Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad waves prior to his address to parliament in Damascus. President Bashar al-Assad defied expectations on Wednesday that he would lift Syria's decades-old emergency law after nearly two weeks of protests that have presented the gravest challenge to his 11-year rule. (HO/REUTERS)

The Syrian government, in a gesture to protesters who have shaken the country for the past 13 days, announced Thursday that it will draw up new anti-terrorism legislation as a first step toward lifting the country’s 48-year-old emergency rule.

The announcement, relayed by the official Syrian Arab News Agency and national television, seemed designed to soften the impact of President Bashar al-Assad’s stiff speech Wednesday in which he offered no concessions and blamed the pro-democracy demonstrations on conspirators out to undermine Syria’s strength as an Arab leader on the front lines against Israel.

The government also appeared intent on reducing enthusiasm for another round of protests called for Friday by an informal network of human rights activists. Inspired by revolts across the Arab world, the protesters have demanded that Assad expand democratic freedoms for Syria’s 23 million people.

Activists denounced the announcement as a ploy, suggesting that Assad is only offering to replace one set of repressive laws with another, baptized this time as anti-terrorism. “Under the emergency laws we were conspirators. Under the terrorism law we will be terrorists, and the role of the security apparatus will stay the same,” said Razan Zeitoneh, a Syrian human rights lawyer.

“This is not significant,” said Ammar Qurabi, the Cairo-based head of the Syrian National Organization for Human Rights. “It would take just one minute to reverse the emergency law. They are just trying to find something to replace the emergency law. Anyway, people are not interested in a law. People are interested in what the security forces are doing on the ground.”

A young marketing specialist who recently opened an advertising agency and is not involved in the protest movement seemed more willing to see what Assad plans to do. “Every time you have something like this, you are careful not to raise your hopes too high,” he said, “so it’s cautious optimism at this point.”

Assad’s Baath Party, the announcement said, will name a committee of lawyers to “study and draw up legislation that secures the preservation of the country’s security, the dignity of citizens and the fight against terrorism in preparation for lifting the state of emergency.” The lawyers must turn in their proposals by April 25, it added, but there was no mention of when the state of emergency itself might be abolished.

In his internationally televised speech, Assad said legislation to end emergency rule had already been drafted but that he had not found the time to get it passed in parliament because he was busy addressing economic reforms and international tensions. He expressed willingness to abolish the widely hated legislation but declined to set a timetable.

Getting rid of the emergency legislation has been a major demand of the protesters who have taken to the streets in Damascus, Daraa, Hamas, Latakia and other Syrian cities, mounting the most serious challenge to Assad in the 11 years since he inherited the presidency from his father. According to the New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch, about 60 people have been killed in confrontations between protesters and security forces, most of them in Daraa, on the border with Jordan.

Gunfire was reported Wednesday evening in Latakia, on the Mediterranean coast, and Damascus residents who had been in touch with their families there said clashes were continuing, with many people afraid to go out. In Daraa, where the protests began March 18, an anti-government activist who refused to be identified out of fear of reprisals told the Associated Press that up to 17 people were arrested Wednesday evening.

The emergency laws, which were enacted before the 45-year-old president was born, allow security forces to arrest suspects and hold them without charges, censor the news media and impose stringent political controls. They are a key pillar of the one-party government that rules Syria with an iron hand.

A special correspondent in Damascus contributed to this report.