situation as a dangerously unarticulated barrage of anger. Dormant opposition figures are complicating matters by trying to enter the fray.

But many of those who took to the streets were calling for revolution as well as protesting against corruption and abuses of power. As on Friday, small protests were reported elsewhere in the country again yesterday. Although there is no single organiser the Syria Revolution Facebook group had called for a “day of dignity” on Friday, but its influence has been limited until now. Activists have started to create information networks. More importantly perhaps, the fear that previously prevented political action has started to dissipate.

Many want change in an orderly fashion. But a continued bungled, violent response by the government could change that. Syria’s economic and political woes are similar to those lamented by protesters around the region: corruption, an exaggerated security presence, soaring prices and a lack of prospects for the country's burgeoning, and increasingly globally connected, youth.

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1-20 of 21
sphelan wrote:
Mar 21st 2011 3:39 GMT

Hm... not sure about this.... I think an infiltrator has dressed up as a foreign correspondent and submitted copy to The Economist (Syria gives those jobs to infiltrators who can't quite meet the sartorial demands of a high-ranking officer).

Lanai wrote:
Mar 21st 2011 6:28 GMT

Syria shows that Putin surprisingly combines insight with a void of historical logic. Sweeping through the righteous Middle East is truly a crusade against the tyrants by the righteous followers of Islam. With clear minds; devoid of the non-believers alcohol, true believers see the power of a free people, with one language, a vast resource base, and the historically proven ability to produce a deep well of knowledge when given the opportunity. Yes, this is a crusade and it sweeps tyrants and others before it. Putin should focus his resources on a better intelligence service and learn that no single religion owns the word "crusade". Syria has heard the cry of freedom and it shall not turn a deaf ear.

Renne Smith wrote:
Mar 21st 2011 7:56 GMT

For decades Syria (not unlike its neighbors) deflected its people's discontent over its economical woes by pointing the finger at Israel.

It seems that people are starting to be fed up with this perpetual excuse and try to come up with a true solution to bad education and health systems, government corruption, dilapidated infrastructure and poor industrial output. And personal freedom.

Let's hope they won't be sidelined by radicals who will take advantage of the chaos to create Dictatorship v2.0 with just a different tribe enjoying the spoils of rule and quelling any attempts at a real change in the name of The Religion of Peace and... the good old story: leave freedoms and education and infrastructure to a later time, and remain united against the Zionist Entity.

jouris wrote:
Mar 21st 2011 8:46 GMT

It will be interesting, at some point in the future when the current dust has settled, to survey the Syrians and find out to what extent they were emboldened by events in Lybia. Did the response to Qaddafi cause them to think that Assad would have to be restrained in his response? Or was the timing just coincidence.

I have no idea. But I think it will be interesting to find out what finally got something going in Syria when it did.

Isaschar wrote:
Mar 21st 2011 9:26 GMT

Given the West's new found idealism in protecting civil rights L(Liberty, fraternity equality...) in the most repressive regime in the middle east, France will soon start bombing the Dictator's security appartus. Syrians would surely start rebelling en mass. Nevermind the previous French love affair with Assad. Viva de France!

(oops, sorry about this one, no oil in Syrian and more important, it might actually solve the Israeli Arab problem too! How could Europe then continue to curry up with the Arabs without that one! (in exchange for oil and explotatative trade relations, off course).

Ianmac37 wrote:
Mar 21st 2011 10:04 GMT

The "Arab Awakening" does not seem to include any desire for freedom for women. In each of the uprisings I see every woman wearing the slave suit and the only places where women had education and good chances at creating a professional life (doctor, lawyer, etc) were dictatorships. When the dictators were overthrown, the women lost out.

Someone needs to point out that freedom comes only when religion is kept separate from government. Otherwise, like Iran, one authoritarian government is removed only to put another in its place.

j_r wrote:
Mar 21st 2011 10:10 GMT

Religious differences complicate the situation inasmuch as the country is effectively controlled by members of the Alawite minority, who may fear being treated as illiberally as they have treated opponents if they were to lose power. In this respect, Syria is similar to Bahrain.

Wayne Bernard wrote:
Mar 21st 2011 10:29 GMT

This is just the beginning of the "spring of change" in the Middle East. As shown here, Middle East nations suffer from the most repressive governments of any region in the world with the least political and civil rights and this article should help in determining which nations will be moving toward democracy:

http://viableopposition.blogspot.com/2011/02/defining-and-quantifying-fr...

powerofshame wrote:
Mar 21st 2011 10:37 GMT

Genuine or partly adulterated (?) this aweakening has yet to show a new phase of war aand conflict afflicting on a global basis, via oil prices and revenge.

frabrit wrote:
Mar 22nd 2011 12:07 GMT

The whole 9 yards? There is no Arab awakening. The young Arabs do not want to work (generally speaking), everyone wants to be able to do what he wants but does'nt understand just how big that change would have to be. Yes, women should have equal rights!, Yes everyone should vote (not along religious or tribal lines). Already this is a problem of huge proportions. They have thought of none of this, yet they want "Change". They want Freedom. But they don't want infidels to be free or women or anyone who thinks differently to them. So , along comes that hand of the Zealots and they slowly cause this "awakening" . The goal is to be able to take over if it is a success and to not have been seen as being responsible if it fails. Make no mistake! The fundamentalists are trying to manipulate all this to enhance their position throughtout the (arab) land, (today, the world later)

frabrit wrote:
Mar 22nd 2011 12:10 GMT

Another thought! Democracy as we know it cannot exist in any world managed on the basis of religion and religious law. Fundamentalists do not understand any form of freedom, for anyone

pgillenw wrote:
Mar 22nd 2011 1:06 GMT

Gee the Islamic domains seem to be exploding every where and occupying the West's attention and worse more of the West's resources e.g. treasure. Are they winning the battle against the West? If we keep being sucked in then the answer is surely yes. How sad.

Rocksprings wrote:
Mar 22nd 2011 1:28 GMT

Wow, if Syria starts to unravel, perhaps the UN. should start sitting down with the Arab League of nations to discuss how they will deploy their troops to aid those who want a democratic country. Just like the UN. did with Libya!!!!

Am I correct ?

lphock wrote:
Mar 22nd 2011 2:56 GMT

Let the Arab League of Nations do a survey on population perspectives about their future direction. Change for sake of change is not good enough. Post-colonial era and governmental shift is inevitable in modern times. The swift action by western powers (with a major carry in UN council) in Libya may lend more deeper consideration from emerging powers like India, Russia, China and Japan. They may feel the ground loss in their global reach.

Mar 22nd 2011 4:25 GMT

I am not sure what moral high ground is available to the USA, UK, and France, considering their actions at Kent State University, India, and Algeria, to name just a few recent examples of their responses to protesters.

lev. d. wrote:
Mar 22nd 2011 8:04 GMT

Capitalism cannot solve the problems of the arab world. Only a democratic socialist workers government can begin to transform the socio-economic situation that confronts them. The first thing that a workers government in Syria, libya and elsewhere must establish is A SEPERATION OF THE CHURCH FROM THE STATE, and a gaurantee of religious freedom for all denominations and faiths...

Mar 22nd 2011 7:58 GMT

It's been a week and it is growing. Don't bet on Assad for now.

http://hussainabdulhussain.blogspot.com/2011/03/wrath-in-syria.html

yousong wrote:
Mar 22nd 2011 8:04 GMT

Wait for Saudi Arabia to see what would be done by four ruffians: USA UK FRANCE and ITALY.
Most of these dictators in Gulf Area are allies of these ruffian, see what would be happened. Don't be smile so early, ruffians~

Cassandrina wrote:
Mar 23rd 2011 9:55 GMT

"The government, previously adept at public relations"
I do not think this is correct. The only public relations the Baa'th Party has is Assad's wife's good works and the repression of being taken away late at night or early morning Soviet style.
In a room of 12 people at a company workshop I addressed 9 of them had been in prison some as much as 20 years.
Assad is the only the front man of the Baa'th Party, as he was not trained to do this job, his dead brother was. Assad has a small group of people behind him who are corrupt and very powerful, ruling with fear. Many of the second power tier would change if given the opportunity to a more prosperous and open nation, and the third tier of intellectuals and fellow travellers will change if it is relatively risk free.
Also do not forget the religious sector, which is treated with kid gloves by the Baa'th Party elite, as their influence ensures the safety of some of their more radical members.
Hopefully change will occur without violence, but don't hold your breath - some in the party wish the return of the government military savagery of 1983 inflicted on some regions. Libya gives them food for thought, but if Qaddafi stays they will be emboldened.

China_blue wrote:
Mar 23rd 2011 1:24 GMT

"In each of the uprisings I see every woman wearing the slave suit and the only places where women had education and good chances at creating a professional life (doctor, lawyer, etc) were dictatorships."

What 'slave suit', ianmac?

I've been in Syria three times now, Egypt twice, other countries of the Middle East several times over the past 10 years.
My friends there include women who wear jeans and t-shirts, as well as women who freely choose to wear full burqa and even sometimes niqab (face veil) as well. I'm a woman myself, so get to mix and talk with both men and women quite freely.
It is entirely their personal choice - just as it is in our country to wear whatever we choose.

In Iran and in Saudi Arabia - two countries where hijab (headscarf) and burqa (full black outer gown) are respectively compulsory, women enjoy a high level of education, comprising more than 50% of the university students in Iran at least.

It's very easy to use the "if I were a horse" argument/assumption. But totally wrong to do so. we should START from our prejudices, not stop there.
The world is an amazing place if you keep your eyes open. I would hope that readers of the Economist would do just that.

1-20 of 21

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In this blog, our correspondents respond to breaking news stories and provide comment and analysis. The blog takes its name from newsbooks, the 16th-century precursors to newspapers, which covered a single big story, such as a battle, a disaster or a sensational trial

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