Syria Is Not Egypt, but Might It One Day Be Tunisia?

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Joseph Eid / AFP / Getty Images

Syrians shop at Al-Hamidiyah market in the old city of the Syrian capital Damascus on February 3, 2011.

Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak has yet to answer his people's demands to step down, but echoes of that call are reverberating around the region. In a frantic effort to stave off the potentially destabilizing protests that already ushered out the Tunisian government, Jordan's king dismissed the Prime Minister and the cabinet, and Yemen's president has promised that neither he, nor his son, will run in the 2013 elections. Speculation on who will be the next to fall has taken on the aspects of a Middle Eastern Mad-Libs game: swap out the proper name here, change a negative adjective qualifying a corrupt regime there, and substitute a few action verbs describing the government reaction to produce the new narrative for each country. The latest name to come up? Syria's President Bashar al-Assad. Middle East watchers, perhaps more hopeful than informed, point to a new facebook page — The Syrian Revolution 2011 — which has garnered 15,000 fans in the scant week it has existed, as proof that Assad's regime is the next to go.

But don't expect the successor of the 47-year-old regime, which he inherited from his father in 2000, to be packing his bags anytime soon. Syria may suffer the same political alienation, economic dislocation and corruption that plagues most of the region's regimes, but its government also holds a unique position that sets it apart from the others: that of a pariah state. Assad's Syria is the only country in the Arab world that is not beholden to Western influence or support.

In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, Assad exhibited a remarkable degree of schadenfreude while describing the differences between Syria and Egypt. Egypt, he said, is supported financially by the United States, while international sanctions, he hinted, keep his government true to the anti-Americanism of the Arab street. "You have to be very closely linked to the beliefs of the people," he said. "When there is divergence between your policy and the people's beliefs and interests, [it] creates disturbance." It was an oblique jab at Mubarak's pro-Israel stance, one that has made him very unpopular both at home and elsewhere in the Middle East.

But if an unpopular foreign policy were enough to topple a regime, triumphant protestors would be picking through the rubble of collapsed governments from Algeria to Pakistan. "There are two components that make a people rebel against a ruling party," says Omar Nashabe, a long-time Syria watcher and correspondent for the Beirut-based Arabic daily Al-Ahkbar. The first, he says, is socio-economic, and has to do with basic rights and the services of the government. The second is political and ideological. "Mubarak failed on both levels. His government failed to provide for the people. And instead of working in the true interests of Egyptians, he was serving the true interests of the United States. That made him lose credibility." Syrians may be afflicted by poverty that stalks 14% of its population combined with an estimated 20% unemployment rate, but Assad still has his credibility, according to Nashabe.

That may be true, at least for the time being. But playing to popular sentiments won't keep Assad immune from the massive changes sweeping the region, says Nadim Houry, Human Rights Watch's researcher for Syria and Lebanon. "If the lesson Assad takes from Egypt is that it's all about foreign policy, he is learning the wrong one." Mubarak's policy towards the U.S. and Israel was just one grievance on a long list for the protesters, but it wasn't the main one. While the occasional anti-Israel slogan could be heard at Tahrir Square, it was largely drowned out by demands for better treatment and dignity. "The main grievance was the daily humiliation at the hands of the security services," says Houry. "It was about the corruption, the lack of economic development. And those elements are all present in Syria."

What Egypt's protest movement also had — at least after the first week — was the support of the United States and other Western countries that joined the chorus demanding Mubarak to step down. The United States has threatened to withdraw its substantial support for the Egyptian Army, a move certain to make the military leadership consider its options carefully. The U.S. has no such leverage over Syria, which has been subjected to sanctions since 2004, when it was accused of supporting terrorism, destabilizing Iraq, and meddling in Lebanon (Charges Assad routinely denies).

Sanctions have also had the unintended consequence of limiting in Syria the presence of the foreign democracy-promotion organizations that were instrumental in fomenting political organization and awareness in Egypt over the past several years. And while computer-savvy elites can circumvent the official ban on Facebook via proxy servers, a significant number of supporters for the protest "to end the state of emergency in Syria and end corruption" on Syria's "Day of Rage Feb 4 and 5," will be protesting in cities outside of Syria.

On Wednesday evening a small group of dissidents did manage to gather for a candlelight vigil in support of the activists in Egypt's Tahrir square, but they were quickly attacked by a mob of what they assumed were plain-clothes police. When the main organizer, Suheir Atassi, went to the local police station to file a complaint, she was slapped and accused of being a "germ" and an agent of foreign powers, according to Human Rights Watch. In Aleppo, another protest organizer, Gassan Najar, was beaten and arrested, according to Syrian democracy activists.

Syria has been under a continuous State of Emergency since 1963. Among other restrictions this limits the freedom assembly and speech, and any political opposition to the ruling Baath party is forbidden. But other limitations have been loosened under Assad, and there is now a fledgling independent media and the beginnings of economic reform. The government has encouraged cultural development and tourism. In many ways it could be said that Assad was attempting to drive Syria down the same path as Tunisia. Until, of course, he saw the Tunisian experiment of offering economic development in exchange for political freedoms implode early last month. In his interview with the Journal, Assad seemed confident that new political and economic reforms, though slow, would eventually give the Syrian people what they want in a way that would not provoke chaos. "Today is better than six years ago," he said. "But it is not the optimal situation. We still have a long way to go because it is a process. To be realistic, we have to wait for the next generation to bring this reform."

That was last week. These days, he might want to consider speeding things up a little. "If Assad looks down on the roofs of Damascus or Aleppo," says Nashabe, "he will see all the satellite dishes capturing the pictures of people taking to the streets of Cairo and Alexandria and calling for freedom, calling for the stepping down of a dictatorship, calling for freedom from the predations of secret police and oppression of the media." He adds, "I think Assad is smart enough to push forward the reforms that he has already started in a very practical way." If not, Syria may yet be the next name entered in the Mad-Libs blank for "Threatened Arab Regime."