Robin Yassin-Kassab

Tunisia in Syria?

with 22 comments

The Guardian published this piece on Syria tacked onto the end of this piece on Egypt. Unfortunately they cut my paragraphs on sectarianism, the most important part of my argument. I should add that, after today’s great revolutionary awakening in Egypt, I am no longer certain of anything. Everything has changed.

2008 demonstration against US bombing of Syria. photo - Xinhua/ Reuters

With its young population, and a bureaucracy run by the same authoritarian party for four decades, Syria is by no means exempt from the pan-Arab crisis of unemployment, low wages and the stifling of civil society, conditions which have now brought revolution to Tunisia. Nevertheless, in the short to medium term it seems highly unlikely that the Syrian regime will face a Tunisia-style challenge.

A state-controlled Syrian newspaper blamed the Tunisian revolution on the Bin Ali regime’s “political approach of relying on ‘friends’ to protect them.” Tunisia’s status as Western client was only a minor motivator for the uprising there, but still al-Watan’s analysis will be shared by many Syrians. Unlike the majority of Arab states, Syria’s foreign policy is broadly in line with public opinion – and in Syria foreign policy, which has the potential to immediately translate into a domestic security issue, matters a great deal. The regime has kept the country in a delicate position of no war with, but also no surrender to, Israel (which occupies the Golan Heights), and has pursued close cooperation with Lebanese and Palestinian resistance movements as well as emerging regional powers such as Turkey and Iran. This is appreciated by ‘the street’, and the president himself is no hate figure in the mould of Ben Ali or Mubarak. Where his father engineered a Stalinist personality cult, mild-mannered Bashaar al-Asad enjoys a reasonable level of genuine popularity. Much is made of his low-security visits to theatres and ice cream parlours.

Syria’s ostracism from the West also means that the country is less vulnerable than some to dramatic fluctuations in the price of essential goods, because it is less linked into the globalised economy.

Perhaps more fundamentally, any potential effervescence will be damped down by the well-founded fear that political change could unleash sectarian chaos. Beyond the Sunni Arab majority, Syria includes Alawis (most notably the president and key regime figures), Christians, Ismailis, Druze, Kurds and Armenians, as well as Palestinian and Iraqi refugees. Syria feels itself to be in the eye of a sectarian storm, between the bad example of Iraq’s collapse and divided Lebanon (where Tuesday’s violent anti-Hizbullah protests, which targetted the media, had very little to do with democracy, less to do with love for the West, and a great deal to do with intolerant Sunni identity politics).

In the 1980s Syria was traumatised by the state’s savage repression of an aggressively sectarian Sunni Islamist uprising. The memory of that civil strife, and the current Islamist dominance of oppositional political discourse, scares many Syrians. The secular regime, corrupt as it may be, offers them security.

Yet in the longer term Tunisia’s revolution may have as profound an effect on Syria and the Arab east as the 1979 Iranian revolution, which set the tone for dissenting thought and activity over the next 30 years. Certainly Arab Islamism was generated by specifically Arab conditions, but it was inevitably shaped and given prominence by the one regional example of successful revolution.

But now we are seeing in Tunisia a democratisation which didn’t require religious mobilisation, foreign invasion, or colours coded in Washington. This revolution is the result of a mass popular movement focussed on straightforward, practical demands which everybody can understand, whether they’re religiously observant or lax, Christian or Muslim, Sunni or Shia. Lessons will be learned, in Syria and elsewhere. In future years, the regime would be well-advised to proceed with great flexibility.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

January 28, 2011 at 6:01 pm

Posted in Lebanon, Syria

22 Responses

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  1. I’m green with envy having watched the news these past few days, seeing events unravel before my eyes, events that l never thought possible in the Arab world! As a half-Syrian woman I have pondered over whether it was actually possible that l might see a day where the Syrian people would stand in the face of tyranny and allow their voices to be heard. The voices of the impoverished, the down-trodden, those people that l have seen walk around that resemble the living dead. Grey and sullen, with eyes that look through me as if they were looking beyond into a life that they could only dream of. A people that reside within an enormous Auschwitz, a people that fear their very own shadow! I once uttered the word ‘assad’ in reference to the animal (I hasten to add before the mukhabarat break down the door and drag my sorry half Syrian ass to be thrown into a pit less dungeon never to be heard from again!), only to be told off vehemently that the word should not be said in public as even the walls are informers!! I once watched a clip on the internet of an old woman that was asked a question by a journalist or TV presenter, anyway the poor thing went into a somewhat memorised rambling praise of the president, mukhabarat and the such, even though the question had nothing what so ever to do with the question! It was heart breaking to watch. I have been to Damascus several times, and even lived there for a while and I assure you that day Hafiz Al-Assad died, and I stood on the balcony watching the crowds and his aeroplane take off from Mezza airbase, I was watching to see if I was one of the lucky ones that would actually witness the uprising of the Syrian nation. I assure you ten fold that I was not mourning his passing, and I certainly don’t appreciate Bashar’s so called ‘low security’ visits to the theatre or ice cream parlours!!! What kind of government imprisons a young girl of 18years (Tal Al Malouhi), for penning her ideas, for being at the end of the day no different from any other young girl that wishes to talk about the important issues in life and to do what should be every person’s birth right, freedom of thought and expression. All under the pretence that she poses a threat to ‘National Patriotism’! What an absolute farce! Shame on you! You who call yourselves men that feel the need to imprison a nightingale for singing. Tal you are an example to all who do and say nothing, which peevishly wait for the next person to do something rather than to act themselves (myself included). I would gladly wash your feet with my tears and dry them with my hair, you deserve far more for your bravery, and I only wish there were more like you.
    Again when the Lebanese people took to the streets in the so called Cedar Revolution, my eyes lit up like beacons, as I thought surely now is the time for someone to act, to say something to jump on the band wagon with the world’s eyes on Beirut and everyone pointing the finger at Syria, they would not be able to stand in the way of civil unrest. But not a thing, not a word! I’m just a normal insignificant woman venting her anger, making sure that my irrelevant voice is heard, but my voice next to that of another and another mounts to more than just a whisper. And maybe if more people were to voice their opinions and make heard their grievance then we might just be able to cause a ripple. It takes but one person to push over the first domino piece and watch how their corrupt, tyrannical, despotic and downright inhumane reign of terror will come crumbling to the ground. Nothing lasts forever.
    I would give my right arm to be part of a legitimate pro-reform group, a group that has the people’s needs at heart that will listen to their sighs that drowns the atmosphere of Damascus. It breaks my heart, when I have to listen to one tale of misery after the other. But I won’t be young forever, and will most likely be issued with my NHS Zimmer frame and free bus pass, and still they will buttering up the Syrian people with the so called ‘low security’ theatre trips. Do we care about their stupid trips? I don’t think so. I want change, and I know a lot of you out there also want change. Without using any expletives Robin, I think you can conclude that I found your article to be a great disappointment. I have been trawling the Internet all day for a sign of something or another and all I get is your article. Please someone give us some food for thought, anything!!


    January 28, 2011 at 7:47 pm

    • I’m sorry you’re disappointed, Farrah. I’m not sure you understood the gist of my article. Rather than waving the flag for freedom, I was giving, as best I am able, a realistic assessment of the situation. 1. Syrians are generally pleased by Syrian foreign policy. 2. Bashaar is not a hate figure (although the mukhabarat are hated, and corrupt people close to Bashaar are hated). 3. Most importantly, sectarianism in society and the fear of what might be unleashed holds back protest.

      If I saw the Syrian masses on the streets in their hundreds of thousands, Alawis arm in arm with Sunnis, Druze with Christians, demanding democracy, then of course I would support them. But I don’t expect to see this scene anytime soon, for the reasons I’ve laid out. Of course, I may be wrong.

      Your description of Syria matches the situation in the 80s. Today it is still much much worse than it should be, but much better than what you suggest.

      I agree with you that the murder of Tal is appalling. My wife commented that what probably happened is some police thugs ended up raping her, then thought they should hide the evidence. That kind of brutality should cause people to stand up and complain, and I expect that the arrival of people power on the Arab scene will make the Syrian regime think carefully about respecting the people.

      Robin Yassin-Kassab

      January 29, 2011 at 2:05 am

      • I assure you I understood the article very well, its just that it wasn’t what I wanted to read. I’m just baffled by the fact that evryone seems to be avoiding the obvious. We as Syrians have suffered just as much as the Egyptians if not more! We have had to endure the suffocating rule of the Assad clan for far longer. A rule that was passed on as if it were their birth right! Now we are forced to see pictures of the next generation of Assads stuck to taxi window’s and the like. Yet when for example Abd al Bari Atwan is interviewed on TV and asked who is the next obvious candidate for political reform, he mentions everyone except us!!! How infuriating. Another point you mention is that my description of Syria is dated and represents a picture of the 80’s rather than present day Syria. You are either turning a blind eye or are in total denial! Why don’t you google the Iraqi proffesor that was beaten to within an inch of his life because he would not let a member of the Assad clan sit her exam because she had forgotten her university pass! The stories are endless not to mention my own personal experiences and those of my relatives and friends. I couldn’t careless who was to govern, as long as they had the people at heart, all people (including the Kurdish people who are deprived of even an identity!). I think you should take your rose tinted spectacles off when it comes to writing articles about Syria, listen to the people, write what many dare not write, write what deep down you know should be written.


        January 31, 2011 at 4:00 pm

  2. Spot on article. It is important to distinguish between the various Arab countries and I have heard some people, especially some Syrians, stating their desire for similar results there. That is not going to happen any time soon and, for reasons that you already mention, may have extremely bad consequences. Still, it will be interesting to see the long-term effects of this phenomenon. Some people say this wave will shift eastwards, possibly sweeping Yemen next, but we are now getting ahead of ourselves here.


    January 29, 2011 at 12:35 am

    • Bahrain?

      Robin Yassin-Kassab

      January 29, 2011 at 2:13 am

      • No … the Gulf States will be much more actively “protected” by the Americans … Because if it starts in Bahrain, it will end up in Saudi Arabia.

        Iran will be accused of being behind it and western journalists will not support that uprising, and it will miss that romantic tone that the Tunisian and Egyptian ones had.


        January 29, 2011 at 5:38 am

  3. Thank you for an informative article. It’s so interesting to see how all of the countries in the region will react, or not, to the unrest.


    January 29, 2011 at 5:54 pm

  4. In Bahrain there’s a highly politicised, intelligent, Shia majority oppressed by a Sunni ruling family which is giving nationality to any sunni arab who serves a while in the security forces. Bahrain is smaller and less divided than saudi. but you’re right about the west’s response.

    Robin Yassin-Kassab

    January 29, 2011 at 7:27 pm

    • I’m wondering how worried they are behind the scenes about Egyot. Egyot is really big … I don’t think Obama is enjoying his weekend today.


      January 30, 2011 at 1:19 am

  5. this is ten thousand times bigger than tunisia. this changes absolutely everything. bigger than suez in 56…

    Robin Yassin-Kassab

    January 30, 2011 at 2:12 am

  6. It looks to me that the uprising in Tunisia and Egypt are taking place for two reasons,
    1_ Foreign policy
    2_ Poor against rich
    I see no sectarian or religious tone to it ,
    Syria does not have to fear it’s foreign policy stand but needs to implement a tax system that can help redistribute wealth so it can avoid the uprising of the poor ,
    Rich Syrians have a big stake in avoiding a revolution that can destroy their wealth therefore they should help.


    January 30, 2011 at 4:37 am

  7. Did you really mean it?
    Bashar is popular in syria?
    It looks to me Yassin you’re living in a differnt planet.
    But, it is very interesting to read a western reared so-called ‘intellectual’ defending a despot in the name of avoiding sectarianism. This looks like intellectual bankruptcy more or less. The udders of the milk-cow of the 80s disturbances have dried up. Who in his right mind would listen to such nonsense?

    Speaking of sectarianism, how much did that have to do with Egypt or Tunisia?

    Farrah, I assure you your wish will be realized sooner than you expect.


    January 30, 2011 at 5:49 am

  8. Yes, Mustapha, I mean it. Once again, I am not defending anybody, or talking about what would happen in an ideal world. For the reasons I’ve outlined, I don’t think a popular revolution is imminent in Syria. And indeed, there is revolution in Egypt, Tunisia, protests in Yemen and Jordan – but nothing in Syria. The pro-US regimes with greater sectarian unity (perhaps not Yemen) are going. Not Syria. My judgement appears to be correct. If you see that as ‘intellectual bankruptcy’, so be it.

    As I said, I might be wrong. Everything is in flux.

    Robin Yassin-Kassab

    January 30, 2011 at 1:39 pm

  9. Farrah – I wrote what I consider to be the truth.

    A few points:

    I did not say that things are good now. I said that they are incomparably better than the 80s. Any Syrian who knows what they’re talking about will agree with this.

    In terms of domestic dictatorship, Syrians have suffered more than Egyptians, it’s true. However, in economic terms, they have suffered much less. The average income in Syria is a lot more than double what it is in Egypt. And in terms of national humiliation they have suffered less than Egyptians.

    Most Syrians agree that a hereditary presidency is very unfortunate, to say the least. At the same time, most were not angered by Bashaar’s ascent. Were you in Syria when Hafez died? If you were, you’ll remember the fear.

    Kurds, especially those on the Turlish border, do not have their full rights. This must change. But your suggestion that they are deprived of identity is much too sweeping.

    There are far fewer pictures of the president on display now than there were ten yeras ago.

    as for this ‘listen to the people’ nonsense – please stop it. I’m a Syrian at a safe distance, brought up in the West. But my father and all my extended family are in Syria. My wife grew up there in the 80s. I have lived there, and I’ve visited many times. Two of the commentors above who like my piece are Syrians. We all have tragic stories. What I’m trying to do is look realistically at the situation. And, from your imprecise and emotional comments, I think I understand it more than you do.

    Having said that, the revolution in egypt does change everything. the syrian regime will have to adapt. even it could fall in the future if it fails to take awakened popular dignity into account.

    if you think i propagandise on behalf of the regime, you should read my novel. i don’t propagandise on behalf of anyone.

    Robin Yassin-Kassab

    January 31, 2011 at 7:07 pm

    • To suggest that I don’t know what I am talking about is harsh. I was in Syria at the time of transfer of power, people were excited to see whether there would be a change for the better they were scared of another eternity of despotic power. People were angered at the appointment of Bashar. I don’t think you have the right to call my views ‘nonsense’. I have read your views and commented on them respectfully you should do the same for others. I never accused you of propaganda, I merely think that you avoid the obvious. As for your book I have read it.


      February 1, 2011 at 7:56 am

      • Farrah – You have not commented respectfully. you started it, with your ‘shame on you,’, ‘you who call yourselves men’, your suggestion that i know what the truth is but have decided not to write it because i’m scared. I find all this pretty insulting. You havent engaged with any of the points i’ve brought up. You persist in assuming that I’m a regime propagandist. Time for you to calm down and be quiet.

        Robin Yassin-Kassab

        February 1, 2011 at 12:51 pm

  10. Neither do I expect there will be an imminent revolution in Saudi Arabia. I am famous for hating the regime in Saudi Arabia, but I don’t change my analysis to fit my fantasy.

    Robin Yassin-Kassab

    January 31, 2011 at 7:13 pm

  11. The reason a revolution won’t happen in Syria is because the Alawis will just pull out the machine guns and mow people down. They don’t care. See Hama in the early 80s. 50,000 people mowed down and bulldozed.

    Assad is an ass. The entire country hates him. People just tolerate him because they have to. His time is coming. I hope they torture him like he has done to others.

    John Malkovich

    February 1, 2011 at 6:36 am

    • it’s more complicated than ‘the alawis’, mr malkovitch. regime high ups also include rural sunnis, druze and ismailis. and plenty of alawis have been killed or imprisoned by the regime, for instance the poet Hassan al-Khayyar, who opposed both the sectarian crimes of the ikhwan and the repression by the regime. the ikhwan killed a lot of people just for being alawi, people who had nothing to do with regime, party, or army.

      Your 50,000 figure is by far the highest i’ve ever seen. where did you get that from? your bubbling brain?

      one reason why a revolution isn’t coming is that there are too many people like you ready to resort to ignorant sectarian language.

      by the way, you start your comment by saying there’ll be no revolution, then end by saying Asad’s time is coming. very logical.

      before you respond, i will delete sectarian comments as well as unwarranted personal attacks. if you or farrah have a real point of analysis to make, if you wish to engage with my analysis, then fine.

      Robin Yassin-Kassab

      February 1, 2011 at 12:58 pm

  12. There is quite a bit of vitriol and emotivist claptrap being made regarding this article and the situation in Syria. I don’t usually engage with any of this nonsense but suffice it to say that Syria is in no way in a similar situation to Egypt.

    Mr Malkovitch and Ms. Farrah would do good to read a wider range of books and brush up on enough Arabic to understand al Jazeera’s excellent coverage of the region before they make ill-informed comments for all to view and criticise.

    On a further note Robin, there is an unfortunate trend emerging since the invasion of Iraq, of indignant, well-meaning, but politically illiterate, commentators emerging who cannot discern between Mubarak and Ahmedinejad or between Saad al Hariri and Bashar al Assad. This results in what I call ‘Whitakerisms’ (based on the self-righteous anger of the Guardian’s Middle East Editor). These Whitakerisms are a political position regarding the Middle East that is not left, not right and, in reality, not anything but a revolution without a clue. The invasion of Iraq and the increased attention to what is happening in the Middle East has resulted in a wider range of people with varying abilities and access to a wide audience through the internet and social media to organise and comment on subjects that they do not understand. It is natural, but not necessarily welcome, in an age of free information.


    February 1, 2011 at 1:48 pm

    • Firstly Robin, when I said ‘shame on you’ this was not in reference to you but the regime and the mukhabarat. And I did not suggest that you were a coward! You have misunderstood me. Secondly I don’t think you have the right to tell me to be quiet, we live in a democracy not in Syria! If you are not prepared to hear other peoples views regardless of whether you like them or not, then you should not have bothered with blogging.
      As for Maysaloon, I assure you I am well read and speak and understand Arabic perfectly well. I apologise if you find my comments ‘politically illiterate’ not everyone will be of your opinion. Again just as it is your right to comment in angst against me, it is my right to express my views. Your somewhat obnoxious and patronising comment may be deemed just as unwelcome as mine!


      February 1, 2011 at 4:58 pm

  13. I was born in Syria and lived their for many years. I am not trying to make this sectarian or religious. Assad’s family and the security services in Syria have a long history of slaughtering innocent people, whether they are in jail, in Hama, or just demonstrating. It is happening now.

    I think that Assad would rather leave than have his assets frozen. He isn’t going to be as dumb as Gaddafi. He would rather keep his billions.

    John Malkovich

    March 26, 2011 at 6:18 am

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