Intifada update

As quiet returns, Syrians ponder the future
Syria experienced its first day of political calm in over two weeks on April 3. The tsunami of protest and youth awakening that swept over Syria as part of the earthquake that hit the Arab world over two months ago has profoundly shaken Syrians. So accustomed to being the “island of stability” in the Middle East, Syrians are now wondering how long the Assad regime can last.

The Baathist regime has presided over Syria for 48 years; Bashar al-Assad has been president for 11 since inheriting power from his father. Although badly bruised and shaken, both remain in firm control. Western accounts of the protest movement in Syria have been exaggerated. At no time was the regime in peril. No officials resigned or left the country as has happened in Libya. Unlike the Tunisian and Egyptian armies, the Syrian army remained loyal to the president, and the protest movement that grew large in the Syrian countryside failed to take root in the cities. The number of demonstrators that turned out in Damascus, Aleppo, and Hama, three of Syria’s four largest cities, counted in the hundreds and not the thousands.

Damascus was the only one of these three cities to have demonstrations. There were four in all. The two most significant protests occurred early in the process on March 16 and 17. Dozens of young demonstrators marched through the al-Hamidiyeh and Hariqa souqs on March 16 shouting, “God, Syria, Freedom — is enough,” a chant that became the standard slogan of the movement that spread to other parts of Syria in the following two weeks. The day after, scores of human rights activists and the relatives of political prisoners demonstrated in front of the Interior Ministry. After Deraa flared up, the citizens of Damascus fell quiet rather than jumped on the bandwagon.

Aleppo, a hotbed of Muslim Brotherhood support in the 1970s, was completely unaffected by the anti-government movement. Instead, Aleppines turned out in sizable numbers to support the government.

Hama was also unaffected. It was the city that the Muslim Brotherhood was able to take over in 1982 before having its old districts destroyed brutally by the regime. A friend from Hama was asked, “Why isn’t Hama rising against the regime and taking revenge?” He answered: “Syrians demonstrate for their own reasons. Don’t ever think anyone in Daraa will shed a tear for Hama or the other way around.” He said there is no great Syrian revolution — “just locals having internal issues.” (Joshua Landis)

Will Saleh’s resignation bring democratic reform to Yemen?
As the political battle for Yemen’s future unfolds, the country’s most immediate challenge is to avert a bloody civil war. Yet if Yemenis avoid this outcome by peacefully transitioning power, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s replacements will immediately face a daunting economic crisis, festering regional tensions, and an unstable security environment. Moreover, as Saleh negotiates with elites in the capital, powerful tribal and religious interest groups may drown out the youth and civil society protesters demanding far-reaching democratic reform.

Those currently aligned against Saleh represent a diverse group of unlikely allies. Youth and civil society activists originally initiated the anti-regime protests and stand at their symbolic core. But over time and for various reasons — including genuine support for democratic change, opposition to Saleh’s heavy-handed response to the protests, and political opportunism — established opposition parties, Huthis rebels, some southern separatists, religious leaders, prominent tribal sheikhs, businessmen, and army commanders have joined the protests. Although youth and civil society activists welcome assistance in ousting Saleh, they are legitimately skeptical of the role that some of these forces may play in the future. (April Longley Alley)

Salafists’ wrath turns violent in Egypt
The hostility between Sufis and Salafists, long suppressed in the minds and hearts of both parties, has revealed its fangs for all to see. The shrines built to commemorate and worship saints in the Sufi tradition is a very physical embodiment of the clash in ideology and faith of the two groups. For Sufis these are sacred sites at which to pray and worship through celebration, for Salafists they are an abomination against Islam and the teaching of the Prophet.

This fractious relationship has recently taken a violent turn with the destruction of shrines by Salafists across Egypt, attracting attention to the diverging paths of faith as the attacks spread. The latest act was the burning of the tomb of Sidi Izz El-Din in Qalioubiya, which sparked the crisis and confrontation between the two groups. (Ahram Online)

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