Inspired by street action in Tunisia and Egypt, Syrian oppositionists are girding for their own “day of rage” on Friday in Damascus and other parts of the country. The wave of demonstrations moving through the Arab world from the Atlantic to the Gulf of Aden is being watched by ordinary Syrians, with some apparently preparing to emulate them. Protest organizers are using the same tools employed elsewhere so far – Facebook and Twitter – to mobilize support against corruption, repression, and economic hardship and in favor of better conditions, freedom of speech, and human rights. Some 9,000 people have reportedly signed up to the Facebook page dubbed the “2011 Syrian revolt against Bashar Assad.”
Lest anyone doubt that Syrian officialdom takes the protests seriously, Bashar al-Assad, president of Syria since 2000, gave an unusual interview to the Wall Street Journal earlier this week, pledging future domestic reform. Assad said Syria would push through political reforms, grant more power to non-governmental organizations, and ease economic conditions. While claiming the Middle East had entered a new era, he chillingly pointed to the 1979 Iranian revolution as the source of that new beginning.
Syria and Egypt have much in common. Both have been largely secular republics whose current regimes came to power through military coups. Both have been led by leaders who sought to have their sons take over when their rule ended; in Syria’s case, it worked, and Bashar al Assad took over without a public shout when his father died in 2000. Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak had also been grooming his son to take over, but this encountered resistance within Egypt and may have been a contributing cause to the current unrest. So close were Egypt and Syria at one time that in the late 1950s they united themselves into one country – the United Arab Republic – but that lasted no more than a few years.
*Robert Danin, Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies