Student killed in protest at Damascus University

Leader of Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood says group supports uprising; Israeli official says Assad is doomed.

syrian tank_311 reuters (photo credit: Reuters)
syrian tank_311 reuters
(photo credit: Reuters)
The leader of Syria’s outlawed Muslim Brotherhood declared his support for prodemocracy demonstrators on Monday, while hundreds of university students in the capital staged a rare show of opposition that an activist said ended with the death of a protester.
Ammar Qurabi, head of Syria’s National Organization for Human Rights, told The Associated Press that one student took a bullet as he was demonstrating at Damascus University.
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Footage posted online appears to show plainclothes security forces beating protesters as they marched on the grounds of the campus. “The Syrian people are one!” the students shout in the video.
An activist in contact with students who witnessed the demonstration corroborated details regarding the footage, but spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. A pro-government Facebook page said security forces “took control of the security breach,” adding that there were no casualties.
In an interview with Reuters, Mohammad Riad Shaqfa said from exile in Saudi Arabia that Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood was not behind the weeks of protests, although it supported demands for greater freedom.
Shaqfa’s movement was crushed in Syria after challenging Hafez Assad – father of current President Bashar Assad – who put down an armed uprising by the Brotherhood in Hama in 1982, killing thousands. Membership remains punishable by death under a 1980 law.
“We are with the demands of the people. We do not have an organization in Syria because of the 1980 law, but we do have a large popular presence,” said Shaqfa, whose movement ended an 18-month truce with Assad last year.
Vague promises of reform by the 45-yearold Assad were “painkillers designed to break the consensus of the masses” demanding the lifting of emergency law, an end to the Ba’ath Party monopoly on power, the release of thousands of political prisoners, free elections and freedom of speech and assembly.
The Brotherhood traces its roots to an Islamist ideology born in Egypt and is close to Hamas, which is supported by both Syria and Iran. The Hamas link was key to the Brotherhood’s decision to suspend opposition to Ba’athist rule two years ago. Brotherhood officials said at the time that the priority was to resist Israel rather than topple Syria’s rulers, who were avowed champions of Arab rights.
Civic and opposition figures inside Syria criticized the move as playing into Assad’s hands as he sought to strike a peace deal with the Jewish state. Shaqfa said the Brotherhood renewed its opposition role several months ago.
A high-ranking Israeli official said on Sunday he believed Assad’s time was up, and that Israelis should welcome his departure.
“The die is cast... I think Assad’s Alawite rule in Syria is doomed,” the official said. “I don’t think Israelis have reason to be distressed. I think Assad is bad for Israel. Assad is accusing Israel of being behind all of this, but that’s bull.”
The official said these allegations were merely a way to “distract the public with the usual mantra. But they’re not stupid,” he said of protesters.
In Tunisia and Egypt, the unwillingness of troops to fire on protesters was a deciding factor. The official said that while the Syrian army had thus far remained loyal, its loyalty was a tenuous commitment running largely along sectarian lines.
“The army is loyal to him because the majority of commanders are Alawite, but it very much depends what the lower ranks do,” he said. “Will they break ranks and desert? In Deraa there were signs that the army wasn’t quite prepared to go as far as necessary.”
Syrian security forces sealed off the coastal city of Banias overnight on Monday following pro-democracy protests and killings by irregulars loyal to Assad, witnesses said.
Activists and protesters said roads to Banias were blocked.
“Electricity has been cut since yesterday. People are very afraid,” Anas al-Shughri, one of the protest leaders, told Reuters from Banias. “The army has deployed in Banias with infantry and they have set up checkpoints in and around the city.”
At least 90 people in Syria have been killed in mass demonstrations, which first erupted in March to demand the release of schoolchildren who scrawled pro-democracy graffiti on school walls in the southern city of Deraa, and later progressed to calls for freedoms and an end to Assad’s rule.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague called on the Syrian government to respect the people’s right to free speech and peaceful protest.
“We call upon the Syrian government to respect the right for free speech and peaceful protest,” Hague told reporters on Monday at a joint press conference with Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini.
Hague also called on Syria to put in place “meaningful reform, which is the only legitimate response to the demands from the Syrian people.”