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Middle East

Syrians remain doubtful on reforms, keep up protests

In an attempt to placate demonstrators, the Syrian government this week lifted harsh emergency laws. But experts say the move is unlikely to put an end to escalating protests across the country.

Protests in Banias, Syria

Syrians aren't buying their government's promise of reforms

The month-long uprising in Syria shows no signs of ebbing despite President Bashar al-Assad's effort to ease mass discontent by passing a law lifting 48 years of emergency rule.

In place since the Baath Party seized power in a 1963 coup, the emergency law gave security organs blanket power to stifle dissent through a ban on gatherings of over five people, arbitrary arrests and closed trials.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad

Assad faces the biggest challenge to his rule

But the opposition remains deeply mistrustful of the Assad government which has used a mixture of concession and coercion to ward off the most serious challenge to its grip on power.

Haitham Maleh, a former judge and a leading figure in the opposition movement, said he considered the repeal of harsh emergency laws to be nothing more than mere words. He criticized the government's crackdown on protesters in the cities of Daraa and Homs in recent days. Activists estimate that more than 200 people have been killed since the unrest began.

"The people will be convinced of the seriousness of reforms only when the killings end," Maleh, a human rights activist who has often been imprisoned, said. "But when you promise reforms in the morning and we heard again about people being killed in the evening - then that has nothing to do with reforms."

Lacking credibility

In another bid to mollify protesters, the government also sacked a security police chief in the city of Baniyas. But experts say the moves will not halt repression.

They point to a new law requiring permits to hold demonstrations. That makes it unclear if the end of emergency rule would make for a less restrictive Syrian state.

Within hours of President Assad's announcement lifting emergency laws, Syrian authorities arrested Mahmud Issa, a prominent opposition figure. He was seized after he gave an interview to al-Jazeera television in which he called for an investigation into the death of a brigadier general who was reportedly killed along with several relatives during protests in Homs last weekend.

Lamis Andoni, a Middle East analyst, said the reform measures would not reassure the people.

A protest in Syria

Anti-government demonstrations show no signs of ending any time soon

"The Syrian government lacks credibility. The demonstrators are demanding freedom, an end to repression," Andoni said. "No matter what the regime claims, there's a political uprising in Syria, a movement that demands that security forces no longer intervene in the lives of people."

Far removed from reality

Notwithstanding President Assad's latest overtures, anti-government protests continue to flare across Syria. The demonstrators want political parties other than the all-powerful Baath party to be allowed in Syria, a full right to demonstrate and the release of thousands of political prisoners imprisoned under draconian laws.

Analysts say the gap between the protesters on the street and the Assad government has never been larger.

"There's a deep rift between the government and the opposition," Marwan Kabalan from the University of Damascus said. "A lot has been promised but little has been implemented. So the protests will continue. The people are waiting for the government to take step toward real reforms."

One thing that's clear is that the Syrian regime is not going to give up power without a fight. The opposition is not a well-organized, tight unit. The majority of 23 million Syrians was born after the introduction of emergency laws and know nothing other than state repression.

Many Syrians have shied away from taking to the streets for fear of change and an uncertain future. Decades-long dependence on the government and a bloated security apparatus and state bureaucracy give President Assad the help he needs to continue to crack down on his own people and crush dissent.

Author: Ulrich Leidholdt (sp)
Editor: Rob Mudge

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