Syria: End of the silence?

Syria has witnessed on Friday 18th of March and the past few days small demonstrations of few hundred people in Damascus mainly, but also in the city of Homs..  The security forces dispersed a demonstration this morning after Friday prayers inside the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. In Homs, protesters demonstrated in front the mosque Khaled Ibn Walid where they were severely repressed by the security services. Security forces killed four protesters and wounded hundreds in the southern city of Daraa on Friday.

Syria has witnessed on Friday 18th of March and the past few days small demonstrations of few hundred people in Damascus mainly, but also in the city of Homs. Four protesters were killed by security forces  The Syrian security forces dispersed a demonstration this morning after Friday prayers inside the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. In Homs, protesters demonstrated in front the mosque Khaled Ibn Walid where they were severely repressed by the security services.

“Just God, Syria, Freedom” chanted the protesters inside the mosque. The demonstrators, whose number is unknown, who were leaving the mosque, were dispersed by security agents in civilian clothes carrying sticks. At least two protesters were taken away by security agents, but many more according to different sources on the web.  
In different areas of Syria signs of unrests were witnessed such as In the small town of Banias, located on the Syrian coast near Tartous, following Friday prayer mass shouted with one voice, freedom and dignity, as well as in Dara where a mass of people demonstrated and marched to the house of the mohafiz, governor, of the city. In the city of Deir Zor, a football game was interrupted because the public went on the field and chanted songs for freedom in Syria.

Syrian communication official also attempted to cut for a while internet to end the diffusion of images and information of protests.    

A Facebook page titled “Revolution against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in 2011, which had over 49,000 supporters Friday, called for demonstrations to” the dignity of Friday March 18 “near Mosques across Syria. You can watch the various videos of demonstrations on this facebook page.

Protesters are demonstrating for democratic reforms and more freedom.

This is the third demonstration in support of freedom that has been dispersed this week, protesters defying the emergency law enacted in the country since 1963. The manifestation of relatives of political prisoners which took place Wednesday near the Interior Ministry has resulted in the arrests of 34 people. Thirty-two of them were indicted Thursday for “undermining the prestige of the state,” according to an organization of Human Rights.

Syrian NGOs have called on the Syrian government to “immediately release all prisoners of opinion and conscience in Syrian prisons” and “stop practicing the policy of arbitrary detention against political opponents and activists of civil society and human rights.” Human Rights Watch (HRW), which reported the arrest of 34 people, also called for the release of all detained demonstrators. There is an estimated 4,500 “prisoners of opinion” in Syrian jails.

Few weeks ago, protesters in Syria were forbidden to show their support to their Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions several times. Demonstrations and sit in organized in Syria to support the Egyptian and Tunisian revolution were actually repressed by security forces. On Tuesday 22nd of February,  14 people were also arrested and several people beaten by uniformed and plainclothes police after about 200 staged a peaceful sit-in outside the Libyan embassy to show support for Libya’s protesters.
Civil rights campaigners have actually suffered escalated intimidation’s tactics these past few weeks including visits from agents of the intelligence services as well as close monitoring of internet and telephone conversations. Some activists have been warned not to leave the country.

These demonstrations are the first attempts to break the wall of fear in Syria, a lot of people actually still live with the memory of Hama massacre which occurred in February 1982, when the Syrian army bombarded the town of Hama in order to quell a revolt, led by the Muslim Brotherhood at the time. An estimated 17,000 to 40,000 people were killed, including about 1,000 soldiers and large parts of the old city were destroyed.
The regime has also used the sectarian divide to present itself as the representative of a moderate Islam and protector of minorities, which composed around 20 to 40% of Syrian population, against so called retrograde Islamic movements which will turn the country in an Islamic regime.  

The small movements of protests are triggered by the revolutionary events of the Arab world; nevertheless underlying reasons also explain these demonstrations. The repressive and authoritarian nature of the regime is undoubtedly the main reasons behind the protests. The country has been living under the state of emergency since 1963 which suspended or curtailed very strongly many legal rights such as freedom of expression and association.

In 2000, with the arrival of Bashar Al Assad to power, the situation changed for a while before repression came back as the rule. Since 2000, Syrian civil society has actually gone through two different phases. Firstly, the movement from 2000 to 2006 was characterized by political and civic interactions between their participants. We can observe examples such as “The Statement of 99” or the Committees to Revive Civil Society,”(which was announced in a statement that was called “The Statement of 1000”) both a gathering of intellectuals, artists, writers, scholars and even politicians who demanded reforms and democratization of the State. This was accompanied also by the opening of forums to debate and between 2004 and 2006 by the multiplication of sit-ins, a new political phenomenon in Syria. Calls for sit-ins came from political parties and civil organizations at the same time. The government of Bashar Al Assad cracked down this movement, forums were actually closed, sit-ins were severely repressed and many intellectuals who launched this call for civil society and democratization were imprisoned. This repression led to the separation of opposition forces and civil society groups, as it became compulsory for this latter to survive.

Secondly, Bashar Al Assad accelerated considerably the process of neo liberal policies started by his father in the 1990s, creating more and more inequalities between the people. The lower and middle classes did not actually benefit from the economic growth of these past few years, 5% in average since 2005, and even worse, they suffered from it in many ways. The countries’ poorest are struggling to help themselves in the new economy due to a lack of employment opportunities, while the middle class is plummeting towards the poverty line because their incomes have not kept up with inflation, which rose to 17% in 2008. The reasons behind the increases in prices were notably due to speculative real estate boom and the partial removal of common government subsidies. Wealth gaps and inequality have continuously increased these last few years. The unemployment rate is actually constantly rising and there is now up to 20 to 25% of unemployed in the society. The labor market is unable to absorb the 380,000 people who swell the ranks of job seekers every year, while the government promised the creation of 250 000 jobs every year in the tenth year plan, which besides it was not able to realize.

The process of privatization of public companies has been made for the benefit of few individuals close to the regime and to the detriment of the majority. In the field of agriculture, the sector is suffering from the country’s move to a “social market economy” and the government’s introduction of a new subsidy regime, in other words implementation of neo liberal policies, to fulfill international trade agreements such as the Association Agreement with the European Union. Syria’s used to practice a highly interventionist agricultural policy that ensured the country’s food security and provide the Syrian population with cheap access to food items, but this is slowly leaving the ground to a more liberal market with harsh consequences on farmers and peasants, who account for about 20 percent of the country’s GDP and 19 percent of its workforce. Unable to survive financially and faced with extreme rural poverty, they are now abandoning their land and migrating towards the cities in search of work.

The struggle against poverty from the regime is also quite a failure; despite it was one of its so called priority. Data’s from 2007, show that people living in extreme poverty, defined as those unable to obtain their basic food and non-food needs, rose to 2 millions. About 62% of the people living in poverty are from rural areas and they live in food insecurity or are vulnerable

Neo liberal policies undertaken by the regime have satisfied the upper class and foreign investors, especially from the Arabic Gulf, by liberalizing the Syrian economy for their benefits and at the expense of the far majority of Syrians hit by the inflation and rising cost of living. In addition to that, Syrian’s agriculture and public sector are also declining and no effective strategy to strengthen them have been suggested yet which could jeopardize the country’s alimentary autonomy and harm the population by the constant rise in prices of food and non food basic needs.

These elements in addition to the lack of democracy are underlying reasons that are pushing also protesters to demonstrate against this authoritarian regime. This latter through the voice of the Minister of Foreign Affairs Walid Moallem declared recently that measures for political reform s will be introduced this year. He added that Bashar al-Assad had recently discussed a reform program which will begin with the amendment of the laws concerning municipal and legislative elections, to allow peoples of the region to be able to better decide their fate and their future.
The regime also announced a few weeks ago, the creation of a “National Fund for the welfare ” of  250 million$, intended to help some 420,000 families, while increasing by 72% heating allowances for public servants and pensioners (about 2 million people). Finally, the Syrian government has recently announced a series of measures to bring down prices of basic foodstuffs.

The so called ‘political reforms’ from this authoritarian regime are actually not enough, neither are the symbolic measures to raise salaries or try to adjust other socio economic issues. The high level of repression also makes many Syrians doubt of the truth of such declarations coming from this regime.
This nevertheless does not mean Syrian called for any foreign support, protesters do not want nor need foreign imperialist powers “helping” them to achieve their freedom! The people of the region have shown they don’t need wars promoted by Bush and Blair to implement democracy in their countries. Popular movements have shown that protesters are not object of history but subject!

In addition, this movement might put an end to the fantasy this regime protect anyone, especially minorities! There is no need of a corrupt, authoritarian and oppressive regime to protect anyone or any group. The only true and long term protection and guaranty for any Syrian citizen is a Democratic and a Social State, which respects their basic democratic and social rights to live in dignity.

The demonstrations witnessed today and these past few days in Syria could be the beginning of a courageous united movement struggling against a repressive authoritarian regime.

Hurryie, Freedom, as protesters chanted in Syria is the watchword now in the country!

videos of protests: 

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