Salwa Ismail is professor of politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. At the TNI Fellows Meeting in Amsterdam (3-4 June), she discussed the differences between the revolutions in Egypt and Syria.
Was this change in focus – from local to national – inspired by the events in Tunesia, Egypt and elsewhere?
Yes, particularly when you look at the youth calling for protest on Facebook pages. They were aware that they didn’t have the same groundwork as some of these other countries. But I don’t think the end goal was to bring down the regime. They saw a historical opportunity and thought they could use it to press the regime to 'open up' more. Because the regime responded which such violence, they are now demanding for the president to step down. And they’ve learned very quickly. Learned how to organize and coordinate, moving from actions at a local level to forming a translocal movement that brings people from various parts of the country together.
What’s the situation like now?
Well, there are two cities important for regime control. Damascus and Allepo. The protests haven’t reached these cities yet for two reasons. First, these are heavily secured sectors, with police rounding up men on the street. And second, these are mercantile cities. Merchants have a modus operandi with the regime. They’re not necessarily fans of the regime, but have an accommodation with them. They reached some sort of arrangement, agreeing not to interfere in each others' business. It remains to be seen whether worsening economic conditions will make them turn against the protesters or against the regime.
So the merchants are key to further developments in this crisis?
If they close the souks, the shops and the markets, it will have a great impact. Symbolically, but also economically. They didn’t do so in 1980-1982, and a lot of people believe that’s the reason the regime didn’t fall. The merchants were very important actors at the time. People still believe merchants are important, but I think we might be exaggerating this. In fact, we’re seeing new actors emerging: the youth, people from rural areas.
Whether or not the merchants join the protest, there is no going back. People have broken down the wall of fear. Not completely, but very significantly. We’re talking about thousands of people across the country. They paid a heavy price. Official figures estimate at least 1,200 dead. But I am not alone in thinking it is closer to 3,000 and likely to increase. Even though the regime responds with such violence, many believe it's worth continuing.
How should the EU, the US and other international actors respond?
First of all, demand an international media presence. The Syrian regime has kept all foreign media outside, including Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya. Both stations have offices on the ground, but are not allowed to send reporters to where the protests are. BBC also had somebody reporting from Damascus. But again, not free to move around. Many foreign reporters have been detained and deported. Western actors who are capable of exerting pressure to pass UN resolutions for no-fly zones, should be capable of exerting pressure for media presence too.