A popular joke going around in Arab countries goes like this. A genie comes out of his bottle and asks the head of government (usually going through a rough patch) to make a wish. The politician pauses to think a second, and says “I wish we could ban Fridays.” The first day of the weekend in most Arab countries is no longer just when people congregate to pray; it has become the day when people call for their government to be overthrown.
No doubt this is what Bashar al Assad is wishing as protesters vowed today would be the biggest demonstration yet since the revolt began a month ago. Last Saturday the Syrian president announced the end of the much-hated emergency law, which for the past 48 years let the dreaded moukhabarat (secret police) do as it pleased with a population stunted by fear. He has also promised to put an end to the High State Security Court that can sentence people in secret and made plans to help college graduates find employment more easily among other reforms.
In exchange, Assad hopes the protesters will stop taking to the streets. As SANA, the Syrian state news agency reported, the Interior Minister has asked the people “to refrain from any mass rallies or demonstrations or sit-ins under any slogan.”
Between 1946 and 1970 the country gained the unenviable world record of political coups, but since then, Syria’s one big selling point has always been its stability, up until the events of a few weeks ago. Saturday’s presidential promises were an attempt at salvaging the regime’s steadfastness.
Yet this week’s events have not been encouraging, with the regime erratically waving both the stick and the carrot. While Asaad’s new government confirmed the reforms protests have continued, so has the repression (an important opposition figure in Homs was arrested Wednesday).
Assad may have modernized the regime, giving it a more palatable appearance, but until now he has not genuinely reformed it. As the US state department put it, there have been a lot of words but little action.
Like his father, Asaad’s regime is suggesting sectarian strife would ensue if it were to fall, accusing outside forces of fomenting the uprisings, from al Qaeda inspired Salafists to anti-Syrian Lebanese politicians.
“Some of the regime apologists are promoting the idea that Syria is a special case, that a little bit of reform would do it, and that you cannot have democracy in Syria because of the sectarian element,” explained a Syria expert, who like so many in the country, does not want to be named criticising the regime.
“But maybe people will realize that a system can emerge that can accommodate all the ideas and tendencies in the country,” concludes the analyst, “and that is probably better than dictatorship.”