[Marxism] With Police Absent, Protests Surge in Syrian City

Louis Proyect 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 
suppress.

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 
Syria.”

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 
protesters.

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 
shouted, “Leave!”

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 
accounts.

Hwaida Saad contributed reporting from Beirut, and an employee of The 
New York Times from Damascus.




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