By Simon Tisdall
Syria is the latest Middle Eastern government to succumb to what might be termed “regime-itis”, a metaphorical contagion, both liberating and deadly, that spreads faster than the time it takes a secret policeman to pick up his truncheon. In eerie succession, one after another, autocrats and despots across the region are coming down with freedom flu. Like a virus, it spreads, from mouth to mouth and hand to hand, allowing prior immunity to none. There is no cure.
The symptoms presented by Bashar al-Assad‘s regime in Damascus fit this diagnosis. What began as a prank by a group of children in the southern city of Deraa, spraying anti-government graffiti on walls, has escalated into large-scale protests, echoing across the country.
The regime is trying repression and on Wednesday, at least 37 people were killed. But this only sparked even bigger demonstrations. Assad is also trying concessions, including the possible relaxation of emergency laws and media controls. But so far, at least, nothing works. More and more people appear to be overcoming the “fear factor” that has kept Syrian society in check during what the Guardian’s former Middle East correspondent, David Hirst, has called 51 years of “republican monarchy”.
As their numbers increase, the opposition’s demands grow proportionately in ambition and scale. This is what happened in Egypt and in Libya, and is happening now in Yemen. Next up, if he runs true to form, Assad will sack his interior minister or perhaps the whole government. Through spokesmen, the president is already denying personal responsibility for the killings. When he gives an interview to Christiane Amanpour, promising reform, it will be a certain sign his time is up.
Except calmer heads say Syria is not there yet, and perhaps never will be, for a host of prosaically unrevolutionary reasons.