In an interview from her native Syria, Atassi shares her views on the need for political reform in her country.
|A key factor for stability within Syria is the popularity of President Bashar al-Assad|
Despite a wave of protests spreading across the Middle East, so far the revolutionary spirit has failed to reach Syria.
Authoritarian rule, corruption and economic hardship are characteristics Syria share with both Egypt and Tunisia. However, analysts say that in addition to the repressive state apparatus, factors such as a relatively popular president and religious diversity make an uprising in the country unlikely.
Online activists have been urging Syrians to take to the streets but the calls for a “Syrian revolution” last weekend only resulted in some unconfirmed reports of small demonstrations in the mainly Kurdish northeast.
“First of all, I’d argue that people in Syria are a lot more afraid of the government and the security forces than they were in Egypt,” Nadim Houry, a Human Rights Watch researcher based in Lebanon, says.
“The groups who have mobilised in the past in Syria for any kind of popular protest have paid a very heavy price – Kurds back in 2004 when they had their uprising in Qamishli and Islamists in the early 1980s, notably in Hama.”
The so-called Hama massacre, in which the Syrian army bombarded the town of Hama in 1982 in order to quell a revolt by the Muslim Brotherhood, is believed to have killed about 20,000 people.
“I think that in the Syrian psyche, the repression of the regime is taken as a given, that if something [protests] would happen the military and the security forces would both line up together. I think that creates a higher threshold of fear.”
Demonstrations are unlawful under the country’s emergency law, and political activists are regularly detained. There are an estimated 4,500 “prisoners of opinion” in Syrian jails, according to the Haitham Maleh Foundation, a Brussels-based Syrian rights organisation.
‘Kingdom of silence’
As pages on Facebook called for demonstrations to be held in cities across Syria in early February, more than 10 activists told Human Rights Watch they were contacted by security services who warned them not to try and mobilise.
“Syria has for many years been a ‘kingdom of silence’,” Suhair Atassi, an activist in Damascus, says, when asked why no anti-government protests were held.
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“Fear is dominating peoples’ lives, despite poverty, starvation and humiliation … When I was on my way to attend a sit-in against [the monopoly of] Syria’s only mobile phone operators, I explained to the taxi driver where I was going and why.
“He told me: ‘Please organise a demonstration against the high cost of diesel prices. The cold is killing us’. I asked him: ‘Are you ready to demonstrate with us against the high diesel price?” He replied ‘I’m afraid of being arrested because I’m the only breadwinner for my family!”
Fawas Gerges, a professor of Middle Eastern politics at the London School of Economics, says Syria is one of the Middle Eastern countries least likely to be hit by popular protests, because of its power structure.
He says the allegiance of the army in Syria is different than in both Tunisia, where the military quickly became one of the main backers of the president’s ouster, and in Egypt, where the army still has not taken sides.
“The army in Syria is the power structure,” he says. “The armed forces would fight to an end. It would be a bloodbath, literally, because the army would fight to protect not only the institution of the army but the regime itself, because the army and the regime is one and the same.”
But even if people dared to challenge the army and the dreaded mukhabarat intelligence service, analysts say the appetite for change of the country’s leadership is not that big.
Many Syrians tend to support Bashar al-Assad, the president who came to power in 2000 after the death of his father Hafez, who had ruled the country for 30 years.
“An important factor is that he’s popular among young people,” Joshua Landis, the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and author of Syria Comment, says.
“Young people are quite proud of [President al-Assad]. They may not like the system, the regime, they don’t like corruption … but they tend to blame this on the people around him, the ‘old guard'”
Joshua Landis, author of Syria Comment
“Unlike Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, who’s 83, Bashar al-Assad is young. Young people are quite proud of him. They may not like the regime, they don’t like corruption and a lot of things, but they tend to blame this on the people around him, the ‘old guard’.”
A Syrian student echoes these comments. “The president knows that reform is needed and he is working on it”, she says.
“As for me, I don’t have anything against our president. The main issues which need to be addressed are freedom of speech and expression as well as human rights. I believe that the president and his wife are working on that. New NGOs have started to emerge.
“Also, many things have changed since Bashar came to power, whether it has to do with road construction, salary raises, etc. Even when it comes to corruption, he is trying hard to stop that and limit the use of ‘connections’ by the powerful figures in Syria. However, he won’t be able to dramatically change the country with the blink of an eye.”
Al-Assad’s tough stance towards Israel, with which Syria is technically at war, has also contributed to his popularity, both domestically and in the region.
Analysts stress that Syria’s mix of religious communities and ethnic groups differentiates Syria from Egypt and Tunisia, countries which both have largely homogeneous populations. Fearing religious tensions, many Syrians believe that the ruling Baath party’s emphasis on secularism is the best option.
“The regime in Syria presents itself as a buffer for various communities, essentially saying ‘if we go, you will be left to the wolves’,” Houry says. “That gives it ability to mobilise large segments of the population.”
|Syria is home to many different religious sects|
Sunni Muslims make up about 70 per cent of the 22 million population, but the Alawites, the Shia sect which President al-Assad belongs to, play a powerful role despite being a minority of 10 per cent. Kurds form the largest ethnic minority.
Landis says Alawites and Christians tend to be al-Assad’s main supporters.
“If his regime were to fall, many of the Alawites would lose their jobs. And they look back at the times when the Muslim Brotherhood targeted them as nonbelievers and even non-Arabs.
“Then of course the Christians, who are about 10 per cent of the population, are the biggest supporters of al-Assad and the Baath party because it’s secular. They hear horror stories of what has happened in Iraq, about Christians being killed and kidnapped.”
The proximity to Iraq, another ethnically and religiously diverse country, is believed to play a major role in Syria’s scepticism towards democracy and limited hunger for political change. About a million Iraqi refugees have come to Syria since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
“The Iraqi refugees are a cautionary tale for Syrians,” Landis says. “They have seen what happens when regime change goes wrong. This has made Syrians very conservative. They don’t trust democracy.”
Syria is essentially a one-party state, ruled by the Baath Party since 1963. Many political groups are banned. But Landis says the lack of political freedom does not appear to be a major concern among the people.
“I’m always astounded how the average guy in the street, the taxi driver, the person you talk to in a restaurant or wherever, they don’t talk about democracy. They complain about corruption, they want justice and equality, but they’ll look at elections in Lebanon and laugh, saying ‘who needs that kind of democracy’?”
“The younger generation has been depoliticised. They don’t belong to parties. They see politics as a danger and they have been taught by their parents to see it as a danger. They look at the violence out there, in places like Iraq.”
|Pages on Facebook have called
for a ‘Syrian day of anger’
Tunisia and Egypt both have a longer tradition of civil society and political parties than Syria and Landis describes the Syrian opposition as “notoriously mute”.
“In some ways, being pro-American has forced Egypt to allow for greater civil society, while Syria has been quite shut off from the West,” he says. “The opposition in Syria is very fragmented. The Kurds can usually get together in the biggest numbers but there are 14 Kurdish parties … And the human rights leaders – half of them are in jail and others have been in jail for a long time.”
Facebook sites calling for protests to be held in Syria on February 4 and 5 got about 15,000 fans but failed to mobilise demonstrators for a “day of anger”. In fact, countercampaigns set up online in favour of the government garnered as much support.
Ribal al-Assad, an exiled cousin of President al-Assad and the director of the London-based Organisation for Democracy and Freedom in Syria, said the people calling for protests were all based abroad and he is not surprised that nothing happened inside Syria.
“The campaign was a bit outrageous. First, they’ve chosen a date that reminds people of the uprising of the Muslim Brotherhood [the 29th anniversary of the Hama massacre],” he says.
“People don’t want to be reminded of the past. They want change, they want freedom, but they want it peacefully. And the picture they used on Facebook, a clenched fist and red colour like blood behind, it was like people calling for civil war and who in his right mind wants that?
“But of course people want change, because there is poverty, corruption, people get arrested without warrants, the government refuses to disclose their whereabouts for months. They are sentenced following unfair trials, a lot of times with stupid sentences such as ‘weakening the nation’s morale’ for saying ‘we want freedom and democracy’. But the only one weakening the nations moral is the government itself.”
‘Not holding hands with Israel’
One Syrian who became a “fan” of a Facebook page opposed to protesting says he cannot imagine, and does not want, Egyptian-style anti-government rallies to spread to Syria.
“I love my country and I don’t want to see people fighting. I can’t imagine the events occurring in Egypt to happen in Syria because we really like our president, not because they teach us to like him,” he says.
“In the formation of ministries, he’s made use of 100 per cent talent with the multiplicity of religions. There are not Alawites only. There are also Sunnis and Kurds and Christians. The president is married to Asma and she is Sunni. He shows the people we are brothers.
“The Syrians, like any other Arab household today, have their TVs turned on to Al Jazeera. They’re seeing what’s happening in Tunisia and Egypt. Freedom is an infectious feeling and I think people will want more freedom”
Nadim Houry, Human Rights Watch
“And he is the only president in the Arab region that did not accept any offers from Israel, like other presidents. I, and most Syrians, if not all, can’t accept a president who will hold hands with Israel.”
As in Egypt and Tunisia, unemployment in Syria is high. The official jobless rate is about 10 per cent, but analysts say the double is a more realistic estimate. According to a Silatech report based on a Gallup survey last year, 32 per cent of young Syrians said they were neither in the workforce nor students.
Since the current president took office, the Syrian economic system has slowly moved away from socialism towards capitalism. Markets have opened up to foreign companies and the GDP growth rate is expected to reach 5.5 per cent by 2011.
Last year, the average Syrian monthly salary was 13,500SP ($290), an increase of six per cent over the previous year, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics.
But like in some other countries in the region, state subsidies have been slashed on various staples, including heating oil, and analysts say the poor are feeling the pinch.
“The bottom half of Syrians spend half of their income on food. Now, wheat and sugar prices have gone up in the last two years by almost 50 per cent,” Landis says.
“Syria is moving towards capitalism. This has resulted in a greater growth rate but it’s expanding income gaps. It’s attracting foreign investment and the top 10 per cent are beginning to earn real salaries on an international scale because they’re working for these new banks and in new industries. But the bottom 50 per cent are falling because they’re on fixed incomes and they get hit by inflation, reduced subsidies on goods, coupled with the fact that Syria’s water scarcity is going through the roof.”
However, Forward Magazine recently quoted Shafek Arbach, director of the Syrian Bureau of Statistics, as saying there is nothing in new data to suggest a growing gap between the rich and the poor in Syria.
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal late January, President al-Assad acknowledged the need for Syria to reform and but also said his country is “immune” from the kind of unrest seen in Tunisia and Egypt.
“We have more difficult circumstances than most of the Arab countries but in spite of that Syria is stable. Why? Because you have to be very closely linked to the beliefs of the people. This is the core issue. When there is divergence between your policy and the people’s beliefs and interests, you will have this vacuum that creates disturbance,” he said.
But Ribal al-Assad says it is obvious that the government is worried in the light of the discontent and anger spreading in the Middle East.
“Right after the Tunisian uprising they reduced the price for ‘mazot’ for the heating. They were supposed to bring up the price of medicines but then they didn’t. They distributed some aid to over 450,000 families. And, today we’re hearing that Facebook has been unblocked. They should have started this process a long time ago but better late than never.”
Houry says the lesson from Tunisia, which has been hailed as an economic role model in North Africa, is that economic reform on its own does not work.
“It will be interesting to watch how things are going to unfold over the coming few months,” he says. “The Syrians, like any other Arab household today, have their TVs turned on to Al Jazeera. They’re seeing what’s happening in Tunisia and Egypt. Freedom is an infectious feeling and I think people will want more freedom.”