Today, Friday, April 9th, was a difficult day in Syria, with many more protesters killed and injured during after-prayers demonstrations. It seems the protests are resuming their momentum and expanding beyond remote towns and cities to cover increasing areas of major cities like Damascus (Videos coming tomorrow, Saturday, April 10th, as they become available).
The Syrian regime, like its Arab counterparts facing popular internal opposition, has accused foreign elements for orchestrating the recent uprisings that are calling for freedom, lifting of the emergency law, and a host of other demands. The Syrian government blamed armed Jordanians, Saudi Arabians, Iraqis, and other “infiltrators” for the violence that has led to the death of dozens of peaceful protesters over the last four weeks. It also distributed pamphlets listing the car plate numbers of those suspected foreigners and some local ones to the public on the streets, in the workplace. In part, this is apparently how Syrian authorities have justified its excessive use of violence.
As such, security at all entry points has been on heightened alert, with customs officers treating all passengers, especially those arriving, with suspicion. At the airport yesterday, Thursday April 7th, there were over 60 passengers from Arab countries being held and interrogated right next to the immigration control area. It looked like these men and women had been there for a while. Most were sitting on the floor, and security personnel offered them water, juice, and some food (small sandwiches).
Last week, three European journalists who had reported from Syria several times in the last few years were refused entry into the country. While they had previously entered on journalist visas, this time they received visitor visas from the Syrian embassy in their respective home countries. Immigration officers turned them away and asked them to purchase return tickets. The journalists, however, remained inside the transit area as they worked their contacts and hoped that the government would change its mind and allow them to enter. Airport security gradually closed down one shop after the other that served food and drinks, hoping the journalists would leave on their own. After two days of what seemed like a confrontation, security closed down all the bathrooms in the airport. On the third day, the journalists gave up and left.
In Damascus last Friday, security officers closed the doors of all major mosques, including those in Mazzeh and Sheikh Saad, right before the end of prayer, and only allowed those praying to leave one by one after searching them. Several areas in different parts of Syria (other than those reported in media) are currently under total siege after the Imams in the mosques allegedly called people to stage an uprising against the regime and demand an overthrow of Bashar Asad. According to a source from a military officer deployed outside one of these areas, there has been a complete media blackout and no journalists are even aware of these sieges.
It is noteworthy that much of the news that pass as facts in foreign/Arab media are very much disputed here, at least in some circles. This is not to say that protesters are not being killed and injured. It depends on who you talk to, it seems. It is not clear who, if anyone, has accurate and comprehensive idea on what is really going on, from the birth of these protest movements to the backlash against them (some of these areas reported presence of Presidential Guard cadres even before the first protest took place). People from heightened protest areas are terrified of relaying what happened in their cities and towns, such as Der`a and others. They are already being treated like traitors and suspects all over the country, by neighbors, colleagues, and friends. Despite having a general idea that the regime has used disproportionate violence to quell the protests, I’ve heard many people complain that they don’t know what exactly to believe anymore, that they don’t believe anyone when it comes to details.
Some are saying that folks from Der`a can forget about ever having any ministers from there anymore (Rostom Gazali, Faisal Miqdad, Faruq al-Shar`) while others say the opposite, that they’ll need to appease them and include them in any future formula. One thing is for certain, the cat is nearly out of the bag: issues of regionalism and sectarianism are getting much worse and are being explicitly discussed in some circles. Interestingly, however, the more people hold on to or proclaim sectarian loyalties, the more Syrians become concerned about where the country is headed, and thus opt for stability over the unknown. In other words, sectarianism is a double edged sword, it seems. It can harm the regime in the long run, but is likely to serve its preference for stability in the short run as people become ambivalent about the future.
Anti-Sunni/majoritarian sentiments, already high, especially among the country’s (Alawi and Christian) minorities, have been exacerbated by the recent choice for prime minister, the return of the Niqab and the shutting down of the casino. Though these moves seem trivial compared to more fundamental issues to be concerned about, they are nonetheless making minorities somewhat jittery about how far the regime will appease conservative segments of Syrian society. This is being seen as weakness on the part of a regime that is catering to its Sunni citizens, (particularly the Ikhwan, or the Brotherhood), where Sunnis make up almost 70% of the population.
And in response to the regime granting citizenship to some of the Kurdish-Syrian population in the north-east (though this leaves almost 90,000 Kurds without a nationality) the Kurds continued to take to the streets to prove their belonging to the nation, that they are Syrian citizens, and like other fellow citizens, they too demand further reforms such as the lifting of the emergency law and the right to form political parties, and not just nationalization. It is noteworthy that part of the Facebook call for the first day of rage, many demanded Kurdish citizenship. And while Syrians generally feel that Kurds should have nationalities, some view them like the Ikhwan, as a single-project group whose main aim is separation. Clearly, surveys about such views and preferences have not been available in Syria.
According to sources who claim to be close to the president, Bashar Asad plans to lift the emergency plan tomorrow, Saturday (this was the case before today’s mass protests, I have not heard if this has changed). One of the major results is to cancel Mahaakim Amn al Dawlah (state security courts). This has a major implication: all crimes will fall under regular criminal jurisdiction, which means no more exceptions, emergencies, or the random detention of people under accusations of treason (a la Patriot Act in the United States). There is also talk of a new party law emerging, but that law can be effective only if Article 8 is scrapped (this article considers the Ba`th the official party of the state, under which other parties can come to life).
People here are speculating that the regime will not announce the new party law until they announce changes to article 8. The emergency law, it is said, will be lifted, allowing for one week of legal vacuum whereby the government will launch an awareness campaign on what the emergency law meant, and what the new “anti-terrorism” law they are currently working on will mean. This new law is currently titled “The Anti-Terrorism and Citizen Dignity Law,” but it is not certain the name will remain the same. The regime is looking at the current anti-terrorism law in the works in Egypt, it seems. They don’t want people to think they are removing one law and replacing it with another that is similar. Hence the idea that there will be a week or so separating the two moves, in which several television shows are expected to air national debates (intellectuals, experts, politicians) on how best to address the legal vacuum and how to explain the new laws to the people before they are officially announced the following week. Much of this is speculation, but that is how politics is discussed here, in the absence of transparent processes.
But, on a more sobering note, as many say here in Syria: at this point, lifting the emergency law will not make a difference “so long as we live in a police state.”
Friday Protest Videos