Why the Protestors Have Stayed Home in Syria

A glance at Al Jazeera’s English page and it's impossible not to take in the fury that is sweeping the Middle East. The governments in Tunisia and Egypt have already fallen and a few other of the headlines read as follows:

“Many killed in Libya’s Benghazi,” “Protestors retake Bahrain centre,” “Algerian police break up protest,” “Yemen rivals exchange gunfire,” “Moroccans riot ahead of protests.”

Nearly every country has been touched by some form of unrest. Whether it has been doling out money to citizens, slashing commodity and food prices, or cracking down on protesters, Arab leaders are watching and reacting with great trepidation.

But, conspicuously absent from the headlines is Syria. While other heads of state legislate frantic measures to maintain power, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad calmly carried out an opposite approach. Instead of further controlling access to news, President al-Assad lifted the restrictions on social media allowing his citizens full access to Facebook and Twitter and other sites.

Was such a move a political concession? Perhaps, but in a month in which fellow authoritarian rulers have attempted to tighten their grip on the foreign press and outside influences, al-Assad's decision may have been more bumptious than conciliatory. Surrounded by riots and revolutions, Syria remains eerily calm.

How is it that a country beset by the same epidemics that led to the toppling of the governments in Tunisia and Egypt has been able to so far able to remain relatively silent? If authoritarian rule, corruption, and economic hardship are claimed to be equally rampant in Syria, then why haven’t Syrians been swept up in the wave of freedom and democracy?

For one, Syria’s security apparatus is much more lethal than Egypt’s or Tunisians. Syrians readily recall the massacre in the city of Hama during which President Hafez al-Assad (the current president’s father) crushed an uprising by the Syrian brotherhood, besieging the city and killing as many as 20,000 to 30,000 people.

That gruesome reminder of their brutal capabilities gives Syria’s mukhabarat (or secret police) a distinct advantage over other Arab security forces. People in Syria are simply much more afraid.  

Besides the element of fear, al-Assad has several other factors working in his favor which make him surprisingly quite popular. The fact that he is relatively young has helped bolster his popularity among the younger generation. There is a real sense among Syria’s youth (up to 70 percent of Syrians are under 30) that al-Assad is one of them. The president’s push for economic liberalization has only deepened those sentiments, causing many Syrians to blame the ‘old guard’ that served his father instead. And while he barely ventured into politics before assuming the presidency al-Assad has so far shown to be very politically astute. Whether investing in roads and infrastructure, promising to end corruption, or taking a tough stance on Israel, several of al-Assad’s policies have bolstered his support not only inside Syria but also the region itself.

The turmoil in of the region is one more way al-Assad has benefited. Many Syrians have heard the horrors of the recent fighting in Iraq and are weary of sectarian strife that has long plagued Lebanon. The Christians especially are deeply concerned about losing the protection they enjoy under Al-Assad’s secular regime and are thus his most fervent supporters. Given Syria’s religious diversity, political parties struggle to organize and because Syria does not associate with the West, it doesn’t face the pressures to allow for opposition movements that Egypt did.

Lastly, another favorable cultural element that al-Assad inherited is Syria’s multi-religious and rather fragmented society. Syria is a predominately Sunni country with roughly 70 percent of the 22 million citizens belonging to that sect. The Alawites, the Shi'a sect which President al-Assad is a member of, is an obviously powerful minority despite only making up 10 percent of the population. The Kurds in the north comprise of the largest ethnic minority while the Orthodox Christians are another 10 percent of the populace. The fractured society and lack of political parties due to government restrictions, are a few more examples of how Bashar al-Assad and Syria have so far managed to avoid major unrest.

As the waves of protests grow and crash down all around Syria, it will be interesting to see if al-Assad can avoid the fate of his Tunisian and Egyptian counterparts. So far signs point to yes. 

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons