How Syria dodged an Egypt-style 'day of rage'

Outside opposition groups had called for protests in Syria over the weekend. Why did only security forces and hopeful journalists show up?

Hussein Malla/AP
Syrian and tourists in old Damascus, Syria, on Friday. Campaigns on Facebook and Twitter called for a 'day of rage' in Damascus on Friday and Saturday. But by early afternoon there were no signs of protesters anywhere in the capital.

Swaths of plain-clothed security forces and hopeful journalists were the only people gathered at the parliament building in Damascus on Friday and Saturday as protesters failed to respond to calls for demonstrations in the Syrian capital.

Outside opposition groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been banned since an uprising in the 1980s, had tried to rally Syrians to protest against President Bashar al-Assad, who has ruled the country with a firm hand since the death of his father, Hafez al-Assad, in 2000.

But Syria appears to have dodged the "winds of change" in the Arab world that have led to mass popular protests in several countries. The extensive security apparatus effectively nipped any possibility of protests. But geopolitical factors as well as local support for Assad also make any imminent challenge to his ruling Baath Party, which has been in power since 1963, unlikely.

“The security forces have effectively suppressed civil society and scared people into submission,” says Mazen Darwish, a prominent Syrian activist who ran the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression until it was closed by the authorities in 2009.

Secret police, known locally as mukhabarat, asserted their presence in the week running up to planned protests, breaking up small gatherings in support of Egyptian demonstrators and warning local activists against protesting. Human Rights Watch, a New York-based rights group, said that on Thursday night Ghassan al-Najjar, the 75-year-old leader of a small Islamic group based in the northern city of Aleppo, was arrested. Najjar, one of the few active domestic figures, had been among those calling for peaceful protests.

Fears of sectarian fallout and the violence perpetrated by pro-Mubarak thugs in Egypt put off the remaining few who were considering turning out. And local activists decided not to back protests, pointing to a lack of organization.

There has been no organized opposition in Syria since the quashing of secular, religious, and Kurdish figures who came together in 2005 to sign the Damascus Declaration asking for reform. Furthermore, most of the 15,000 who by Friday morning had joined the Facebook page calling for revolution were believed to live outside the country.

Geopolitics aid the Syrian government, which is technically still at war with Israel and seeking to get back the occupied Golan Heights. The government's foreign policy, including a hostile stance toward Israel and support for militant groups Hezbollah and Hamas, is popular.

“Syrians, repeatedly told of threats and conspiracy from outsiders, are more passionate about what is going on in Gaza than in Aleppo,” said Abdel Ayman Nour, a journalist who runs the critical website All4Syria. In the runup to protests, some media alleged that those calling for protests were Israeli saboteurs.

Relatively youthful, Assad, who has led Syria for a decade, is set apart from the region's older autocratic rulers such as Egypt's Hosni Mubarak. He is popular for modernizations, including introducing the Internet in 2001 and economic reforms that have seen shops and cafes flourish.

“I see progress being made, and want to give that a chance to see where it goes,” said one man in his thirties who described himself as anti-regime and asked not to be named.

The wave of unrest in the Arab world is being felt in Syria in other ways, however. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal last week, Assad said the region's protests signaled “a new era” in the Middle East and promised to push through reforms to strengthen civil society and introduce local elections.

Mr. Darwish, the activist, says he expected to see announcements on these issues during the next Baath Party congress, which is to take place in the next few months.

Joshua Landis, the author of the Syria Comment blog, said the pace of reform could affect future stability. “Syria has a growing population and life is getting harder,” he says. “This is not a situation that is endlessly sustainable.”

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