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M. Yaser Tabbara
Syria: Dissolving illusions of reform
Unsatisfied with Assad's speeches and promises, protesters are now demanding the downfall of the regime.
Last Modified: 21 Apr 2011 13:32
In Homs, protesters will stage a sit-in at the city centre despite the threat of violence from Assad's regime [Reuters]

As sporadic protests were sparked in the city of Daraa in Syria last month, many experts and commentators in the region were quick to dismiss a Syrian uprising. After all, Syria's young "reformer" president, Bashar Al-Assad, enjoyed a healthy measure of popularity and an even healthier measure of control.
 
Yet events on the ground have proven the contrary. In the city of Homs, a reported ten-thousand protesters (some say more) took to the streets and occupied Clock-Tower Square in the centre of town. Reminiscent of the images from Cairo's Tahrir Square, Syrian protesters pitched tents and declared their intention to stay and demonstrate, with some chanting, "a sit in, a sit-in, until the government falls!"
 
The unparallelled events that took place in Homs in the past few days have demonstrated the serious threat to the Assad regime. More importantly, the large numbers of Syrians who came out to demonstrate in the country's third-largest city have broken a threshold that many doubted could ever be amassed in Syria.

Today, Syrians from Damascus to Aleppo have seen evidence that the demonstrations have indeed reached a critical mass. Tens, if not hundreds, of YouTube videos confirm the overwhelmingly peaceful nature of the protesters in Homs. They also document the terrible moment when the regime's forces opened live fire on defenceless protesters.
 
Assad's infamous March 30 speech - or speech No. 1, as sarcastically dubbed by activists on Twitter - tested the loyalty of free-thinking Syrians to Assad.

Many who believed that the young president might in fact turn out to be a potential reformer, watched flabbergasted as the president warned the nation that anyone on the streets expressing any kind of dissent - albeit peaceful and moderate - is a traitor, a foreign agent or an Islamist with a puritan agenda to destroy Syria.

With this speech, Bashar metaphorically shot himself in the foot, and consequently lost much of his base. More demonstrators took to the streets in defiance.

Speech No. 2, more unrest

Assad then gives speech No. 2 a few days ago. In a subtle attempt to emphasise his supposed position of power, and his self-perceived popularity, he avoids addressing the Syrian people directly and instead lectures his newly appointed cabinet on national TV.

He ironically directs the cabinet to be more responsive to the demands of Syrian citizens, and asks the cabinet to set a concrete time line for ending 50-year-old emergency laws in the country. Once again, missing the mark by about two weeks, Assad attempts to make "concessions," that are too little too late. This speech, once again, fails to placate the quickly escalating demands of the rapidly maturing revolution.
 
On Tuesday, the government announced that the emergency law in the country was finally revoked. With the same breath, the interior minister threatened that though the emergency law - which had previously outlawed demonstrations - was no longer in effect, demonstrators who still insisted on protesting would be severely punished.

In a demonstration of the brutality of the regime, just hours before the emergency law was lifted, the peaceful sit-in of thousands of protesters in Homs was violently crushed, with at least two demonstrators killed by security forces.
 
The regime's insidious mix of carrot-and-stick tactics with violent repression methods has made it resoundingly clear that the regime has little faith in the intelligence and self-determination of the Syrian people.

The government seems to think that hollow concessions, followed by violent threats, will either serve to convince the people of Syria that the regime is in fact reasonable and has its interest at heart, while simultaneously scaring off more determined Syrians with the threat of violent reprisals.
 
Needless to say, the Syrian people have seen through this schizophrenic modus operandi of the regime, and have come to the conclusion that the notion of real reform being enacted by a government that has shot down - in cold blood - peaceful citizens of the state, is now impossible. The popular credibility which 'Bashar the reformer' once amassed, is quickly dissolving.
 
The pro-democracy movement is snowballing in numbers and in demands. What was inconceivable a mere month ago is now looking inevitable: Syrians are starting to fathom the possibility of an alternative to Bashar and his regime. The now famous slogan, "the people demand the downfall of the regime," which has been chanted in Homs, will now undoubtedly be echoed across the country.
 
The people of Syria are coming to the harsh realisation that reform cannot be handed down from an authoritarian regime. That change can only come if the people demand it, by taking to the streets in the spirit of the Tunisians and Egyptians that came before them.

M. Yaser Tabbara is a Syrian American civil rights lawyer and activist. He is currently the president of Project Mobilise, a Chicago based political action organisation.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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Al Jazeera
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