Bashar al-Assad cropped

Image via Wikipedia

 The chain of dominoes has brought down the regimes of Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt, may topple Gaddafi in Libya… and other presidents and monarchs are in peril. What has happened in these other countries? Welcome to the Spineless Liberal’s fact-file on the Arab Spring.

Divided up into four, including a brief description of the protests and possible outcomes –  we now turn our analysis to the other countries with large protests. Saudi Arabia and Syria.

Saudi Arabia

King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz is under pressure but will likely not relinquish power in Saudi Arabia. Protests in the capital, Riyadh,have been ongoing since the 29th of January, 2011 in this country, caught balancing political reform and combating growing Islamist violence.

Opposition movements are officially banned in this absolute monarchy, but there have been protests – hundreds gathered on the first day in Jeddah, but after 15 minutes the police stopped the demonstration, with 30 to 50 arrests. The demonstration was a criticism of the city’s poor infrastructure after deadly floods in the city killed eleven.

Small demonstrations like that have been the norm in a thoroughly politically repressed society. But by the 10th of March, 600 protesters gathered in Qatif, calling for prisoners to be released – the protest was attacked by police with “percussion bombs”.

There have also been protests in the Eastern Province, which borders Bahrain. The deployment of 1,000 Saudi Arabian troops to Bahrain has caused unease among Saudi’s, particularly the minority Shia Muslim population. Most protests have been in solidarity with Bahraini protesters.

King Abdullah has responded by ignoring calls for political reforms, but instead offering a higher minimum wage, pay increases and an anti-corruption drive.

Syria

In Syria, President Bashar al-Assad is possibly remaining in place – he inherited the presidency in 2000, after his father, Hafez, died after three decades of authoritarian rule. A blanket ban on political protest has kept things mostly quiet, but on the 16th of March, 150 people took to the streets of Damascus. Thousands took to the streets two days later in several cities during a “Day of Rage”, similar to that in Yemen, where at least four people were killed. At least a dozen were killed on March 23rd in Derra, a southern city of around 100,000 people that has been the centre of protests. With protests spreading to Jassem, Nawa, Inkhil, Banias, Homs, Deir ez-Zor and even Damascus, the regime has begun a crackdown.

Protesters have been demanding greater political freedom, a better fight against corruption and poverty, and an end to emergency rule, in place since the 1963 coup d’etat in the country.
Reforms have been offered to the protesters, including economic reform, a reduction in military service and greater freedoms, but it seems that the government is split between those who advocate reform and hardliners. Before the latest round-up of between 100 and 300 human rights activists, the state media agency announced an amnesty for political prisoners… but the decision was reversed and the post deleted. Now, the government is offering an amnesty to anyone arrested during these latest protests… at the same time as cordoning off Derra, and cutting off the city from the outside world.

Such isolation reminds many of the annihilation of a Muslim Brotherhood-led revolt against Mr Assad senior, Hafez, in the city of Hama in 1982. It left as many as 20,000 dead. The two are different people, and the son is less ruthless than the father, but is surrounded by many of the same security chiefs and hardliners.

Assad’s powerbase is concentrated within his Alawite sect, a Shia breakaway group that makes up barely 6% of the population, whereas over 60% are Sunni, such as in the city of Derra.

Over the past few days, thousands have taken to the streets, with many arrests, but little looks to change. However, protests in such an authoritarian state as Syria is a major sign of discontent.

If the protests get worse, and the reaction of security forces gets tougher, we may see the domino wobbling.

Haitham al-Maleh, an 80-year old activist and lawyer said that “All the Syrian provinces will erupt. There is near consensus that this regime is unsustainable. The masses do not want it…Corruption has eaten the system to the bone. The security apparatus is not accountable to any law.” Perhaps Assad will see the end of his rule after all.

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