Will protests in Syria come next?

A Facebook campaign titled "Syrian Day of Rage" tries to shake Syrian President Assad's throne, but prospects of success seem slim.

By DAVID E. MILLER / THE MEDIA LINE
February 5, 2011 03:03
3 minute read.
Syrian President Bashar Assad

bashar assad 311. (photo credit: AP)

Anonymous calls for a "Syrian Day of Rage" are circulating in social network Internet sites, apparently attempting to destabilize the regime of Bashar Assad, arguably the most impermeable autocracy in the Middle East.

The Day of Rage, scheduled to begin following Friday prayers on February 4 and run into Saturday, has been called in all cities in Syria and in front of Syrian embassies in Canada, the United States, and several European countries. Inspired by mass protests in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, organizers have used Facebook and Twitter to mobilize crowds.

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"Tunisia was angry, Egypt was angry, and now it is time for the free people of Syria to be angry," a video clip posted on the "Day of Rage" Facebook page declared on a backdrop of smoke and dramatic music. "Together - for popular mobilization and against oppression and corruption." The link can be found under “The Syrian Revolution 2011.”

Samir Saadawi, editor of foreign affairs for the Arab daily Al-Hayat, said that President Assad understood that if he does not undertake serious reforms, his regime will be at stake.

"It's only a matter of time. If it doesn't happen tomorrow it will happen the next day," Saadawi told The Media Line. "It's like a big wave or an earthquake." Saadawi said that for the first time since the 1950s, uprisings in the Arab world seem to be endorsed by Western superpowers. He added that Assad's classic use of external threats to justify inaction on misery at home cannot go on for long.

"Regimes have always threatened the West that if they fall, the Muslim Brotherhood is sure to emerge as the only alternative," he said. "The Egypt experience has proven that this is not the case." But in a country where less than 18% of the population uses the Internet and Facebook is blocked, it appears that online mobilization is an uphill battle. According to the Internet World Stats website which monitors Internet exposure worldwide, only 30,000 Syrians or 0.1% have access to Facebook, the lowest ratio in the Arab world.

"I doubt these calls will develop into anything," Prof. Eyal Zisser, a Syria expert at Tel Aviv University, told The Media Line. "It will be a serious accomplishment for them if thousands turn up. Syria is a much more closed society, with much stronger oppression." Zisser added, however, that Assad did take carrot and stick precautions such as shutting down the internet and cutting commodity prices.



The website of the Syrian Observatory, a grassroots human rights organization, was hacked Thursday morning. A large message blocked access to the site, quoting Islamic sources that order believers to obey the ruler, no matter how oppressive he may be.

President Bashar Assad, the ruler in question, said that political stagnation was the cause of uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal on January 31, Assad argued that local uprisings were the result of Arab desperation caused both local regimes and external forces.

"Syria has always used the conflict with Israel as a tool to garner support," Saadawi said. "But this is no excuse for inaction. People want health care and better education." But some experts were more circumspect about the imminent reforms reaching Syria.

Christopher Phillips, a London-based Syria expert, said that a weak civil society, as well as the military's significant interconnection with the ruling elite makes the prospects of a "domino effect" reaching Syria slim. However, he did not rule out the possibility of Assad using his relative popularity to initiate limited reforms.

Arab precedents do no always motivate change. The trauma of collapsing into a state of anarchy similar to that of neighboring Iraq serves as a deterrent for regime change in Syria, argued Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.

"No Syrian wants civil war," Landis wrote in his blog Syria Comment. "Freedom in Iraq has spelled disaster for the country’s minorities, both Sunni and Christian. Iraq provides a cautionary tale for Syria’s minorities in particular." A Facebook-driven solidarity campaign with Tunisia's uprising produced only nine demonstrators across the Tunisian embassy in Damascus, Landis pointed out. He predicted, however, that more demonstrators would turn out this time around, both in Syria and abroad.

"In Egypt, they tried to block the Internet and failed," Saadawi, the Al-Hayat journalist observed. "Assad cannot block satellite channels in Syria. People's eyes are wide-open."


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