Arab Affairs: A dictator's dilemma

Although he ostensibly rescinded the reviled emergency laws this week, Syrian President Bashar Assad continues to enforce them.

Syrian protests 311 (photo credit: Reuters)
Syrian protests 311
(photo credit: Reuters)
Syrian President Bashar Assad’s decision this week to rescind emergency laws in place for 48 years and to abolish the state security court was less significant than it sounds. Syria is, to put it mildly, not a place where the rule of law is in effect.
Any change in the written form of the law will thus not impact the essential process by which power is held.
The decision by Assad to withdraw this particular fig-leaf of his dictatorship suggests that the Syrian president’s strategy for defeating the growing uprising against his rule involves appearing to offer concessions, while engaging de facto in continued energetic repression.
It isn’t working. The protests continue to spread. The demonstrators scent uncertainty, note that a major crackdown has not yet taken place, and redouble their efforts.
Assad’s failure of imagination, however, does not mean that the regime is losing its will to survive.
The annoucement of emergency laws’ removal on Tuesday was followed immediately by a statement from Interior Minister Muhammad Ibrahim al- Shaar forbidding Syrians to take part in “marches, demonstrations or sit-ins under any banner whatsoever.” The country’s official media channel SANA expressed the authorities’ determination to suppress what it referred to as “armed Salafist groups” in the cities of Homs and Banias. New legislation requiring Syrians to acquire a permit from the Information Ministry for any demonstration was passed on the same day. Legislative Decree 64, in place since 2008, continues to ensure the security forces immunity from prosecution. No provision for the release of political prisoners was made.
So Assad’s move was mere window dressing. It was a transparent attempt to create a new legal and political basis for continuing the status quo. The form was also predictable. Antique emergency laws put in place to deal with the struggle against Israel were withdrawn.
The regime then re-imposed the same restrictions. This time around, they were directed against a fresh enemy, namely extreme Sunni Islamist groups.
Eyewitnesses reported that in Banias, demonstrations began immediately following the announcement on the emergency laws. The slogans remain the same. Protesters called for the departure of the regime.
The regime, meanwhile, has continued its policy of slowly intensifying crackdown. The authorities killed four people in Homs on the same day that the laws were lifted. Prominent leftist leader Mahmoud Issa was taken into custody the following day.
But in the end, it would be naïve to be drawn into a precise discussion of the legal niceties by which the Assad regime continues its repression of dissent. The law in Syria is a fiction. The Assad regime maintains power not with the authority of the governed, but because it has the ability to rule by the threat or use of violence. That is to say, by terror.
If and when it loses power, it will similarly be by coercion, and not as a result of its own free choice.
So the lines are increasingly clear.
Assad believes that mid-level repression and cosmetic concessions will keep his family in power. The protests are spreading, and growing – in size and ambition.
They are now openly calling for the end of the regime. A collision looks inevitable.
If demonstrations hit Damascus on a large scale, Assad will find it necessary to employ more drastic and bloody measures.
At this point, the theories that the 21st century communications revolution has fundamentally changed the nature of power politics, making al- Hama 1982-style massacres of purely historical relevance, will be crucially tested. If the choice is heavy repression or submission, Assad is likely to opt for the former – though clearly, at present, he still hopes to avoid a situation in which the issue becomes binary in this way.
The entry of the Sunni middle class of Homs into the arena, meanwhile, is the latest setback for the regime, which rests on the twin poles of Alawi power and Sunni Arab pragmatic acceptance of that power.
Here an additional detail must be noted.
The regime’s identification of Sunni Islamists among the protesters in the city is not without foundation.
Documentary evidence has emerged of the presence of Salafi and other Sunni Islamist elements, such as Hizb ut-Tahrir, in the protests. Fiery preacher Sheikh Mahmoud Dalati called this week for jihad – before a crowd of thousands yelling, “Allahu Akbar,” and, “With our blood and spirit, we will redeem you, o shahid” in the Great Mosque in Homs.
Certainly there are secular and liberal elements among the protesters, too. But the Islamists are there, and they are there in considerable numbers. They are not simply a bogeyman dreamed up by SANA.
Sunni Arabs are 60 percent of the population.
Their choices, and the nature of the political forces active among them, are of crucial importance.
So the essential contours of the Syrian situation are becoming increasingly clear, despite the media blackout affecting large parts of the country. The regime has no intention of surrendering and will engage in the level of repression it deems necessary to survive. The tsunami of protests is reaching the Sunni Arab heartlands of the country.
Islamist elements are present and prominent among the Sunni protesters.
And a collision between these two sides, which will pose the question of power in the starkest of ways, appears to lie just over the horizon.
The writer is a senior research fellow at the Gloria Center, IDC Herzliya. His book The Transforming Fire: The Rise of the Israel- Islamist Conflict was published in 2010.