Syrian President Bashar Assad has one eye on a potential revolution and another eye on remaining a dictator. He says he will push for reforms and will raise subsidies for heating oil, but his country is still restricting Facebook, the social network that is being used to stage an anti-Assad rally Saturday.
In a rare interview with The Wall Street Journal Tuesday, Assad observed that the movements for revolution in Tunisia, Yemen and Egypt signal a "new era" in the Middle East, and that Arab rulers, if they want to remaining power, must understand citizen’s social and economic desires. Unlike Egypt, Syria is openly anti-American and is an ally of Hizbullah and Iran.
Assad’s regime is considered one of the most ruthless, even for the Middle East. Poverty in the country is rising, but is still far less than in other Muslim nations, including Egypt. However, abuses of human rights and freedom of expression are frequently the target of criticism by human rights groups and the United States.
“People here are suffering much more than Egypt or Tunisia but you don't see it," a medical student told Al Jazeera. “They keep their mouths shut because they don't want to be locked up for 10 years.”
Opponents to Assad are using Facebook to prepare for a mass rally Saturday, using proxy servers to get around government restrictions on Facebook. Users must register their names when using Internet cafés, and police have the authority to confiscate the lists.
The Syrian dictator told the Journal he will grant more power to non-government organizations (NGOs) this year, and he is taking steps to lower food prices in an effort to stave off the revolution fever that is beginning to spread in Muslim countries.
He offered no signs of changing his one-party system and the strict control, often through brutal means, over anyone trying to suggest that Syrians would be better off under a different government. One elderly leftist is serving seven years in jail for proposing an alternative to Assad’s dictatorship.
The planned Facebook-inspired rally may fall flat on its face, partly because of Internet restrictions and partly because it simply has not captured the hearts and minds of Syrians, whether out of fear or because of a feeling of apathy.
The independent Islamic Bloc is among those promoting Saturday’s “Day of Rage” rally in front of the parliament in Damascus, but the government this past Saturday prevented a rally for solidarity with Egyptian protesters, reported the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI)
Syrian security chief Ali Mamlouk reportedly has met with province governors and police commanders in order to prepare for possible protests in the country, according to Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) research director Y. Yehoshua.