Supporters of Syrian President Assad in Aleppo 311 (R).
(photo credit: REUTERS/George Ourfalian)
DAMASCUS - Tens of thousands of Syrians held pro-government rallies on Tuesday as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was expected to address the nation after two weeks of democracy protests in which at least 60 people have been killed.
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Assad, who has been facing the gravest challenge to his 11-year rule after protests in the South spread to many parts of the country, could announce a lifting of Syria's decades-old emergency laws.
Protesters at first had restricted their demands to more freedom, but
incensed by security forces' crackdown on them, especially in Deraa
where protests first erupted, they have been calling for the "downfall
of the regime".
Syrian state television showed people in the Syrian capital Damascus,
Aleppo and Hasaka, waving pictures of Assad and chanting "God, Syria,
"Breaking News: the conspiracy has failed" declared one banner, echoing
government accusations that foreign elements and armed gangs were behind
"With our blood and our souls we protect our national unity," another said.
Employees and members of unions controlled by Assad's Baath Party, which
has been in power for nearly 50 years, said they had been ordered to
attend the rallies, where there was a heavy presence of security police.
All gatherings and demonstrations are banned in Syria, other than those sponsored by the government.
Syrian Vice President Farouq al-Shara said on Monday the 45-year-old
president would give a speech in the next 48 hours that would "assure
Presidential adviser Bouthaina Shaaban has said Assad had taken the
decision to lift emergency law, but gave no timetable. Arab media
reports said Assad was likely to sack the current cabinet.Emboldened protesters
However Syrian officials, rights activists and diplomats doubt Assad,
who oversaw the crushing of a violent uprising against Kurds in the
north in 2004, would completely abolish emergency laws without replacing
them with similar legislation.
Emergency laws have been used since 1963 to stifle political opposition,
justify arbitrary arrest and give free rein to a pervasive security
Protesters want political prisoners freed, and to know the fate of tens of thousands who disappeared in the 1980s.
Last week Assad made a pledge to study ending emergency law, consider
drafting laws on greater political and media freedom, and raise living
standards, but increasingly emboldened protesters have not been
In Deraa, a southern city that has been a flashpoint of the protests,
demonstrators destroyed a statue of Assad's father late President Hafez
al-Assad, remembered for his intolerance of dissent. In 1982 he sent in
troops to quell an armed uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood, killing
thousands and razing part of the conservative city of Hama to the
Even Hama has seen protests and Assad deployed the army in the main port
city of Latakia, scene of clashes in which officials said at least 12
people had been killed last week.
Assad's crackdown on protests the likes of which would have been
unthinkable two months ago in this tightly-controlled country has drawn
international condemnation and pressure to speed up political reforms.