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Day of Rage

With an active war in which the US, NATO and other nations participating raging in Libya it is easy to get distracted from the other prodemocracy protests happening in the world. One place in particular that is of great interest but not very much reporting is Syria.

The Baathist Party of the Assad family has ruled this Mediterranean nation since 1963 with Hafez Assad ruling from 1970 until his son Bashar took over after his death in 2000. Al Jazeera is reporting that today that the Cabinet is likely to resign and there will be some kinds of reform implemented.  

These reforms come in response the continued and growing protests in Syria. Like Egypt Syria had been under and emergency law that allowed the government to basically suppress dissent with impunity. There are closed courts, a ban on public gatherings, restrictions on the press and political parties other than the Baath Party.

This regime has long used these powers to keep a very tight lid on its control of the nation, but the so-called Arab Spring seems to have arrived there as well. Over the last month or so protesters have gone to the streets demanding change like they see in Tunisia and Egypt. Even when security forces have fired on the crowds with live ammunition, they not only kept coming out and protesting but have grown in size.

All this presents a very difficult position for Assad and his party. They can try to crack down on the protesters even more aggressively, after all the amount of confirmed news that comes out of Syria other than its state run media is small and they could stonewall. This, of course, risks going the route of Libya and to some extent Yemen, with the possibility of Generals and other members of the government defecting and perhaps an all out civil war.

On the other hand, reform and loosening the reigns has its own perils. Once things begin to loosen at the top level it is very hard to tighten them up again. Worse, from an authoritarian point of view, when you open the door to more freedoms there is an expectation established that there will be more and more freedoms.

For a group of men who have run a nation on their own say so for nearly 50 years the idea of having to listen to the rabble and to actually be responsive to their demands is not one that sits easily. The lesson of the Soviet Union has to be in their minds. Perestroika started the ball rolling for the end of one party communist rule in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. In an attempt to placate their people the communists instead empowered them and lost control.

From the Al Jazeera story it looks as though Bahar Al Assad is going to try to walk the tightrope without falling into the abyss. Not only are we lead to expect changes, but he also seems to be prepared to spin this change as widely popular. From the Al Jazeera article:

The news came as thousands of supporters of president Bashar al-Assad poured into central Damascus in a show of support for their leader.

On Tuesday, all roads leading to Sabeh Bahrat ("Seven Seas") square in the capital were cut off by police armed with batons, as the crowd raised Syrian flags and pictures of Assad.

"The people want Bashar al-Assad," they chanted in unison.

"Bashar al-Assad is the spine of Syria. Without him, our country will be pushed into chaos," said a man who identified himself as Abu Khodr.

Our correspondent said pro-government protests were also taking place in other cities.
"There are [pro-government] protesters coming from across the country. And there are protests not only here in Damascus but across the country."

Since the Assad government still controls the media there, it seems like this will be used as a set piece to try to convince the protesters in the outlying cities that this is what they really want.

It remains to be seen if it will work. With the ending of the emergency law, the chances for political parties and freer press may very well let the steam out of the protesters there. However, that has not been the case in a single Arab country where prodemocracy movements have arisen. In Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Jordan, firing the cabinet and saying that the president would step down and not run again have not been enough for the people.

Obviously each nation is going to be different, the Yemeni’s are not the Syrians are not the Egyptians. Still what seems to have galvanized the people in all of the Arab Spring nations is seeing that standing up, resolutely and consistently has caused more change than most thought possible just six months ago.

Maybe President Assad knows his people well enough, maybe the man who came to power with a reputation for being a reformer has the wherewithal to actually shepherd his people out of autocracy and into a more representative form of government. Just as all people are not the same, it is also true that not all autocrats are the same.

After seeing the violence in Libya and shaky nature of the reform in Egypt it is worth hoping that this unlikely combination, an autocrat who will give up power, is a reality in Syria. The next 24 hours should tell the tale.

If President Assad can placate his people we might see yet another way of revolution in the Middle East. If not then it we must hope it will resolve itself like Egypt and not like Libya or Yemen.

The floor is yours.    

Originally posted to Something the Dog Said on Tue Mar 29, 2011 at 06:30 AM PDT.

Also republished by Foreign Relations.

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