‘Day of Rage’ for Syrians Fails to Draw Protesters
The New York Times
February 4, 2011
DAMASCUS, Syria — In stark contrast to several other Arab capitals, where hundreds of thousands of people have demonstrated against their governments, a planned “Day of Rage” in Damascus on Friday failed to attract any protesters against President Bashar al-Assad, a sign that the opposition here remains too weak to challenge one of the region’s most entrenched ruling parties.
Campaigns on the social networking sites Facebook and Twitter called for Syrians to demonstrate Friday and Saturday in Damascus against the government of Mr. Assad, who inherited power in 2000 from his father, Hafez, who himself had ruled the country for nearly three decades with an iron fist.
But Damascus was relatively quiet on Friday, save for a gentle rain that washed its streets. There was a heavy presence of security forces and police officers in front of Parliament, where the protesters were planning to stage their demonstration. Men in plain clothes and the black leather jackets popular among security forces here were scattered around the area. Others sat waiting in white vehicles.
“Syria is the last country where regime change will occur,” said a political activist, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, like others interviewed.
“The culture of protesting is not present here. They oppressed it until they killed it,” added another activist.
The authorities are taking few chances. On Friday, security officials arrested Ghassan al-Najjar, an Islamist who leads the Islamic Democratic Current, a small opposition group based in Aleppo, rights activists said. Mr. Najjar, who is in his mid-70s, had called on Syrians in his city to demand more freedoms and bring about peaceful change.
Aside from fearing the strong security apparatus, which has never been hesitant to use force to quiet dissidents, Mr. Assad had recently announced a 17 percent pay raise for the two million Syrians who work for the government, making them unlikely to participate in any protest, activists here said.
In addition, they said, the opposition is not strong enough to lead a street movement capable of changing the government, and many here fear a situation in which the banned Muslim Brotherhood would take over if Mr. Assad were toppled.
Human Rights Watch said in a statement on Friday that at least 10 people were summoned by the police in the previous 48 hours and pressed to not demonstrate. There were also reports that prominent opposition figures like Michel Kilo and Riad Turk, among others, many of whom spent years in jail for opposing the government, were also summoned.
On Thursday, 3 Syrians were briefly detained and forced to sign pledges not to participate in future protests, after they protested, along with 12 others, against corruption and high cellphone costs.
There are two cellphone companies in Syria, M.T.N. from South Africa, and Syriatel, which is owned by Rami Makhlouf, a wealthy businessman and relative of the president, who has been labeled as a beneficiary and facilitator of public corruption in Syria by the United States.
At least 100 Syrians held a vigil in support of their Egyptian counterparts last Saturday near the Egyptian Embassy in Damascus, and quietly lit candles as police officers kept a watchful eye nearby.
Eventually, witnesses said, one of them shouted: “Oh blow, winds of change. Yesterday Tunisia became green, tomorrow Egypt will be free. Oh, winds of change, blow and sweep away injustice and shame.” As she finished, they said, officers quickly moved in, ordering them to leave immediately or else they would be detained.
“It is still soon for us,” said a Syrian activist, also speaking on the condition of anonymity. “We have time. The street is definitely not ready yet.”