Could Syria see an uprising like Egypt's? Not likely.
In Syria, opposition activists are organizing their own 'day of rage' – but longstanding intimidation tactics and repression make it unlikely significant numbers will be out on the streets.
Syrian opposition activists hope that the shockwave of Egypt and Tunisia's mass uprisings, which have shaken the Arab world, will begin to reverberate in Syria, with calls for a “day of rage” Friday throughout the country.Skip to next paragraph
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But analysts believe opponents of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad face a daunting struggle in replicating the street revolutions that so far have toppled one head of state in Tunisia and left another teetering on the edge in Egypt.
“We have been surprised before in this crisis, but my sense is that it’s unlikely we will see large, large, large groups of people coming together because the security services will be intimidating people, arresting people, keeping a very tight lid,” says Nadim Houry, Lebanon representative of Human Rights Watch (HRW), a New York-based watchdog.
The seismic upheavals in Tunisia and Egypt have triggered unrest elsewhere in the Arab world, particularly in Yemen and Jordan. Syria, ruled by the Baath Party since 1963 and the Assad family since 1970, also seems at first glance potentially vulnerable. It shares some passing similarities with Tunisia and Egypt, particularly economic hardship – rising prices, unemployment, poverty, and the cancellation of subsidies on basic commodities.
Yet there are also critical differences, which may lessen chances of a Tunisia-style revolution taking hold. Perhaps chief among them are the sectarian divisions within Syria. Such divisions, if unleashed by protests, could cause bloodshed and chaos similar to the experiences of Lebanon and Iraq in recent years.
“The cautionary tales of its neighbors to the east and west – Iraq and Lebanon – have only reinforced Syrian anxieties about the dangers of weakening the central government in a country with a mixed sectarian and ethnic population,” says Elias Muhanna, author of the influential Qifa Nabki blog.
Syria’s population is predominantly Sunni, but the backbone of the regime is drawn from the minority Alawite community, an offshoot of the Shiite sect. The marginalized Kurdish population is also a potent factor in the country’s sectarian and ethnic composition.
Intimidation, repression discourages opposition
Syrian activists have used Facebook and Twitter to spread the word in the past week, calling for protests and demonstrations on Friday and Saturday. Although Facebook has been blocked in Syria since November 2007, many Syrians use proxy servers to sidestep the ban. President Assad himself has a Facebook page.
“The storm against tyranny and monopoly must come to Syria,” says a statement released by the Popular Movement for Change in Syria. “Don’t be afraid and know the government does not have a choice but to listen to your voice when millions will demonstrate in the streets.”
The prediction of “millions” taking to the streets in the next two days seems overly optimistic judging from the small number of protestors who held a recent series of gatherings in Damascus in support of the Egyptian uprising.
Some 200 people turned up for a candlelit vigil outside the Egyptian embassy in Damascus on Sunday. According to Mr. Houry of Human Rights Watch, Syrian security officers also were present, taking photographs of the demonstrators and demanding to see the identification cards of some attendants. That security presence appears to have had a chilling effect on the demonstrators, as fewer numbers attended subsequent gatherings.