Syrian government quits en masse as protests grow

Move seen as a symbolic recognition of Syrian protesters' calls for urgent and drastic reforms, rather than a clear signal that real change is under way.

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DAMASCUS // The Syrian government resigned yesterday, an official acknowledgment of unprecedented public demands for greater freedoms that are shaking the country.

The move is at most a symbolic recognition of protesters' calls for urgent and drastic reforms, rather than a clear signal that real change is under way, according to analysts and opposition groups.

The 32-member cabinet has strictly limited authority, with power concentrated in the hands of the president, Bashar al Assad, his extended family, top political aides and a network of security agencies that, for decades, have kept a tight rein on the country.

Mr Assad, after accepting the resignation of the prime minister, Naji Otri, who has been in office since 2003, immediately reinstated the government on a caretaker basis.

Its job is to oversee the day-to-day running of state bureaucracies until a new administration can be formed. No timetable was given for that process.

"To be honest this is nothing, what's the difference between these ministers and those who will replace them," said one Syrian political analyst. "It seems like an effort to buy time, and to show the people that reforms are coming but it is certainly not a guarantee of those reforms.

"The best case scenario is that this is a sign reforms will happen but it might just be an empty gesture."

Other Middle Eastern rulers in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain, all hit before Syria by a wave of popular unrest, have similarly responded by removing their cabinets. That step, however, failed to satisfy pro-reform demonstrators elsewhere just as it appears to cut little sway in Syria.

Protesters have been demanding a wide range of major changes to Syria's authoritarian system of government, with the scrapping of draconian emergency laws high on the list. The sacking or resignation of the cabinet has not featured among those demands, a clear reflection of its limited importance.

Promises have been made that emergency laws, in place since the ruling Baath party seized power 48 years ago, are soon to be lifted, but as of last night no clear timetable for that had been given. It is widely expected that Mr Assad will announce the move in an address to the nation, which has been anticipated since the start of the week, but postponed, according to officials.

Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, the President of the UAE, yesterday called Mr Assad, expressing his support for Syria and its people. Sheikh Khalifa asked about the situation in Syria after the recent events, and wished the country more development and stability.

Until now, Mr Assad has not publicly responded to what is the most serious challenge to his 11 years of power. Until Mr Assad makes that speech - now expected today - it remains unclear exactly what direction the authorities plan to take in the face of a growing popular uprising: blunt suppression, political concessions or some cocktail of both. A new party law, possibly allowing the formation of opposition political groups, has been hinted at, in addition to moves to tackle rampant corruption.

Syrian opposition figures have stressed that, until explicit action is taken to implement reforms and the results are seen on the ground, public protests will continue and will expand.

In the face of a violent response by the authorities, demonstrations have already escalated and spread across the country, since the first major outbreak of public dissent in the southern city of Deraa on March 18.

Most of those protests have focused on calls for "freedom" and "dignity". However, as the number of civilian casualties has mounted, with at least 55 people fatally shot by security units, according to civil-rights activists, anger at the authorities has grown.

For the first time in decades, there have been open calls for regime change. Although the calls are isolated - a majority of Syrians appear still to support the president, if not the ruling elite that surrounds him - they are hugely significant. A statue of the former president, Hafez al Assad, Mr Assad's father, was torn down in Deraa last week, while posters of the ruling family were defaced in Homs, a city north of Damascus. Both incidents would have been all but unthinkable in Syria at the start of the month.

Faced with such a threat, the authorities have been mobilising their support and, yesterday there were mass rallies by thousands of pro-government demonstrators in Damascus and other Syrian cities, shouting their loyalty to Mr Assad.

Although some government employees and members of government-affiliated organisations reported being required to attend these drives, there is no question that Mr Assad commands a strong base of support. While many Syrians complain of corruption, nepotism, increasing poverty and restricted civil liberties, they also say the 45 year-old president is trying to push through reforms, against the will of an entrenched old guard and powerful figures invested entirely in maintaining the status quo.

Since coming to power in 2000, Mr Assad has prioritised economic liberalisation, arguing that the groundwork for political liberalisation takes time and requires strong economic foundations. In a region scarred by wars and sectarian discord - most notably in neighbouring Iraq and Lebanon - the Syrian authorities have insisted that domestic stability and national security should come first.

The government has acknowledged that "mistakes" have been made since protests began, with civilians being killed, but says it is now facing a plot backed by "foreign elements" to unleash sectarian violent and destroy the country. Syria has been at war with Israel for decades, and remains at loggerheads with the US.

In Beirut yesterday, about 300 people demonstrated outside the Syrian embassy holding aloft pictures of Mr Assad.

The protest came after another group gathered in the Lebanese capital on Sunday, when unknown gunmen in a passing car shot into the crowd injuring one man, local media reported. Another demonstration in the Tareeq Jadidah neighbourhood resulted in scuffles between protesters and local residents.

The incidents have highlighted the highly sensitive nature of the issue in Lebanon, where politicians and the public watch on as events unfold in Syria. With the exception of some minor comments, most major Lebanese political groups have remained quiet on the unrest.

Ghaleb Kandil, a Lebanese commentator, said: "The situation in Syria if it continues could have a negative impact on Lebanon's stability."

Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut, while stating that he did not believe the wave of unrest in Syria will continue, agreed that should it persist, Lebanon could be dragged into problem.

* Zoi Constantine reported from Beirut