In Syria, Protesters and Government Mobilize for Friday


BY WORLD
APRIL 21, 2011
POSTED IN: WORLD

Residents described a mobilization in the capital, Damascus, and, in more pronounced fashion, the restive city of Homs, where a government crackdown this week dispersed one of the largest gatherings since demonstrations began last month. For days, organizers have looked to Friday as a potential show of strength for a movement that has yet to build the critical mass that protests eventually achieved in Egypt and Tunisia. 

“Together toward freedom,” read a Facebook page that has served as a pulpit of the uprising, over symbols of Christianity and Islam. “One heart, one hand, one goal.”

The calculus of both sides ahead of Friday’s protests is the same: to prove they have the upper hand in the biggest challenge yet to the 40-year rule of Mr. Assad’s family. While organizers were reluctant to call Friday a decisive moment, they acknowledged that it would signal their degree of support in a country that remains divided, with the government still claiming bastions of support among minorities, loyalists of the Baath Party and wealthier segments of the population.

“People are still hesitant,” said Wissam Tarif, the executive director of Insan, a human rights group. But he added, “If it’s not this Friday, it will be the coming Friday.”

The demonstrations may serve as a referendum of sorts on President Assad’s commitment to do away with the emergency laws in place since 1963 and institute a series of reforms like allowing civil liberties and abolishing draconian courts, which the president formally signed on Thursday. Some have called his promises a hard-won gain of an uprising that has shaken the Assad family, while others have been dismissive of initiatives that may prove elusive and that seemed aimed at blunting the demonstrations’ momentum.

“People don’t trust the regime anymore,” said Haitham Maleh, a former judge and an often imprisoned human rights activist in Damascus. “I don’t think that the Syrian people are going to stop before they bring down this regime.”

But Syria is a complicated country, with sizable minorities of Christians and heterodox Muslim sects that have looked with trepidation to the example offered by Iraq’s civil war. The prospect that Mr. Maleh raised — the government’s fall — has alarmed some, particularly among the minorities, who worry about society’s lack of independent institutions to navigate a transition and the fearsome prospect of score-settling in chaos.

“Everything is possible today,” said Michel Kilo, another government critic in Damascus. “If the regime believes that with security they can handle everything, then they will be turning Syria into a breeding ground for all kinds of extremist movements.”

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