So-called revolutions have swept across Tunisia, Egypt and Libya – the latter of which is in the midst of an armed conflict. Almost all of the states in the Arab world have experienced at least minor protests recently, with large scale protests erupting in a number of them including Algeria, Bahrain, Djibouti, Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Oman and Yemen. As a result, many are playing the guessing game as to which domino will fall next. Of these dominoes, Syria stands out above the rest of the Arab world.
On Friday, March 25th, it was estimated that one-hundred thousand Syrians took to the streets in defiance of their government, which, much like Egypt’s government, has been ruled under an emergency law since 1963 (justified by the country’s continued “war” with Israel). According to its constitution, the Syrian government defines itself as a secular socialist state, “where women earn as much as men,” although unemployment is estimated at 20%. However, the Syrian government is really nothing more than a hereditary dictatorship. Since 1971, the country has been ruled by the al-Assad family – members of the Alwais branch of Shia Islam, a religious minority group that makes up less than 13% of the population and which effectively rules over the 74% majority Sunni Muslim population.
The current President of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, took the place of his father, Hafez al-Assad, following his death in 2000. Bashar al-Assad was an ophthalmologist by trade and was not originally tasked with taking his father’s place. However, he was thrust into the limelight following his older brother’s death in 1994 when he, in a country where the mean income is $2.61 per hour, crashed his Mercedes-Benz into a roundabout. Bashar al-Assad’s mere six years of grooming before being propelled into the presidency seems to be evident in his disconnection with Syrian reality.
This disconnection was publicized in a recent Vogue article about the President’s wife, London-raised Asma al-Assad, entitled A Rose in the Desert. This article was a puff-piece about the President’s glamorous and attractive wife, who is also the acceptable face of tyranny. The Assad family is championed for running their household “on wildly democratic principles.” However, this statement is ironic considering the fact that Bashar al-Assad is reelected every seven years through a referendum where he is the only name on the ballot; even with only one option, he still only gets 97% of the vote.
As a result of this seeming disconnect, Syria has been slow to implement any real changes as opposed to their neighbors like Jordan, which has reshuffled its government amid protests. This strategy is currently followed by more realistic leaders in Yemen and Oman. Reshuffling provides a compromise that, although short of protestor’s goals, has decreased – but has not eliminated – the tensions in countries where the strategy has been implemented. Instead, protestors in Syria have only been met with violence. Some fifty-five to one-hundred and twenty-six Syrians have been killed by government forces since the beginning of the year – a number that has recently begun to balloon and only seems likely to rise in the coming weeks and months.
Syria’s path seems evident unless the al-Assads come to terms with reality. The people demand an effective constitution, a direct affront to Bashar al-Assad and to the forty-eight year emergency rule, which has revoked the previous constitution and has led to the current constitution, which vests total authority in the Syrian branch of the Ba’ath Party – the former party of Saddam Hussein. Only time will tell the outcome of Syria, but as greater number of Syrians take to the streets each day, time seems short for the al-Assads.
Scott is a senior in Eleanor Roosevelt College majoring in international studies.