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Will Syria become more democratic?

Motivated by recent shows of political strength by neighbors in Egypt, demonstrators in the Middle East and North Africa are taking to the streets of many cities to rally for change.

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Sunday, February 27, 2011

DAMASCUS, SYRIA

The rise and fall of a protest demonstration here recently shows that Syrians share the yearning for dignity that's sweeping the Arab world - and also illustrates why President Bashar al-Assad so far hasn't been threatened by this tide of anger.

Here's what happened on Feb. 19, according to accounts provided separately by a Western diplomat and a Syrian official: A policeman insulted a driver in downtown Damascus; when the man protested, he was beaten by the cop, who was joined by two others. It was the sort of harsh encounter with authority that Arabs swallowed, bitterly but passively, until the surge of anger in Tunisia and Egypt.

A crowd of hundreds quickly gathered in the Damascus street and began chanting. According to a diplomat who has reviewed tape recordings of the incident, the chants roughly translated: "We are the people. The people don't want to be humiliated." People in the crowd videotaped the action with their cellphones and posted the drama on the Internet.

It was a volatile situation. Then something interesting happened, which shows how closely the authorities are monitoring events: The minister of the interior arrived on the scene about 30 minutes after the protest started, apologized to the beaten man and took him away in his car. The police officers were reprimanded. The crowd eventually dispersed, and some (perhaps with official encouragement) began chanting in favor of Assad.

The government did another sensible thing: Rather than try to suppress information about the event (which would have been futile, in any event), the government allowed the videos to circulate widely on the Internet. People shared their anger about police abuses, but the rage doesn't seem to have focused on the leader, as has been the case in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen.

Syria is a paradox in this Arab season of revolt. It has an authoritarian regime dominated by a corrupt Baath Party - a relic of the age of dictators that is being swept away in so many other countries. But President Assad, relatively young at 45 and wrapped in the popular banner of resistance to Israel and America, hasn't yet been affected.

Is Syria next? That's impossible to predict at a time when, as an Arab proverb puts it, "the artery of shame has ruptured." The answer depends on whether the Assad regime is able to make reforms - and move as quickly as it did a week ago in responding to that street demonstration.

The French, who probably know this country better than most outsiders, view Assad as relatively secure. "In the short to medium term, the probability of revolution is extremely low in Syria compared to other countries," is how one official describes the French perspective.

An intriguing debate is underway among Assad's advisers about whether he should allow more democracy and openness - something he has long claimed he wants - or keep the controls fastened tight. The reformers argue that change will enhance Assad's popularity, while the security establishment counters that concessions now would be a sign of weakness - and empower the Muslim Brotherhood.

Assad must decide soon whether to allow real parties - other than the Baath and its various fronts - to compete in elections this year. Syria has both municipal and parliamentary elections scheduled for this year, and the question is whether there will be real, open balloting for candidates and parties, or a Soviet-style, rubber-stamp version, as in the past. Another opportunity for a shake-up is a congress of the Baath Party also planned for this year.

Reformers hope that Assad will amend the constitution so that it doesn't require Baath rule and instead allows inter-party competition. "If we have different political parties, it's healthy for the Baath, which is slowing down and getting distanced from the people," argues one Syrian reformer.

Corruption is also a volatile issue here. The regime is vulnerable because Assad's cousin, Rami Makhluf, is the dominant shareholder of the lucrative cellphone franchise known as Syriatel. Assad is considering whether Makhluf should reduce his interest to make way for foreign investment, according to two knowledgeable people. But that reform move could trigger a rift within his family.

The debate among Assad's inner circle mirrors the wider political battles that are rocking the Arab world. For now, the streets of Damascus are mostly full of shoppers, not protesters. But if the experience of other countries over the past two months shows anything, it's that delaying reform too long in a one-party state like Syria is potentially a fatal mistake.

davidignatius@washpost.com


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