A mass rally was carried out in Hama, Syria, today after Friday prayers, calling for the downfall of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and rejecting his promises of dialogue and compromise as empty.
Crowds are notoriously hard to judge and the amateur video filtering out of the city can't be used to determine exactly how big today's demonstrations were, but they appear to be the largest since the uprising began.
But more interesting is that this was allowed to happen. Activists said police were thin on the ground and that the roads to the city were not sealed off, as has been done in the past. The army pulled out of the city earlier this week. The apparent gamble by the regime is that more violence, at this point, will only enrage the populace more. Assad is also under intense international pressure to stop killing his people.
Blake Hounshell of Foreign Policy wonders on his Twitter feed if Hama is emerging as the Benghazi of Syria. Benghazi is the de facto rebel capital in eastern Libya, and the east has long chafed at Muammar Qaddafi's rule. Uprisings in the past had been brutally suppressed there, and the city seethes with grievances over Qaddafi systematically under-investing in the town.
Hama's legacy is, if anything, sadder. In 1982, Hafez al-Assad, Bashar's father, ordered troops into the city to put down an Islamist uprising. At least 10,000 were killed from shelling of the city and reprisal killings of residents. It was brutal, but effective at ending a low-level Islamist insurgency and cowing the city into submission. Until now, that is.
Syria's uprising is, of course, more perilous than that in Libya. The country's sectarian makeup means it will be harder to stay unified than far more homogenous Libya, and the Syrian state is far more powerful than the Libyan one. While Qaddafi's rule is personal, Assad sits at the top of a Baath party apparatus with many loyalists and functioning institutions.
To be sure, not all was well in Syria today. The Financial Times, who has a reporter in Damascus, reports that nine people were killed across Syria today. The paper also says that Aleppo, Syria's second-largest city and solidly middle class, witnessed its first major anti-regime protests.
On Thursday, protests were seen for the first time on the streets of Aleppo, having previously been confined to the city’s university campus and surrounding countryside.
But those protests grew on Friday with several hundred protesters shouting “No dialogue with the killers!” before security and pro-regime gangs moved in to disperse the crowds and make arrests.
This Youtube video appears to be of today's protest in Hama and fits with what activists on the ground are saying. That's a huge crowd for Hama. While 100,000 people in Tahrir Square isn't much for teeming Cairo (home to upwards of 15 million people) Hama's population is roughly 700,000. As far as I can make out they're chanting "The people demand the fall of the regime," the same slogan that rang out in Cairo's Tahrir Square.