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Syria unrest: Popular uprising or conspiracy?

Syrian authorities blame foreign conspirators and Salafists, but analysts say the uprising is spontaneous.

Last updated: 24 Apr 2011 15:21
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Weeks of unprecedented protests have led to scores of deaths in Syria  [AFP]

If the Syrian government is to be believed, the protests sweeping the country are the work of "foreign conspirators" and amount to an armed insurrection by Salafists, members of a hardline, puritanical Islamic movement.

But analysts and activists Al Jazeera have spoken to disagree with the government claim. They say anger and frustration with the regime in Damascus are fuelling the uprising, rather than religious beliefs or affiliations.

"In my view, they're just ordinary people seeking freedom, it's not organised," Marwan Kabalan, a professor of political science at Damascus University, said.

"It's like the situation in Egypt and Tunisia - people with grievances, economic and political, who are fed up with the situation. They don't find job opportunities or opportunities to express themselves freely."

"Protesters are chanting different slogans because different groups have different demands. But they all agree on the minimum demands, such as more freedom and an end to corruption. No Syrian can disagree on that but many don't believe toppling the regime is feasible, because of fear of civil unrest and conflict."

Itzchak Weismann, the head of the Jewish-Arab centre at Haifa University in Israel, also refuses to buy the authorities' Salafi theory.

"To blame the protests on the Salafis is really ridiculous, just like blaming foreign forces for what really is a popular uprising," he said.

According to Weismann, the Salafis don't wield the influence required to whip up unrest in the country.

"The Salafi movement is not strong. The Mukkhabarat, the secret services, have been successful in repressing it. There are not many traces of Salafis in public life," he said.

Escalating protests have rattled the government in Damascus, the capital, for weeks, despite a heavy-handed security crackdown.

Focusing public sentiment

As anti-government demonstrators brave volleys of live ammunition fired by the police and pro-government thugs, questions have invariably been asked as to where they draw their courage from and who are behind the protests.

Cyber activists say their online activism played a role in directing the public's focus.

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"But our role has been not to lead but to influence the protests," pointed out one prominent dissident operating out of Beirut under the Internet alias Malath Aumran. He fled Syria after being threatened by security services.

He says the "revolution" started on Facebook and then spread to the ground. After a while, partly through the work of online activists who linked them to each other, a number of "local committees" were set up in cities around Syria.

On Saturday, 14 such committees from around the country issued a joint statement detailing their demands, including an end to the government's bloody response to protests, constitutional amendments and the immediate release of all political prisoners.

"We are not the leaders of the protests but we see our role as co-ordinating between local communities in Syria using the internet and through personal contacts," a member of a local committee said, requesting anonymity.

"We help with logistics and have helped organise most of the protests throughout Syria. We also help establish links between the media and local communities along with listing dead, arrested and disappeared persons."

"We do not receive any outside help or funding."

Sectarian fears

But some Syrians suspect that protesters have more than just reform as the agenda behind the current unrest and predict sectarian strife if the regime collapses.

"If the regime falls, Syria will become an Islamic state," one young Alawite, the minority sect that president Bashar al-Assad belongs to, said. "All women will have to be covered."

That the protests first erupted in the southern city of Daraa have added to their suspicion.

"Daraa is not known for being a hotbed for liberal thinking. Al-Tal, Harasta and other Damascus suburbs which have seen big protests are also very conservative. These people are not necessarily calling for democracy and freedom. They have an Islamist agenda. All the protests have come out of the mosques," a Christian Syrian said.

To some at least, the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic group, could have had a hand behind the protests.

But those in the know say such suspicion is without any basis, since the Brotherhood has been considerably weakened in Syria, after it was banned in 1963. Membership in the group still remains punishable by death.

Rime Allaf, a Syrian analyst with the London-based Chatham House think-tank, feels that Syrian authorities are seeking to give a sectarian spin to the unrest, deliberately aiming to split ordinary Syrians.

She says the fear of sectarianism is a product of the regime: "These myths are completely unfounded."

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Source:
Al Jazeera
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