With Arab demonstrations even popping up in the sleepy sultanate of Oman, it seems safe to conclude that the entire region is experiencing a mass revolt.
What started as a dissident gathering in the peripheral state of Tunisia has spread to the heart of the Muslim world, taking out an Egyptian strongman and threatening to unseat a Libyan tyrant. Protests continue to build up in Yemen where a series of ethnic and tribal groups that have longed felt disenfranchised by the government are demanding greater opposition involvement in the country’s political institutions. Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are also preparing for action, attempting to use the “Arab Spring” as an opportunity for forging a single government from two separate factions.
However exciting this narrative may be, it is not necessarily an accurate portrayal of what is happening. Yes, the Arab world is dealing with popular sentiment and most of the region’s leaders have not dealt with this type of dissent before. It would not even be a far stretch to brand this wave of protests a new era in Arab history, distinct from the autocratic abyss that its people have been living under for decades.
But it would be misplaced to say that the entire region has changed or has been affected by the “people power” movement. One state in particular continues to do business as usual without any dramatic repercussions from its people — Syria.
Like Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, Syria is a heavily autocratic society with an established ruling elite. Bashar al-Assad inherited the presidency from his father Hafez in 2000 at a young age of 34 — this despite the fact that Syria has technically a republican form of government.
Assad and his top advisors and generals are all Alawites, a sect that holds most of Syria’s power but comprises at the most 10 percent of its population. Multiple political parties have been banned in the past and, like Egypt, the ruling party (in this case the Socialist Ba’ath Party) is the dominant force in the decisionmaking process.
Syria has also been ruled by emergency law since 1963 which allows the security services to arrest people on mere suspicion and detain them for indefinite periods without a judicial hearing.
Despite these characteristics, Syrians have yet to stand up to Assad in full capacity. The question is why? It’s not like Syrian society is so closed off from the world that outside information doesn’t creep into the country. Syrians, especially in Damascus, know full well that their Arab brothers are taking it upon themselves to enact political reform.
One plausible factor could be Bashar al-Assad’s talents as a skillful political manipulator. As he has demonstrated throughout ten years in power, the Syrian president knows how to shut people up without compromising himself or his credibility. But another large part of the equation could be the pervasive sense of fear that many Syrians have about speaking out freely.
The government monitors email and other Internet activity on a daily basis. The recent opening of social networking sites could be seen in a similar light, making it easier for the Syrian government to spy on what its citizens are saying and doing over multiple web forums. There should be no surprise that people feel uncomfortable about expressing their views.
Yet as protests escalated in Bahrain, linger in Egypt, pressure the regime in Yemen and began in Oman, Syrians may gradually second guess whether the status quo serves their interests for a more hopeful future. Right now, all we can do is be passive spectators on the outside, looking in.