[Marxism] With Police Absent, Protests Surge in Syrian City
lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Jul 2 06:58:43 MDT 2011
(From the indispensable Anthony Shadid.)
NY Times July 1, 2011
With Police Absent, Protests Surge in Syrian City
By ANTHONY SHADID
BEIRUT, Lebanon — Tens of thousands of protesters poured Friday into the
streets of Hama, a Syrian city abandoned by the military and security
forces, gathering in the country’s biggest demonstration in nearly four
months of unrest and staking a festive claim to a region that bore the
brunt of a ferocious government crackdown a generation ago.
The scenes of residents rallying in a central square there, captured by
activists on video and circulated on the Internet, seemed to signal a
new stage in an uprising that has so far only aspired to rival the mass
protests in Egypt and Tunisia, where authoritarian leaders were
eventually forced to step down. Protesters exploited at least a
temporary vacuum in the official security presence in Hama to stage a
panorama of dissent as celebratory as it was angry.
“Leave! Leave!” protesters chanted to a hip-hop beat.
The military and security forces withdrew last month from Hama for
reasons that remain unclear. But the move seemed to reflect a
compelling, if ambiguous, turn in an uprising that until recently was
marked by repeated clashes between protesters and armed troops.
After weeks of stalemate, a new dynamic has emerged recently in Syria.
The opposition gathered Monday in a rare meeting in Damascus, government
officials are promising reform in coming weeks and protesters have shown
a resilience that seems more and more difficult for the government to
The most visible shift has occurred in Hama, where a government
crackdown in 1982 made the city synonymous with the brutality of Syria’s
leadership. Since the withdrawal last month, protests have gathered
momentum. Each night, youths have converged on Aasi Square, which they
have renamed Freedom Square. On successive Fridays, crowds have grown
bigger, surpassing 10,000 last week, diplomats say.
Friday’s scenes were even more dramatic; one resident compared it to a
carnival. Speakers climbed atop cars and delivered speeches, slogans and
songs, other residents said. Other people distributed water, falafel
sandwiches and bananas to the crowds on the hot summer day.
“It’s a challenge,” said a nurse and activist in the city, who gave his
name as Abu Abdo. “Hama is swelling the tide of protests for the rest of
Estimates of the crowd were hard to verify, and activists have sometimes
exaggerated the turnout in protests challenging more than four decades
of rule by the Assad family. But few questioned the breadth of Friday’s
demonstrations, which occupied parts of a city long kept under
surveillance by the state’s repressive apparatus.
“We didn’t even see a policeman,” said a 35-year-old opposition leader
there who gave his first name as Mazen. “If the government pulls out all
its security men from the streets on Friday, I can say that all cities
will have as big demonstrations as Hama.”
Residents said that swelling the ranks of protesters were people from
the countryside, who arrived in the city unimpeded by checkpoints that
had existed only weeks before. In Hama itself, even the traffic
policemen were gone. The residents said that after the rally, protesters
picked up trash and cleaned the square, in a scene reminiscent of Tahrir
Square in Cairo in February, where demonstrators took it upon themselves
to enforce civil order as the old power structure crumbled.
“The numbers are so intense in Hama,” said Omar Idlibi, a spokesman for
the Local Coordination Committees, which have sought to represent the
Diplomats, activists and Syrian officials have differed on the meaning
of the government’s strategy in Hama: whether the departure suggests a
government attempt to avoid casualties, or military and security forces
that are exhausted and overstretched.
Syrian officials have pointed to Hama as evidence that one of the
region’s most repressive governments can tolerate peaceful dissent and
suggested that it was part of a new government approach to embrace what
a Syrian diplomat called “much-needed reform.”
“In the city of Hama, people have been demonstrating in public places
for two weeks without any incident, because they expressed their
political viewpoints peacefully,” Imad Moustapha, the Syrian ambassador
to the United States, wrote in a recent letter to the Syrian-American
community that was circulated by e-mail.
Residents of Hama, though, have spoken in more jubilant terms,
celebrating the departure of the military and security forces as a
victory. Though the military and security forces have withdrawn from
other towns and cities only to return in force, the size of the crowds
on Friday suggested that a renewed crackdown would come only at a very
high cost. Hama carries symbolic significance, too: In the culmination
of a struggle between an armed Islamist opposition and the government in
1982, the military stormed Hama, the country’s fourth-largest city,
killing 10,000 people and perhaps many more. This time around, “The
regime showed more restraint there because of the sensitivities and the
symbolism of Hama,” said Peter Harling, a Damascus-based analyst with
the International Crisis Group. “There was a desire on the part of the
regime to contain this.”
While officials have ceded territory to the protesters, their
administration appears to still function in Hama. A pro-government rally
was organized there last month. But the psychological impact of a
security apparatus that vanished in days has reverberated through the
predominantly Sunni Muslim city.
“Oh, youth of Damascus,” went a chant shouted this week by youthful
protesters in Aasi Square, “we’re in Hama and we’ve toppled the regime.”
“This regime doesn’t want to create a problem in Hama,” said Omar
al-Habbal, 57, a civil engineer in the city. “They don’t want to blow up
an explosive situation.”
Syrian state television broadcast images of large pro-government rallies
on Friday in Damascus and Aleppo, and despite the scenes in Hama, the
government still draws on substantial support, particularly among
minorities, the middle class and the business elite.
As in past weeks, violence erupted in several locales across the
country, though the death toll was lower than previously. In Homs, a
city to the south of Hama that has emerged as a nexus of the uprising,
Mr. Idlibi said security forces killed three people, and residents said
the military deployed armored vehicles into some neighborhoods.
“You took our loaf of bread,” a resident there quoted protesters as
chanting. “When we asked for it back, you fired at us instead.” Others
Syrian state television said that armed men in Homs fired on crowds and
security forces, killing a civilian and a policeman. It also reported
that armed men blocked the road in a Damascus suburb and that in an
exchange of fire with the gunmen, a civilian was killed.
It was almost impossible to reconcile the discrepancy in the different
Hwaida Saad contributed reporting from Beirut, and an employee of The
New York Times from Damascus.
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