End of emergency rule in Syria unlikely to quell protests or stop arrests

The Syrian cabinet on Tuesday passed legislation lifting nearly five decades of emergency rule. The concession may embolden protesters to demand greater reforms.

In this citizen journalism image made on a mobile phone and acquired by the AP, taken on April 18, 2011, Syrians pray in Clock Square in the center of the city of Homs, Syria.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was today expected to officially lift the emergency law that has allowed arbitrary arrest, banned demonstrations, restricted the media, and allowed eavesdropping for nearly five decades in the repressive Arab state.

But this milestone is unlikely to change reality on the ground, as Syria's cabinet on Tuesday also passed new legislation requiring demonstration permits from the Interior Ministry. And even without the emergency law the government has the legal authority to quash protests and arrest demonstrators, says Rime Allaf, a Syrian political analyst at London’s Chatham House.

"It will not change reality," she says in a phone interview from Vienna. "Plenty of laws in Syria allow the government to arrest citizens and accuse them of many different crimes."

RELATED: How Syria and other countries use emergency rule to quash dissent

President Assad has repeatedly made end-of-week concessions in an attempt to quell the violent post-prayer protests on Fridays. "It will not stop protests," says Ms. Allaf. "I used to be more careful with my predictions. Right now, I can say more strongly and confidently, I don’t think it will prevent anything. People are infuriated by the killings that the regime has done over the past few days. The mood is very defiant."

The government still rules with impunity, agrees Bilal Saab, a Middle East expert from the University of Maryland at College Park. If anything, he adds, lifting the emergency law will embolden protesters on Friday.

"If there is one trajectory of this dissent movement, it is they are no longer afraid," he says. "I think the window of reconciliation is rapidly shrinking, if it ever existed. I do not think this will stop the dissent movement. Quite frankly, I think it will most likely lead to greater societal unrest."

Arrests continue

Hours after the legislation passed Tuesday, police arrested popular opposition figure Mahmoud Issa in Homs, where some 5,000 people protested on Monday until security forces opened fire on the crowd. At least 200 people have died since unrest began in mid-March, according to activists.

President Assad was slated to issue a decree today approving the draft laws, according to Al Watan newspaper. His cabinet has also asked officials to draft laws that would permit opposition parties and liberalize media.

Leading opposition figure Haitham Maleh told Reuters "this [announcement] is all just talk. The protests won't stop until all the demands are met or the regime is gone." US State Department spokesman Mark Toner agreed "this new legislation may prove as restrictive as the emergency law it replaced."

The Syrian Embassy in Washington declined to comment.

Assad hesitated

Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, in 1963 declared the state of emergency. According to the BBC, the law gives the government "ability to place restrictions on freedoms of individuals with respect to meetings, residence, travel, and passage in specific places or at particular times; to preventatively arrest anyone suspected of endangering public security and order; to authorize investigation of persons and places; and to delegate any person to perform any of these tasks.”

The law is justified on the grounds that Syria is at war with Israel and must battle terrorism within the country.

Assad first hinted at lifting the law on March 24, after thousands of Syrian protesters took to the streets in the southern city of Deraa. A week later, he delivered a defiant speech that said, “a time frame is a matter of logistics.” The delay angered protesters and rights activists.

"That was the beginning of the end," says Professor Saab of the University of Maryland. "Syria made a strategic decision to go to war against its own people."

Assad may have waited too long to appease his own people, says Ms. Allaf at Chatham House. "Ironically, had the regime lifted the law a month ago, it would have bought itself a lot of goodwill. Because they waited so long, and accompanied by the brutal repression ... they don’t go together."

Insurgency in the making?

Allaf says real negotiations must now begin. "There’s only so much cosmetic surgery you can do: Either you repress more, or you back down and say let’s talk," she says. The government might still release the thousands of Syrians jailed under past years under the emergency law, or possibly open the state-controlled economy to private business.

Mr. Toner of the US State Department said in an April 18 daily press briefing that lifting of the emergency law would be a positive move, but it would not necessarily translate into any real change. “These would be positive signs, but ultimately, it’s up to the Syrian people to interpret those as adequate," Toner said. "But the other thing is he said a lot of things before publicly, but ... we’ve seen very little in the way of action.”

“We’re watching closely now to see how those words translate into deeds,” he added.

The government initially blamed the protests on foreign agents such as the US and Israel, then shifted accusations to people working for former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, and this week fingered supposed Salafist jihadists.

Al Watan, a pro-government newspaper, reported that Syrian opposition figures met in central London Tuesday to plot to encourage uprisings in Hassakeh and Aleppo, according to Damascus-based Syria Today magazine.

Analysts readily dismiss those allegations. But by failing to extend an olive branch early on, the government may have created an uncontrollable opposition movement that could morph into an armed insurgency, says Professor Saab of the University of Maryland.

"This is a critical stage where compromise or repression will lead to more unrest," he says.

RELATED: How Syria and other countries use emergency rule to quash dissent

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