Writers from across the Arab world offer their reflections on the last five years. Robin Yassin-Kassab writes: Five years ago the Guardian asked me to evaluate the effects of the Tunisian uprising on the rest of the Arab world, and specifically Syria. I recognised the country was “by no means exempt from the pan-Arab crisis of unemployment, low wages and the stifling of civil society”, but nevertheless argued that “in the short to medium term, it seems highly unlikely that the Syrian regime will face a Tunisia-style challenge”.
That was published on 28 January 2011. On the same day a Syrian called Hasan Ali Akleh set himself alight in protest against the Assad regime in imitation of Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in Tunisia. Akleh’s act went largely unremarked, but on 17 February tradesmen at Hareeqa in Damascus responded to police brutality by gathering in their thousands to chant “The Syrian people won’t be humiliated”. This was unprecedented. Soon afterwards, the Deraa schoolboys were arrested and tortured for writing anti-regime graffiti. When their relatives protested on 18 March, and at least four were killed, the spiralling cycle of funerals, protests and gunfire was unleashed. In 2011, I wrote that Assad personally was popular, and so he remained until his 30 March speech to the ill-named People’s Assembly. Very many had suspended judgment until that moment, expecting an apology for the killings and an announcement of serious reforms. Instead, Assad threatened, indulged in conspiracy theories, and, worse, giggled repeatedly.
I underestimated the disastrous effects of Assad’s neo-liberal/crony-capitalist restructuring during the previous decade. I was soon to be wrong about many other things too. In April the regime made conciliatory gestures to Islamists and Kurds. At first I thought this showed how hopelessly out of touch it was – the protest movement at this stage was pan‑Syrian and non-sectarian. Then I understood its misinterpretation was deliberate. In the following years the regime would stick to reading the revolution through ethnic and sectarian lenses; and largely due to its own efforts, these eventually came to dominate the field. [Continue reading…]