Monday, February 28, 2011

Could Syria Be Next?

By William Fisher

As the state dominos continue to fall across the Arab Middle East and North Africa, “who’s next?” has become the most fashionable parlor game in Washington, London, Paris, Berlin and points East.

Tunisia and Egypt have had their so-far successful uprisings. Pro-democracy demonstrators in Yemen and Bahrain are still trying to tip over their dominos. Libya’s domino is, as of five minutes ago, in a horizontal position. Morocco, Algeria, and Saudi Arabia appear to be vertical for the moment, with the Saudis offering its people the most aggressive rewards to stay quiet and enjoy the sunshine: cold hard cash.

But what about Syria? We haven’t heard much about this bastion of democracy, but that’s because the media tends to go where cataclysms have already happened, not those where the explosion is sometime in the future.

How far in the future, lord only knows. But assignment editors might do well to keep a special eye on Syria as possibly the next domino to fall.

Why not? It seems to have all the ingredients!

Syria’s 20 million people live under the authoritarian presidential regime of Bashar al-Asad. The president makes key decisions with counsel from a small circle of security advisors, ministers, and senior members of the ruling Ba'ath (Arab Socialist Renaissance) Party. The constitution mandates the primacy of Ba'ath party leaders in state institutions and society. President al-Asad and party leaders, supported by security services, dominate all three branches of government in what is characterized as a republic.

But, regardless of its structure, it is a dictatorship.

According to the U.S. State Department, in 2007 al-Asad was confirmed for another seven-year term in a "yes or no" referendum that local and international human rights advocates considered neither free nor fair.

What’s Syria’s human rights situation today? Probably as miserable as anywhere in the Middle East. But receiving a lot less attention from the U.S. press. When American journalists write about Syria, it’s generally within the context of its proximity to and violent history with neighboring Israel. Or Syria’s relationship with Iran, whose shipments of arms for Hezbollah must pass through Syrian territory.

But Syria could become a crashing domino for none of those reasons. It might happen because, in a neighborhood peopled by monster governments, Syria is a monster in its own right.

Just look at 2010 alone. In its annual report on human rights around the world, the State Department tells us that during 2010 “the government and members of the security forces committed numerous serious human rights abuses, and the human rights situation worsened.”

Here’s more from the State Department report:

During 2010, the government systematically repressed citizens' abilities to change their government. In a climate of impunity, there were instances of arbitrary or unlawful deprivation of life.

Members of the security forces tortured and physically abused prisoners and detainees. Security forces arrested and detained individuals--including activists, organizers, and other regime critics -- without due process.

Lengthy pretrial and incommunicado detention remained a serious problem. During the year the government sentenced to prison several high-profile members of the human rights and civil society communities.

The government violated citizens' privacy rights and imposed significant restrictions on freedoms of speech, press, assembly, association, and travel. An atmosphere of corruption pervaded the government.

Violence and societal discrimination against women continued, as did sexual exploitation, increasingly aimed at Iraqi refugees, including minors. The government discriminated against minorities, particularly Kurds and Ahvazis, and severely restricted workers' rights.

During the year there were numerous reports of deaths in detention, torture, and people being disappeared. Security Services appear to act with total impunity and there are no reports of arrests, trials or even reprimands of law enforcement officials.

So sayeth our State Department.

There is no freedom of expression in Syria. The most recent outrage in this department is the arrest and jailing of a 20-year-old woman blogger, who has been sentenced after a closed-door trial to five years in jail on state security charges -- "divulging information to a foreign state."

It is widely believed that she was targeted for her online poems and
writings on political and social issues, such as on the fate of Palestinians
after the 2008 military operations in Gaza.

The State Security Court's verdict is final, and there is no possibility of

Before the current president, Basher al-Assad, there was his father, Hafez al-Assad, who ruled the country for more than thjirty years. His reign was brutal and retrograde. Syria’s support for terrorist groups isolated it even from the more moderate Arab governments.

While Assad has from time to time made gestures toward a more open and mild regime, Syria has remained a dictatorship.

Assad’s government demonstrated its hold on the country last month, while the Middle East and North Africa was exploding in a wave of protest and civil disobedience. Anti-Assad citizens ran campaigns on Facebook and Twitter, calling for demonstrations in Damascus on Feb. 4 and 5. But, as the New York Times reported, “no one showed up except for police officers and members of the security forces.”

The Times wrote: “In stark contrast to several other Arab capitals, where hundreds of thousands of people have demonstrated against their governments, planned ‘Day of Rage’ in Damascus on Friday failed to attract any protesters against President Bashar al-Assad, a sign that he opposition here remains too weak to challenge one of the region’s most entrenched ruling parties.”

Syrian activists warn that Syria is “not ready" to sustain a Tahrir-type protest.

But authorities are taking no chances. On Friday, security officials arrested Ghassan al-Najjar, an Islamist who heads a small opposition group. He had called on Syrians in his city to demand more freedoms.

Human Rights Watch said in a statement last week that at least 10 people were summoned by the police in the previous 48 hours and pressed to not demonstrate. There were also reports that prominent opposition figures, many of whom spent years in jail for opposing the government, were also summoned. On Thursday, three Syrians were briefly detained and forced to sign pledges not to participate in future protests, after they protested, along with 12 others, against corruption and high cellphone costs.

At least 100 Syrians held a vigil in support of their Egyptian counterparts last Saturday near the Egyptian Embassy in Damascus, and quietly lit candles as police officers kept a watchful eye nearby.

Eventually, witnesses said, one of them shouted: “Oh blow, winds of change. Yesterday Tunisia became green, tomorrow Egypt will be free. Oh, winds of change, blow and sweep away injustice and shame.” As she finished, they said, officers quickly moved in, ordering them to leave immediately or else they would be detained.

“It is still soon for us,” a Syrian activist told the New York Times. “We have time. The street is definitely not ready yet,” he said.

One factor possibly discouraging Syrian activists from staging a Tahrir Square-type demonstration is the memory of The Hama massacre of February 1982,when the Syrian army bombarded the town of Hama to quell a revolt by the Muslim Brotherhood. An estimated 17,000 to 40,000 people were killed, including about 1,000 soldiers, and large parts of the old city were destroyed. The attack has been described as possibly being "the single deadliest act by any Arab government against its own people in the modern Middle East".

But there are other fctors as well. Chip Pitts, a lecturer in law at Stanford and Oxford universities, told The Public Record, “Syria would certainly be more of an uphill battle, being relatively insular as compared to the other regimes in the region, and likely falling on the Libyan side of the equation, where economic and political pressures and latent resentment against the long-standing and repressive rule by the minority elite (the Alawites, in Syria) could result in even wider and more effective action than the fairly small protests seen to date.”

But, he addds, “the regime would almost certainly continue to resort to brutal force in order to defend and perpetuate itself as revealed in its recent reactions, its crackdowns on bloggers, and the alleged killings of prisoners who had started an uprising at Sednaya Prison last week.”

“The continued serious human rights violations and extreme intolerance of dissent under Syria’s ever-present emergency laws combine with the limited economic opportunity for the 65% of the populace under age 30, to set the stage for a wider revolt that could put the lie to the somewhat kinder, gentler, and less hated face presented by Bashar al-Assad (including in his turnabout in granting the recent civil pay rise and his stated willingness to embrace political reforms),” he said. President Assad lifted the three-year ban on Facebook and YouTube only three weeks ago.

Pitts added: “The Assad family has already proven itself capable, like Gaddafi, of repeatedly deploying the Syrian military against the Syrian people, especially including the Kurdish Syrians and the Muslim Brotherhood, and the notorious massacre of tens of thousands in the town of Hama in 1982 remains very much in everyone’s mind. Former staff colonel Bashar al-Assad still depends on the military and the secret police/intelligence Mukhaberat to retain power, and despite some perceptions to the contrary, is still his uncle’s nephew and his father’s son. That said, the ongoing events of the past few weeks certainly demonstrate that anything is possible –and long overdue change in Syria would be very welcome.”

Pitts concluded, “I also think it’s undoubtedly true that Bashar al-Assad is less hated than Ghadafi, in part because he hasn’t been in power for so long -- i.e. he’s a younger generation and the successor autocrat rather than the decades-long autocrat -- but also because he comes across as more normal and (relatively) less arbitrary. The fact that unemployment in Syria (8%) is only about one-third that of Libya (25%) probably also plays a role.”

Americans who have followed the “war on terror” as waged by the George W. Bush Administration may be familiar with Syrian justice through the ordeal experienced by Maher Arar.

Arar, a Canadian citizen of Syrian origin who was detained at Kennedy Airport in New York in September 2002, held in detention for two weeks, flown to Jordan, and then driven to Syria, where he was detained for ten months and, he says, tortured repeatedly.

It appears that Arar had been named by two other Canadians, `Abdullah al-Malki, of Syrian origin, and Ahmad al-Maati, of Egyptian origin, whom Syrian intelligence agents reportedly interrogated and tortured earlier in 2002. All three were eventually released without ever being charged with a criminal offense.

The Canadian Government convened a blue-ribbon inquiry into the circumstances of Arar’s “rendition” to Syria, determined that it had been guilty of providing false intelligence to U.S. authorities. The head of the Canadian Royal Mounted Police was forced to resign his post. The Canadian government apologized to Arar and awarded him a settlement of approximately $10 million.

Egypt: Army Attacks Pro-Democracy Demonstrators; Later Apologizes

By William Fisher

As press attention shifted away from Egypt in the wake of the unanimous vote of the UN Security Council to impose sanctions on Libya's leader, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi and his cronies, Egypt was experiencing developments that some observers viewed with alarm while others downplayed as an “entirely predictable dynamic” we can “expect to see” in other countries undergoing similar changes.

These developments included brutal beatings of peaceful demonstrators in Tahrir Square by members of the military. The Army has since apologized for the abuse of peaceful demonstrators, but it remains unclear why the army attacked these citizens in the first place.

The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information reported that “hundreds of thousands” of Egyptians demonstrated in Tahrir Square on Friday in protest the continuation of Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik in office. The group said the protestors demanded the dissolution of the state security apparatus and the release prisoners of conscience.

Despite continued cheers in support of the army, army units assaulted the protesters, beating and chasing them on the streets of Cairo using electric batons that led to many casualties, the organization charged.

One of the abused demonstrators, whose name is being withheld for his safety, blogged the following first hand account of what occurred:

“We were a little less than 150 people [in Tahrir Square] that night [February 25]. At around 11:30 in the evening of the 25th of February, army soldiers formed a cordon around us without violations; one of my friends thinks this might have been their way of kettling us and making sure our numbers don’t grow around the ministerial cabinet. They dismantled their human cordon at 15 minutes past midnight of the 26th of February. At around that time we started hearing news of the sit-in in Tahrir being violently dispersed. And at around 1:30 am that very night, the army started using electric batons to disperse the sit-in and of-course we ran. They continued to push, beat and kick at us, until they managed to disperse us.

“And then I was arrested…As I ran, I came across a fallen protestor, and stopped to check on him. An officer grabbed me and started to push and beat at me and I said to him “Don’t hit! Just arrest me!” And he replied “Come here ya ruh ummak,” and they pulled me into a garage in the ministerial cabinet; and this is where the physical and moral torture began.

“In the ministerial cabinet’s garage…I was shocked at the numbers of army personnel beating up protestors in the garage. At first I thought these must have been thugs, but before I had a chance to finish the thought, I was pulled very roughly and ordered to squat on the ground. With that they started to kick at every part of my body; I tried to cover my face to protect it, but one of the officers pulled my arm away and stepped on my face pushing it to the ground, while they tied my hands behind my back. They – Lieutenants, First Lieutenants and a row of officers and soldiers -- then proceeded to kick at my face as if my head were a soccer-ball.

“Others around me were much worse off. One was stripped bare in the cold and sprayed with water and beaten, while another was beaten until his shoulder was dislocated, while others were electrocuted with the electric batons. One protestor called out to declare he had a heart condition; and they shouted back at him to ask what he was doing in a protest if he had such a condition, as they proceeded to pull his hand away from his heart, and kick him where it was.

“Twice we heard what sounded like a high-ranking officer giving an order to end the beating “No one hit any of them anymore!”. But as soon as he would leave, the beating would start again; it was difficult to tell if they really weren’t following orders, or if the whole thing was just theatrical. For the beating never ceased.

“What was said in the Garage…What was worse than the beating and the insults, were the accusations that the officers and military personnel were throwing at us while we were in there. When I first got in they played the old reel of accusations related to treachery and our being spies; I could even hear an officer shout as he beat a protestor “And you’re getting 50 Euros to insult president Mubarak ya ruh ummak?!”.

“And while we were all hearing variations of this, each of us was specifically asked to say “Long live Hosni Mubarak”, and those who refused got a fresh course of beating. It was clear to us that they didn’t think they were dealing with thugs, but believed they were dealing with paid security threats.

“And one of the personal violations that I could note is their occasional calling out that “We’re in Abu Ghareeb [Abu Ghraib] here,” as they piled protestors un-top of each other and beat them.”

It remained unclear why the government soldiers assaulted the demonstrators. The Military has apologized for the beatings, according to Muhammed Tolba, Executive Secretary of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies.
The apology is confirmed by one of those who was abused.

In his blog, he refers to “the kind treatment we received from the unit 28 military prosecution, as well as the respect and grace with which we were treated on the morning of the 26th of February when we were transferred to the military police administration. To be honest the Major General running the military police administration, and fellow officers and individuals were all very generous, and treated us like guests and not criminals.”

And he concludes, “And an extra thanks to the Major General for paying special attention to our cases – those who were beaten and assaulted the dawn of that very day – and taking me and a friend to Kobry El Qubba hospital in the company of an Officer to help with the ex-rays and check-ups and ensure our safety himself. They sent the rest back to Tahrir in a microbus at the same time.”

The assault on the Tahrir Square demonstrators came a few hours after Prime Minister Shafik issued instructions to cut a TV show by because guests of the show “criticized Shafiq and expressed solidarity with public demands to dismiss the prime minister.”

The group said that yesterday’s assault by the army “coincided with the return of police forces to practice repression, police forces assaulted thousands of peaceful demonstrators.” They added that “police used tear gas and batons.”

“The army assault on protestors calls for a clear apology from the army. To make [up] for this insult, the army must expel Ahmed Shafik and all the ministers loyal to Mubarak: Mahmoud Wagdy and Ahmed Aboul Gheit as well as dissolution of the state security department and prosecuting all its officers.”

The Network said, “The military’s insistence on keeping of the symbols deposed dictator Hosni Mubarak, and the attack on demonstrators, calls for an immediate apology to the Egyptian people and dismissing Shafik immediately.”

It added, “The Egyptians who made a revolution for their right to freedom and democracy, will not give up on deposing all symbols of dictatorship, starting with the dismissal of Shafik, the enemy of the people and enemy of freedom of the press, and reaching to dissolve state security and to prosecute all its officers, interior minister Mahmoud Wagdy on top.”

“The military has to know that there is no turning back. This revolution has sacrificed hundreds of martyrs for freedom and the Egyptians will not be give up by any force their the claim for a democratic civilian government clean of all symbols of dictatorship,” the Network added.

According to Chip Pitts, a long-time human rights defender and law lecturer at Stanford University, “The situation remains very fraught and uncertain, and I’m with the protesters. The government must move sooner rather than later to institutionalize truly new and democratic civilian rule.”

But he denied the Army’s action was a step backward. He told The Public Record, “I believe that this isn’t necessarily a regression, but is rather the entirely predictable dynamic arising as a result of the tumultuous changes now taking place in Egypt, the Middle East and North Africa (and, I hope, elsewhere), and we can expect to see them in the other countries undergoing change as well.”

He added, “The continued resort to repression by Shafik and the remnants of the Mubarak regime represents their attempt to firmly manage and even co-opt the reform process through the same measures that have worked for decades. Thanks to the persistent courage of the protesters and the Egyptian people, those measures will work no longer and will only increase the risks that Shafik and his ilk will be held personally accountable for human rights violations if they don’t step forward fully onto the right side of this historic movement of peoples.”

The Arabic Network also said that the ministry of interior suppressed peaceful demonstrators in Mansoura on the same day.

It said, “The consecutive attacks on freedom of expression and media freedoms in Egypt during the past few days are similar to those of the days of police repression before January 25th . The attempts of Shafik to impose himself as a guest on a popular show despite the refusal of the producer is an unacceptable violation of freedom of expression and a breach to principles and objectives of the revolution.”

“We do not know the reasons for the insistence of the military council on keeping Shafik who was appointed by the deposed dictator despite his participation in crimes against the revolution of January 25 as PM. His government hired thugs to attack protesters with petrol bombs, camels and bladed weapons.”

Shafik is the interim Prime Minister of Egypt. He was appointed Prime Minister by then-president Hosni Mubarak on January 29, 2011 in response to the 2011 Egyptian protests.

After a career as a fighter pilot, squadron, wing and base commander, he served as the commander of the Egyptian Air Force from 1996–2002, and was nominated in 2002 to become the Egyptian Minister for Civil Aviation.

All the members of the Supreme Military Council currently governing Egypt owe their appointments to Mubarak. In addition, many Mubarak appointees are still in place in senior posts.

Yesterday, Saturday, was also the day when the committee appointed to amend several articles of the Egyptian constitution was to have turned its work over to the Supreme Council.

The articles were to be amended to make it easier to form and register political parties, enter candidates in political contests, and ensure fair and free elections in the future.