Why Syrian rebels can't replicate Egypt

The Syrian government is determined to crush the protests that have erupted across the country over the past eight weeks. The Assad regime, in power for 40 years, is not prepared to resign as did Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak when faced with rebellion.

Rami Makhlouf, a cousin and boyhood friend of Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad, revealed the regime’s attitude in an interview with a ‘New York Times’ journalist invited to Damascus for six hours to meet key figures. Other journalists have been either deported or denied visas.

Makhlouf stated, “We will not go out. We will sit here. We call it a fight until the end.” Furthermore, the government believes it is winning the contest of wills with protesters. Presidential political adviser Bouthaina Shaaban said, “I hope we are witnessing the end of the story.” But she also indicated that the regime is prepared to change: “We want to use what happened to Syria as an opportunity... to try to move forward on many levels, especially the political level.” Her statement suggests that the government will follow up its use of the stick of military action with carrots of political reform demanded by most Syrians.

Uprising and revolt

Assad feels himself to be in a stronger position than Mubarak. The Egyptian faced a popular uprising while the Syrian regime is engaged in suppressing a revolt. There are many reasons why the Egyptian protests became an uprising and Syrian protests should be regarded as a revolt.

The Egyptian protests were launched on January 25 by educated young people who provided some organisation and asserted a certain amount of control over rallies. The protests that erupted in Syria on March 15 were spontaneous and no domestic national leadership has emerged since then. Instead, activists based abroad have tried to provide guidance and coordination but they cannot substitute for organisers on the ground in Syria.

Egyptians had a clear objective: Mubarak’s resignation. Syrian protesters do not agree on a goal. Radicals call for an end to the regime; moderates prefer reform. The epicentre of Egypt’s protests was Cairo’s Tahrir Square, where nationalists proclaimed independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1919 and revered president Gamal Abdel Nasser addressed vast throngs after the ouster of the British-backed king in 1952. Deraa, the hub of Syrian protests, is a poor tribal backwater near the Jordanian border.

Egypt’s major cities joined the protests while in Syria there have been only small demonstrations in Damascus, the capital and Aleppo. The army has done its utmost to make certain that the two main population centres remain calm while it has clamped down hard on Homs, the third city.

Millions of Egyptians joined the demonstrations which blanketed the country. In Syria, tens of thousands have taken to the streets in restive pockets. Syrian centres of discontent are cities and towns inhabited by poor farmers suffering from drought, unemployed labourers, and people subsisting on low wages. The substantial Syrian middle class is not yet engaged.

Egypt’s internal security forces and police were withdrawn by Mubarak on January 28, the fourth day of demonstrations, and the army did not deploy until February 2 when thugs hired by the regime were unleashed on protesters in Tahrir Square. Tanks and troops separated the sides and the army assumed the task of protecting the protesters. Eventually the generals toppled Mubarak.

Syria’s loyal internal security operatives and soldiers have been involved in the suppression of the protests since they began. It is claimed that some soldiers have rebelled but they are very few.

Egyptian demonstrators were peaceful. Violence was perpetrated against them by pro-regime police commandos and thugs. Syria’s protesters have attacked security personnel and public buildings.

In Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood played a marginal role in the protests and radical fundamentalists did not take part. Both the outlawed Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and radicals are involved, alarming Christians, secularists, Alawites and others who fear a fundamentalist rebellion comparable to that crushed in 1982 by the president’s father.

Finally, the world media gave massive coverage to the Egyptian uprising but has been banned from Syria. The absence of media has allowed Damascus to crackdown hard while the Egyptian security forces were constrained by fear of bad publicity — which does not worry the Syrian regime.

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