In a small Lebanese restaurant on London’s Edgware Road two Syrian chefs sat sipping tea as they watched President Bashar al-Assad deliver his first speech since the anti-regime protests began last week.
This area of London, known affectionately as “Little Beirut”, is a microcosm of the Arab world, bundled into the carpetbags of Middle Eastern immigrants and unpacked just north of Marble Arch. With its Lebanese restaurants, Halal butchers and Algerian cafés this is where London’s Arab community comes to work, play and passionately talk about politics.
But yesterday, while an audience of Syrian parliamentarians frequently interrupted Assad’s speech with applause and shouts of support, the mood in London was distinctly muted.
One of the expatriates, a 48-year-old from Deraa – the scene of some of the most violent protests in Syria – offered a jaded perspective on the situation.
“If the government can be changed, then why not? But they’ve been in power so long I can’t really imagine it. It’s more than just removing the president, it’s a family business, an economic and political mafia. His nephew controls Syriatel [the country's largest telecommunications company], his brother runs the army and his cousin is responsible for security in Deraa.”
When pressed on what he meant by security, the second chef interrupted. “You know how these protests started? Some children, 10 or 11 years old, were arrested for writing about the government. When they were released after several days, they had had their fingernails removed. That is security. I had no problem with the regime before but now…” He tailed off.
The tone was distinctly fatalistic. These were people who did not expect much to change. Despite the anger at the recent events, there was a sense that Assad would retain a firm grip on power.
Neither of the men were willing to give their names. They mimed a handcuff action and said that they would be thrown in jail if they spoke to the media.
Later, the pair were joined by a friend, a man who had spent most of his life abroad in Dubai and Saudi Arabia. He wore the tripartite badge of the Libyan rebels on his lapel. “People were scared but now the fear has been broken. Watching everything that has been happening across Libya, Egypt and Tunisia means people are no longer scared to want change.”
At the end of Assad’s speech one of the Syrian chefs murmured ironically, “Tahya Syria” – a bitter echo of the cry that resonated through Cairo’s Tahrir Square, “Tahya Masr” – “Long Live Egypt”. The group laughed at the recycled slogan. What seemed so powerful during the Egyptian protests had, for these Syrians at least, become little more than hollow bluster.