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Daraa's events prove Bashar al-Assad wrong

When the Tunisian dictator Ben Ali fled the country, other Arab dictators were quick to announce that the Tunisian uprising was an isolated incident. When asked by the media, Egypt's former Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit was confident that the unrest would never spread to Egypt.

He was proven wrong only few weeks later when his master Hosni Mubarak, the head of the Egyptian dictatorship, was forced to resign after millions of Egyptians took to the streets in a lengthy and unprecedented protest demanding democratic reform, and with it, his resignation.

After the fall of Mubarak, Arab citizens elsewhere rightly thought that their leaders would understand the inevitability of the situation: that the resolve of the people was too strong to overcome.

It seems that many Arab dictators still cling to old tactics (and to power): they offer instead cosmetic reforms such as shuffling their ministerial cabinet, or in the case of oil-rich monarchies, offering billions of dollars in cash incentives (aka bribes), an art they have mastered over the past few decades.

Syria seemed relatively stable before massive protests erupted in the city of Daraa, a small city south of the capital. Demonstrators chanted for freedom and for end of corruption. They were also angry after authorities detained 15 school children who had painted anti-regime graffiti on the walls. These protests were met with police violence that claimed the lives of five innocent civilians.

In a rare interview accorded to the Wall Street Journal at the end of January Bashar al-Assad claimed that Syria was immune from such unrest because he had always been close to his people and he, unlike Ben Ali and Mubarak, understood his people's needs.

To prove his point, Syria's first lady Asma embarked on a public relations campaign by giving a candid interview with Vogue, an American magazine. From the pages of Vogue we learn that the Syrian first lady, whom the author of the article refers to as the "Rose of the desert," has no body guards assigned for her personal safety.

When queried by the reporter how she could afford having no security accompanying her she simply pointed with her finger toward average citizens walking in the streets, implying they would come to her rescue if her safety was ever compromised. This interview was undoubtedly targeted toward the sensitivities of a Western audience, proclaiming that the al-Assad's are an open minded and tolerant family, and leaving the reader with an unmistakeable impression that, in consideration of the presence of the Syrian Christian minority, the al-Assad clan would be the best choice to continue to rule this conservative Middle-Eastern country.

But, here is what the article did not mention.

At the time of his royal-like ascent to power in 2000, still 33 years of age, the young President promised major reforms were coming. Popularly elected by an "almost unbelievable" 97% of all votes (a subject that was emphasized strongly in the Vogue article), Syrians of all stripes welcomed the reforms promised by their new President; they thought they finally had a glimpse of hope after a 30-year iron-fist rule under his father.

A would-be ophthalmologist by profession, al-Assad pledged he would fight corruption, would guarantee his people more freedom of expression, and would adopt a more liberal market policy. He may have partially succeeded on the latter point but it became clear few years into his rule that he miserably failed on the first two, leading some Syrians to speculate that the new president was simply a puppet in the hands of his father's old camp.

Furthermore, Syria's human rights situation steadily deteriorated under the new ruler, especially after the unofficial alliance with the Unites States to fight Al-Qaida, a historically common enemy. For instance, it became clear around 2001 that Syria was a preferred rendition destination for terror suspects. The cases of Hydar Zammar, Ahmed El-Maati, Abdullah El-Malki and my own are only few examples (I recommend people to read Ghost Plane by Stephen Grey for a more in depth study). Bob Baer, a former CIA official, stated at the time that:

"If you want a serious interrogation, you send a prisoner to Jordan. If you want them to be tortured, you send them to Syria. If you want someone to disappear -- never to see them again -- you send them to Egypt," something I can personally attest to first hand.

Last year, Human Rights Watch published an extensive report about the human rights situation in Syria in which the organization concluded that Bashar al-Assad's decade in power was marked by repression. Mentioned in this report was the massacre perpetrated by the military police at the infamous Sednaya prison in 2008 during which 25 inmates were shot dead.

Even though it is smaller in scale than the Hama massacre perpetrated under Bashar's father rule in 1982, during which close to 10,000 perished and countless others injured, it seems that when it comes to crushing dissent, as we are witnessing today in Daraa, the son has definitely inherited more than enough of his father's genes.

These incidents, coupled with the fact that the much feared intelligence service (aka Mukhabarat in Arabic) routinely practices torture and regularly harasses dissidents and activists, may explain why the majority of Syrians have preferred to remain silent, at least for now.

One can look no further than to the latest scandalous five-year sentence that a 19-year-old Syrian female blogger Tal al-Mallohi received because of the accusation that she "was found to be spying for a foreign entity," according to Syrian authorities. Countless other activists, such as the 80-year-old long-time activist Haitham al-Maleh who was released two weeks ago because of his age, have been jailed simply because they voiced their opinions on matters related to good governance and social justice.

Another factor that may contribute to this silence is the ethnic divisions that exist among Syrians. The ruling Alawite minority (10%), to whom Bashar belongs and whose members have full control over sensitive military and intelligence posts, is only one of many. There is also the powerless Sunni majority (70%), Christians (10%), Kurds (5%), Ismailis (3%), and Duruz (2%). There are also more than one million old Palestinian immigrants and recently more than one million Iraqi refugees have decided to make Syria their home. All these groups have competing and conflicting interests.

These ethnic divisions make it extremely challenging to have a unified popular voice but what is encouraging is the fact that the Syrian youth who are leading this non-violent reform movement have made it clear that it is purely secular in nature and that they will not allow this movement to be hijacked by any opportunist, ethnic group or opposition party.

It is too early to ascribe the "revolution" label to this Syrian youth movement. But what is clear from the Tunisian example is that revolutions need a spark and it seems that Bashar al-Assad has already ignited it in Daraa.

A shorter version of this post appeared in The Guardian.

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