Thursday, April 21, 2011

Syria ends near 50 year State of Emergency

According to the Syrian Arab News Agency President Assad ended Syria's multi-decade State of Emergency and issued a decree "regulating the right to peaceful protest, as one of basic human rights guaranteed by the Syrian Constitution." What exactly will result from either of these actions--and whether or not they are worth more than merely the paper they are written on--is yet to be seen. 

Friday is being heralded as "Great Friday" in Syria with massive protests being promised. How they will be received following the reversal of the State of Emergency is unclear. Whereas Egypt's security forces were definitely entrenched under Mubarak, Syria's security forces are even more so. What likely helped in Egypt to prevent a smotheringly violent crackdown, especially once the military became involved, were appeals from protesters to the common identities between pro and anti-Mubarak forces: both sides were Egyptian in a country fiercely protective of this heritage. In Syria, a country that has many more tribal and religious elements to it's makeup than Egypt, that same appeal for Syrian oneness may not work. 

With the ruling elite, internal security apparatus and officer core of the military heavily composed of President Assad's Alawi minority, Syria's multi-tribal and religious components offer challenges that Egypt did not have. While Egypt does have a prominent Coptic Christian minority that makes up approximately 10% of the country, their relationship with the state would be analogous to the Alawi in Syria if they had controlled the state despite their limited population.

After decades of tribal and religious nepotism in Syria, it seems doubtful that Alawi allegiances will be reversed in favor of a pan-Syrian identity that can be harnessed by protesters intending to bring down the very state that has nurtured this minority group. Fearing a backlash in a post-Assad state, the Alawi controlled security system may continue to be highly--and violently--resistant towards change in ways that even Egypt's ruling NDP ultimately was not. While violence was definitely a component of the pro-Mubarak attempt to undermine Egypt's revolution, the ultimate decision to not annihilate the opposition may have been due to the fact that the ruling elites political, economic and social representation, in a post-Mubarak world, was not existentially threatened by their basic identity--as Egyptians first and foremost. In Syria, a post-Assad world will likely have much greater political, economic and social losses for the ruling Alawi and lead to much greater violence on their behalf to protect the status quo.

How that can be avoided is tricky. While President Bashar is not his father Hafez, he is going to have to contend with the other Alawi stakeholders in the regime, empowered over the last 40 years, in how to respond to the growing protests. If Egypt's
dissolution of the NDP, arrest of the Mubarak family and other leading figures is any evidence of what a potential, if significantly more moderate, reaction to Syria's regime will look like, the Alawi may rightfully fear what could come next for them and may react accordingly and repressively.

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