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Why Syria Is not Next . . . so far [With Arabic Translation]

[Image from author's archive] [Image from author's archive]

As millions of Arabs stir their respective countries with demonstrations and slogans of change and transition, certain Arab states have been generally spared, including some oil rich countries and Syria. Syria stands out as a powerful regional player without the benefit of economic prosperity and with a domestic political climate that leaves a lot to be desired. Some say it combines the heavy-handedness of the Tunisian regime, the economic woes of Egypt, the hereditary rule aspects of Morocco and Jordan, and a narrower leadership base than any other country across the Arab world. Why, then, is all relatively quiet on the Syrian front? 

We can delude ourselves by resorting to facile explanations related to the threat of severe coercion facing a potential uprising in Syria—which certainly does exist. But the reality of the matter is more complex. To begin with, one must account for the unexpected: a clumsy incident involving a disproportionately brutal reaction against civilians, even in Syria, will spin structural variables out of control.

“Syria is not Egypt”

Any cursory review of the Syrian press, or the press on Syria, reveals that many Syrians empathize with the grievances of their rebellious Arab brethren and share many of them. This includes those who actually protested in small numbers and were harassed and/or beaten on Friday, February 4th, the planned “Day of Anger” in Syria, and during the few days prior. Other sporadic incidents took place in the past few weeks, but none rose to the level of an explicit anti-regime demonstration, as happened in Egypt and elsewhere. This puts Syria in stark contrast with Egypt.

Egyptian protesters grew in courage gradually as civil society snatched gains such as degrees of freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and freedom of organization and contestation by truly independent political parties, not least among whom is the Muslim Brotherhood, even if by proxy. On the other hand, Syrian civil society does not enjoy nearly the same measures of liberty. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was correct in saying that Syria is not Egypt in a January 31 Wall Street Journal interview. The reverse is equally true.


This article is now featured in Jadaliyya's edited volume entitled Dawn of the Arab Uprisings: End of An Old Order? (Pluto Press, 2012). The volume documents the first six months of the Arab uprisings, explaining the backgrounds and trajectories of these popular movements. It also archives the range of responses that emanated from activists, scholars, and analysts as they sought to make sense of the rapidly unfolding events. Click here to access the full article by ordering your copy of Dawn of the Arab Uprisings from Amazon, or use the link below to purchase from the publisher.

6 comments for "Why Syria Is not Next . . . so far [With Arabic Translation]"

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If Gaddafi falls, Al-Assad will be next. We'd understand that the regime uses the fake concept of "resistance" as opium for the people, but why do you think the people themselves would believe that?

Gahgeer wrote on March 10, 2011 at 11:24 AM
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"This includes those who actually protested in small numbers and were harassed and/or beaten on Friday, February 4th, the planned “Day of Anger” in Syria, and during the few days prior."

Correction, no one showed up in that so-called "Day of Anger" so no one got beaten up on Friday.

Those who were beaten up were at the sit-in in Bab Touma gathered in solidarity with Egyptian revolution. Another sit-in where protesters were beaten up even got arrested was in front of the Libyan embassy. This is an important point to try to understand why Syrians did not show up on that sectarian and stupid "Day of Anger".

You demonstrated reasons why Syria is not Egypt, Tunisia nor Libya, but did not demonstrate why there are no demonstrations in Syria thus far. In other words, understanding the situation in Syria requires a more in-depth analysis of Syria itself than simply comparing the country to other realities.

Another correction, I really really would love it if "experts" on Syria stop saying that the president is popular. He may be so for Arabs, but not to the Syrian people.

Razan wrote on March 10, 2011 at 02:46 PM
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Dear Razan, thank you for your note. I appreciate your enthusiasm but If you re-read the sentence you're commenting on, it refers to both February 4th "and during the few days prior," including the February 2nd incident in Baab Touma-- the link in the post takes you to that story but you have to click on it.

The sentence also reads "harassed and/or beaten," whereby beaten refers to the Baab Touma incident, and the small numbers who showed up on the albeit problematic "day of anger" were indeed harassed. It is hateful to say "no one showed up" just because one thinks it was a sectarian call, and equally inaccurate to say "many did" (as some opposition members claimed).

As to your claim that I did not demonstrate why there are no demonstrations in Syria thus far, that's a bit unfair. First, you can't "demonstrate" a negative. One can try to speculate about the reasons why we have not seen large-scale demonstrations, which includes the threat of reprisal (in term of individual calculus) and the question of collective action, both of which are addressed in this short piece which, admittedly, aimed at starting a discussion not ending it. مش رح نفتيها هون‫ ب ٩٠٠ كلمة‬

‫Finally, regarding your last "correction," I would like to encourage you to take pause when you level critique especially at a public text. The post does not make a blanket statement about the president being popular, it refers to segments of the population who view him as such. Anyone familiar with Syria knows that there is support (often intense) among various groups for Bashar al-Asad, regardless of the reasons now. The mention of "the Syrian people" is too often appropriated by the regime or the opposition to ends that do not serve good analysis. I am not interested in bombast. The comment in the post was made in reference to a particular comparative context. The whole point of the post, Razan, is that the domestic policies of the regime are problematic, and that's not something that happens when the the leadership is popular across the board.

‫If you would like to enrich the discussion by adding your observations regarding the lack of mass demonstrations in Syria, please do not deprive us. We are all ears dear.

Bassam Haddad wrote on March 11, 2011 at 05:46 AM
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Please Note: in my comment above the word "hateful" appeared as a typo in the second paragraph, as i meant to write "hasty." Thanks to Sara for alerting me as the sentence did not make sense with "hateful" in it. Also, apologies to Razan who must have read it as "hateful."

Bassam Haddad wrote on March 11, 2011 at 09:48 PM
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This is a comprehensive and seemingly informed article (I say “seemingly” because I’m not sure Mr. is an expert on all the four countries in question). However, Mr. approach is rather mechanical and one-sided. It consists of systematically going over all the possible differences (some significant, some quite incidental) between Syria and the other three other countries, toward the unavoidable and preset conclusion: Syria will not rise. Yet, if the last three months of uprisings all over the Arab World has taught us anything, it is that there is a vast undercurrent of resentment everywhere, which, at the right moment, erupts in various forms, depending on each country’s own circumstances and history. One could make the argument that Egypt will not follow Tunisia, or that Libya will not follow the previous two countries, based on similar lists of all possible differences among these countries. It would have been much more useful if the author examined the possible scenarios of change (or lack thereof) in Syria, based on an analysis of the internal dynamics of the country itself—its political structure, economic and social mechanisms, etc., instead of merely cataloguing differences with the other three countries (not to mention places like Bahrain, Yemen, and even Jordan), making it look like Syria is a unique case somehow.

Tarek wrote on March 19, 2011 at 04:12 AM
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Thanks Tarek for your note. I am not sure you recognized the purpose of this ~900-word piece, which is certainly not to provide "the possible scenario of change (or lack thereof) in Syria, based on an analysis of the internal dynamics" of "its poltical structure, economic and social mechanisms, etc." This would take, well, a very long piece. But that does not mean i'm not responsible for what i wrote. I stand behind it as statement about Syria not likely to be "NEXT." This does not rule out change--which is imminent. It is primarily a response to what was circulating a few weeks ago about Syria following Egypt.

I have no idea what to make of some of your critiques (i.e., "rather mechanical and one-sided"), as i don't know what you mean by "one-sided," especially when you explicitly reduce what i'm saying to "Syria will not rise." As stated clearly above, and certainly in the piece, I am not saying that. Again, i'm not sure what to make of this reductionism, but perhaps it helps make your portrayal of my argument legitimate. There are better ways to do that. For instance, one can challenge my claim about the overlapping authorities in Syria, as opposed to Tunis, or that Syrians are less inclined to demonstrate en mass without prior violent provocation, as did the Egyptians. I tried to learn from what you would like a good argument to look like based on a critique of my argument, not your portrayal of it.

Finally, the tired refrain that we can't tell who's going to be next is true, but that does not mean that all contenders are equally likely to be next. This collapsing of analysis in the name of denying the ability to predict is paralyzing and unimaginative. I addressed that in a back and forth on Syria Comment, where Josh Landis re-posted this piece. I'm not just saying that Syria will not follow Egypt, as you gather below, I'm saying it is not likely to do so, and here's why . . . If my reasoning is inadequate, it would appreciate your constructive commentary, from which i can benefit, whether or not you are an "expert" on Syria.

I am sure you noted the demonstrations on Friday. They are quite significant. My argument is that unless the regime suppresses these demonstrations in a quite violent and brutal manner (far more than what the Egyptian regime dealt the protesters), the demonstrations will not lead to a successful Egypt- or Tunisia-like revolt for the reasons i stated. I could be wrong, especially that a good deal of psychological factors play a role that is not always accessible/visible.

And please tell me who is "Mr."

Bassam Haddad wrote on March 20, 2011 at 03:49 PM

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