Every dictator knows that, when he starts making concessions, he is at his most vulnerable.
It is an exquisite torture for the regime in power. Each gesture, each freeing of political prisoners, each concession – and the crowds demand more. Yesterday, it was President Bashar al-Assad who was under torture.
Had he not lifted the state of emergency for Syrians? Had he not allowed them permission to protest peacefully – albeit with permission to be obtained 24 hours in advance – and released a token number of prisoners? Had he not scrapped the hated state security court? But no such luck.
In Damascus, in Hama – that ancient city that tried to destroy Bashar's father Hafez with an Islamic uprising in the February of 1982 – and in Banias and Latakia and Deraa, they came out in their tens of thousands yesterday. They wanted 6,000 more political prisoners freed, they wanted an end to torture, an end to the security police. And they wanted Bashar al-Assad to go.
Syria is a proud country, but Tunisia and Egypt were studied by the Syrians (if not by Bashar himself – a big mistake). If the Arabs of north Africa could have their dignity, why couldn't the Syrians? And an end to the monopoly of the Ba'ath Party, while they were at it. And free newspapers; all the demands that they thought would be met 11 years ago, when Bashar walked behind his father's coffin and friends of the President told us that things were going to change. This was a confident new state under Bashar, they insisted.
But they didn't change. Bashar found that family and party and the massive security apparatus were too strong for him, too necessary for him. He failed. And now that failure is self-evident: in the tear gas fired at the crowds in Damascus; in the live rounds reportedly fired into the crowds in Hama, that dangerous, frightening city wherein there is not a man or woman over 30 who did not lose a relative or friend 29 years ago.
Bashar al-Assad is a tough guy. He stood up to Israel and American pressure. He supported Hezbollah and Iran and Hamas. But Syrians had other demands. They cared more about their domestic freedom than battles in Lebanon, more about torture in Tadmor prison than fighting for the Palestinians. And now they have marched with that ultimate demand: the end of the regime.
I'm not sure they'll get it yet. The Syrian Ministry of the Interior was playing the sectarian card again yesterday; the protesters were sectarian, they claimed. There may be some truth in this; but it is a small truth. The people on the streets of Syria want change. They were not, to be sure, in the vast numbers that Egypt produced to rid themselves of Mubarak; nor even the numbers of Tunisians. But it has begun.
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