Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Rising Protests Social, not Political


Syrians took to the streets and clashed with police in May in diverse protests over economic conditions, but observers are not convinced that the movements reflect broader popular opposition to the government.

Street protests have grown over the last two years following decades of silence.

In May, shop owners in Aleppo clashed with police as they complained about bribes they had to pay to avoid harassment. Farmers, too, confronted the security forces during protests against a government ban on tomato exports, a decision that has since been overturned.

Human rights groups reported that at least 20 people were arrested outside the northeastern city of Deir al-Zur during a protest against the rising cost of living, while riot police used tear gas to disperse a crowd demonstrating against the construction of a sewage plant in an area some 45 kilometres from Damascus.

"These movements seem to involve factions of people who are affected by certain unfair government decisions,” said a 38-year-old independent journalist from Damascus. “It isn’t a broad popular movement."

Still, the journalist noted, “It is surprising for observers to see people who for two decades were afraid of any public action now addressing their problems in such an acute manner.”

Political and social activity in Syria was brutally repressed in the Eighties, and political protests largely faded from view.

The journalist noted that even now, people only mobilised when they were personally touched by an issue such as the rising cost of living.

Syria’s economic problems, and moves by government to wean the country off socialist policies, have affected and angered many citizens.

"When it comes to your food and housing, you will overcome your fear of prison and the security services," said the journalist. "So, yes, time has passed and the walls of fear have cracked somewhat. At the same time, the economic and social situation has deteriorated."

Many protests are fairly tame affairs, with participants cheering President Bashar al-Assad even as they criticise a particular official policy. Syrians will openly criticise individual local leaders whom they blame for their problems, but rarely take on the government as a whole because they fear the security services, observers say.

Some protests have descended into violent clashes – not a good way to go if demonstrators want real change, according to Syrian writer and opposition activist Hazem Nahar.

He believes people “have a right to protest in a peaceful, civil way against government decisions that negatively affect their lives and interests”, but actions that end in violence are “evidence of immaturity in dealing with problems and crises”.

At the same time, Nahar said it was not surprising that some protests were disorderly because there were no trade unions or other civil society groups in a position to organise people. “In the past, people haven’t had opportunities to practice civic methods of protest to defend their interests,” he explained.

The government rarely responds to protesters’ demands.

So far, there appears to be no discernible connection between these spontaneous local outbreaks of popular anger and the political opposition.

The opposition has grown over the last few years. The most prominent grouping is the Damascus Declaration for Democratic National Change, which was founded in 2005 by several opposition groups, and wants the government to embark on democratic reforms.

Opposition protests over the past few years have attracted as many as 500 demonstrators or as few as a dozen.

The authorities have generally responded to political protests with tough action. Twelve of the Damascus Declaration leaders are now in prison, and inside Syria at least, the movement has become substantially quieter in recent months.

Nahar criticised the opposition for not focusing on economic conditions and the quality of life, and instead highlighting issues such as political persecution, Palestinian rights and anti-imperialism.

A 33-year-old political activist from Aleppo admitted that the public is often baffled by opposition actions. Recalling one such demonstration, he recalled, “Ordinary people watched us with surprise. They didn’t know who we were or why we were protesting.

“We seemed very odd to them. But we took the view that if we don’t have freedom of expression, we can't protest about economic or social matters.”

For the moment, it does not seem that the opposition will play much of a role in channelling popular discontent.

"How far can you control people's anger, fear and frustration?” asked the Damascus-based journalist. “You can't stop a sealed, neglected, and boiling container from exploding."

(Syria News Briefing, a weekly news analysis service, draws on information and opinion from a network of IWPR-trained Syrian journalists based in the country.)

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