After Tunisia: Robin Yassin-Kassab on Syria
The Syrian author considers the impact of the last month's extraordinary events
Thursday, 27 January 2011
Egypt's anti-regime protests are unprecedented in size, frequency and ferocity. In Shubra, Dokki, Mohandaseen and Bulaq, the people of Cairo have chanted ash-sha'ab yureed isqaat an-nizam, or "the people want the fall of the regime", and braved tear gas and baton-wielding thugs in the central Tahrir Square. Alexandria, Tanta, Suez, and the labour stronghold of Mahalla al-Kubra have also demonstrated. A government building has been burnt in Suez. Posters of Mubarak have been ripped down and burnt in several locations. Mish ayazeenu, the people shout: "we don't want him."
When Tuesday's Day of Anger started, police at first allowed protesters to move freely in the streets. This was unusual, and suggests fear on the authorities' part, as does the abrupt shift back to traditional methods as night fell. At the time of writing, at least 1,000 people have been arrested, several killed, and hundreds beaten. Uniformed police are backed up by plainclothes goons, many armed with iron bars. (One hopes that someone is collecting photographs of these people in order to identify and shame them.)
Certain developments illustrate why Hosni Mubarak's regime will be harder to dislodge than Ben Ali's in Tunisia. Trade unionists have been at the forefront of Tunisian change; in Egypt the state's co-opted Egyptian Trade Union Federation has ordered its branch heads to suppress protests. And the country's largest opposition party – the Muslim Brotherhood – has so far played a negligible role. When the regime, predictably, blamed the Brotherhood for organising the protests, the Brotherhood quickly proclaimed its innocence. Indeed, events seem to have taken the Brothers by surprise. It may be that the leadership has gambled on regime survival, either for pragmatic reasons or because what Brotherhood ideologues consider the "Islamisation" of society to be proceeding smoothly under the status quo. But the demonstrations have been bigger than anyone expected. Interestingly, al-Azhar clerics, often tools of the regime, have ruled that protests are not counter to Islamic precepts.
The initiators of what is now perhaps a growing intifada organised the protests in the name of Khaled Said, a blogger beaten to death by police who has now become Egypt's Mohammed Bouazizi (the street vendor whose self-immolation was the catalyst for Tunisia's uprising). These organisers, and the trapped and wounded, and those prepared to continue to meet state repression, are to be praised and congratulated for their bravery, and envied for their privileged position as agents of historical change. If nothing else has been achieved, Gamal Mubarak's hopes of inheriting the kingdom from his father must now have been dashed.
Revolutionary momentum is still carrying Tunisia, where journalists have taken over the media, and now it's rolling through Egypt. If the coming days show sustained and spreading protest, the crack that has appeared in Egypt's order will rapidly expand. The west is bracing itself. Another fait accompli, this time in the Arab world's most populous nation, on Palestine's border, would be a nakba for western control. So the American administration is immediately speaking of Mubarak's "opportunity . . . to implement political, economic and social reforms to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people". The phrase "managed change" is uttered. You can be sure America's managers are hard at work. What they have to lose in Egypt is as incalculable as what the Egyptian people have to gain.
With its young population, and a bureaucracy run by the same authoritarian party for four decades, Syria is by no means exempt from the pan-Arab crisis of unemployment, low wages and the stifling of civil society, conditions that brought revolution to Tunisia. Nevertheless, in the short to medium term, it seems highly unlikely that the Syrian regime will face a Tunisia-style challenge.
A state-controlled Syrian newspaper, al-Watan, blamed the Tunisian revolution on the Ben Ali regime's "political approach of relying on 'friends' to protect them". Tunisia's status as western client was only a minor motivator for the uprising there, but still al-Watan's analysis will be shared by many Syrians. Unlike the majority of Arab states, Syria's foreign policy is broadly in line with public opinion – and in Syria foreign policy, which has the potential to immediately translate into a domestic security issue, matters a great deal. The regime has kept the country in a delicate position of no war with, but also no surrender to, Israel (which occupies the Golan Heights), and has pursued close co-operation with Lebanese and Palestinian resistance movements as well as emerging regional powers such as Turkey and Iran. This is appreciated by "the street", and the president himself is no hate figure in the mould of Ben Ali or Mubarak. Where his father engineered a Stalinist personality cult, mild-mannered Bashar al-Assad enjoys a reasonable level of genuine popularity. Much is made of his low-security visits to theatres and ice cream parlours.
We are seeing in Tunisia a democratisation that didn't require religious mobilisation, foreign invasion, or colours coded in Washington. This revolution is the result of a mass popular movement focused on straightforward, practical demands that everybody can understand, whether they're religiously observant or lax, Christian or Muslim, Sunni or Shia. Lessons will be learned, in Syria and elsewhere. In future years, the regime would be well-advised to proceed with great flexibility.
Robin Yassin-Kassab is a Syrian author. The Road from Damascus is published by Penguin. He co-edits pulsemedia.org and blogs at qunfuz.com