Egypt Protests: Is Syria next?

The incredible scenes in Egypt today have led several commentators to speak of a possible ‘domino effect’ in other Arab authoritarian regimes. I have long written about this phenomenon and am not surprised that events in Tunisia have spread to Egypt and beyond. Arab identity remains important in the region, recently buoyed by the internet and satellite television like Al-Jazeera, and the impact of Arabs in one country successfully overthrowing a dictator can inspire other Arabs still suffering under authoritarian rule elsewhere. Whilst it is still far from certain that ‘regime change’ will occur in Egypt, many are already suggesting Syria, Jordan, Yemen and Algeria are the next candidates for similar transformations. Lets examine Syria in particular and consider the likelihood of it following Tunisia and (possibly) Egypt.

The case for the Syrian domino falling

Syria shares many characteristics with Egypt that might suggest Bashar al-Assad could suffer the same (possible) fate as Mubarak. It too is effectively a one party state, ruled by the Ba’ath party since 1963. Like the NDP in Egypt, the Ba’ath has lost any of its original ideological motivations and primarily acts as a defender of the status quo and the regime. Like the NDP ordinary Syrians resent (and privately mock) the party, which is seen as nepotistic, preferential and one of the few routes to personal advancement. Syria too suffers from terrible corruption that, as in Egypt, many resent. Syria recently finished near-bottom of the World Bank’s report on business-friendly countries. Figures related to the president or from his dominant Allawi sect, such as his cousin Rami Maklouf, own large companies many of which are granted government monopolies. On top of this, Syria like Egypt has its economic problems, with increasing numbers of people suffering from recent economic reforms that have cut previous subsidies on basics such as bread and oil and have left the poorest elements of society poorer. Unemployment is high too, though nowhere near the levels of Egypt.

The other major disadvantage for Syria is that its population, perhaps more than any others in the region, have been encouraged to feel a sense of Arab identity by the regime for decades. If the ‘democratic domino effect’ has an impact, it may well be felt extra strongly in Syria simply because there it will be harder for the regime to argue the Egyptians and Tunisians are somehow different to the Syrians, given they have been encouraging the reverse for generations. The sight of Egypt, ‘Umm Dunya (the mother of the world), becoming democratic could well encourage Syrians to demand the same.

The case against Syria being next

There are also key differences between Egypt/Tunisia and Syria that may cause events to unfold differently. One key difference is that President Bashar al-Assad is relatively popular. He is still seen as quite a new leader (having been in power 11 years as opposed to Mubarak’s 30 and Ben Ali’s 23) and is regarded as a moderate, approachable reformer. Assad successfully transcends resentment against ‘the government’ and ‘the party’ by most Syrians you speak to and retains a popular image of someone who is trying to reform Syria and move it forward but is held back by the ‘old Guard’ of his father’s regime. If any protests do occur in Syria it is quite possible that people will call on Bashar to reform the regime himself rather than step down.

In relation to this, Syria has another advantage that its foreign policy is relatively popular on the streets. The continued war with Israel is widely supported and the regime successfully exploits this to justify the lack of rights and democracy. Indeed, when there was last movement for greater openness, The Damascus Spring of 2000-01, ‘national security’ and the conflict with Israel were the primary reasons given by the regime to justify repression. Neither Egypt nor Tunisia had this escape clause.

Another keys difference is that the economic situation is nowhere near as bad as elsewhere. Whilst Syria is not a wealthy country and has a lower GDP per capita than its neighbours, wealth is more evenly spread and far fewer people live below the poverty line (11%) than in Egypt (20%), Jordan (14%) or Yemen (45%). Moreover, Syria has only just begun a process of economic reforms that many (though not the very poorest) are still hopeful about. Though Egyptians saw 30 years of capitalism and external investment not bringing them rewards, Syrians are relatively new to infitah and still see it as a progressive force rather than something to resent.

The army is also more closely tied to the ruling elite than in Egypt. Members of the ruling Allawi sect hold high positions in government, the party, the army, security forces and business. Whilst in Tunisia and Egypt the army are institutions that are to some extent apart from the ruling party, in Syria they are completely tied together. It seems highly unlikely that their loyalty to the regime will ever waver as was seen in Tunisia and seems to be happening in Egypt. Moreover, many of these Allawis fear their fate at the hands of the majority Sunni population if they lose power. Both Egypt and Tunisia lack these ethnic divisions that give the ruling elite even more reason to hold onto power.

Finally, and perhaps most crucially, Syria has far less civil society than either Egypt or Tunisia (or Jordan, Yemen and Algeria for that matter) and consequently it is harder to imagine how opposition would get organized. Recognizing just this kind of threat, Facebook was banned very early on in its existence, and the internet was allegedly shut down immediately on Friday’s day of anger in Egypt, even before there was even a whiff of copycat demonstrations in Damascus.  Similarly, unlike in Egypt or Tunisia, all trade unions (which played a significant role in Tunisia) are controlled by the regime, and most content in mosques is loyalist and controlled. Whilst the Syrian security services, like the Egyptians, could well prove itself unable to repulse mass demonstration that go on for days, it is hard to see how Syrians would be able to mobilize in the same way as their Egyptian and Tunisians cousins.

Conclusion: Bashar takes the lead?

All this suggests that Syria is unlikely to be the next domino to fall, even if Mubarak does end up losing power. Damascus will certainly be nervous, and would probably prefer Hosni to stay on his throne, but the threat of an immediate overspill seems limited. However, two things may change this scenario. Firstly, if all the other dominos fall. If Egypt, Yemen, Jordan and Algeria follow Tunisia, pressure will certainly increase and Syrians, even with their like of the President and their history of relative passivity, may start to feel inspired to challenge the government if not Assad directly himself. Moreover, if those regime changes lead to stable, successful, largely democratic governments over the next few months, the pressure will be even greater. This will especially be so if they provide locations for free press where Syrian opposition can publish and have a voice closer to home than their current exile in London and Washington.

A second scenario, as optimistically suggested by Brian Whitaker today, is that Bashar will use his relative popularity and reformist credentials to bring change himself before he is pushed. This seems unlikely but if the ‘old guard’ and anti-democrats in his regime can be persuaded that the alternative is to be hounded out to Saudi Arabia like Ben Ali’s cronies, a period of limited reform – perhaps ending the state of emergency and allowing for more open parliamentary elections – is not totally inconceivable.

All of this is still up in the air, and until things settle in Egypt and Tunisia, who knows where things will lead. Today’s events have certainly changed things. How much is still to be seen.

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37 responses to “Egypt Protests: Is Syria next?

  1. I feel that either Syria or Jordan will definitely be next, if not both of them, with Yemen close to follow. By the end of tomorrow it seems that Mubarak will almost certainly be a political exile living in London, as the police are finally joining the protestors. This is only compounded by the recent release of wikileaks cables that specifically detail corruption in Egypt. The wikileaks released last week regarding the Arabic world seem to have done more for change in the region in the period of a week, than 30 years of diplomacy.

    • WikiLeaks has absolutely nothing to do with the protests, if you were in touch with the Arab world you would understand – the Arabs did not pay much attention to the leaks. There were more pressing matters at hand for them (that they are bloody hungry) and WikiLeaks only told the Arabs things they already knew. I do not know what your ’30 years of diplomacy’ is meant to mean, but there certainly hasn’t been any diplomacy.
      Syria is much more stable than even Mr Philips suggests, but if the Egyptian regime does fall, it is certainly most likely that Jordan and Yemen will follow suit – it’s unfortunate that the (American) Saudi kingdom is too stable too though.

  2. Jose Antonio Macedo

    Good night
    I would like to ask you if these revolutions may lead to an enhance of human rights in Middle Eastern or otherwise may allow the establishment of some kind of religious fundamentalist regime?
    Thank you

    • It was only a matter of time before the hype of ‘religious fundamentalist regime’ was going to start again. It is unlikely as the moment as there is not a reasonable enough political fundamentalist Islamic movement in the Arab world, except maybe in Egypt, although there the first three days of protests happened without the backing of the Muslim Brotherhood so it isn’t really about them so that’s unlikely too. Looks like al-Barad’i has been groomed by America for the Egyptian presidency, but it is unclear who is likely to take the reins in Tunis.

  3. There are protests breaking out in Jeddah, Yemen and Jordan. Not much activity in Syria.

  4. The above article does not mention that the Syrian government also takes good care of, for instance the Christian minorities.
    My experience is that churches enjoy protection in the best way.
    In general, people are well aware of this.
    So the president and his family are also well respected by many.
    Some say that the nowadays president stepped into an established kind of organisation that is filled with such bureaucracy and red tape that he cannot change the situation without great difficulty because of private interests of …..

    • I agree. My boyfriend is from Syria and many of his family are still there. As of now, although many accuse the Syrian government of siding with terrorists, they really don’t tolerate anything that will harm the country and are very much against the Muslim Brotherhood. Right now the Christians are protected under the relatively secular government, whereas if elections were held and Sunni’s took control, then it is likely that the Christians would be driven out and persecuted, as has been seen recently in Egypt and Iraq. many Christians have fled to Syria; where could they flee to then?

      • I disagree. If Muslims dominated the Syrian government and implmented Shariah (Islamic) law, then the Christians in Syria will be under protection of the Muslims, and will even have it better than they do currently.
        This is what Islam is about, I encourage the reader to read more about Islam.

  5. I really believe that the cause of this domino effect and eagerness for government change has nothing to do with the general population in Eygpt or Jordan. One thing analyst should wake up to, is that the forces that are creating the noise on the street are from behind the scene are led by both Syria and Iran in their secret endeaovour to change the Middle East and install regime favourable to their interest. This is what they’ve done in Lebanon and it was easy for them.
    Additionally, Bashar Assad, does not believe in Syria at all, Syria is a boring place for him. ONLY Lebanon gives him this big buzz. The same goes for Ayatollah and Ahmadinajed. There is simply nothing interesting on their land to give them this big buzz. Only Lebanese people and Lebanese land can do provide for that. One Lebanese life equate to all the population of both Syria and Iran. Their leaders are proving that.

    • Yay for conspiracy theories… :D
      The whole ‘Syria and Iran intervening in Lebanon’ is down to protecting personal interests. If Lebanon falls to Israel, it’s Syria and Iran’s turn next, and I’m not sure how much they’d appreciate that. Iran and Syria do not have much interest in Egypt and Tunis though, and their intelligence services are not anywhere near as capable as the Americans at sparking anti-government protests (like in Iran – proven by the glorious WikiLeaks) so I think your theory is a ridiculous one.

  6. As a former traveller to Syria, I think you offer a fair and accurate analysis on Syria and how their situation is very different. Thank you for your perspective, it will be interesting to see how this all plays out!

  7. Sounds like a large part of the world have finally come to their senses and are trying to gte rid of these authoritarian regimes. Maybe the West will take note and get rid of some of our corrupt politicians, especially the old guard who run the EU and steal our money.

  8. maybe the people in the West will take note of this and also try to get rid of some of our corrupt politicians. Corruption is more hidden in the West, but people are still sick of it.

  9. I think its going to be bit harder for syrian , as i see the Baath Prty its jone of the most nationalist party in the word day now. This party’s idology is the most dengeros as a Nazi or fashizim. so think about that how Saddam husain had treated his own people. I syrian people are dont know about democraty not open minded, the is only kurdish people who are alway dreming of freedom and never give up for that and thy have activities. the others are mostly got used with the regim and they think thats not possible and they dont like what kurdish people want. becouse thy have invided kurdish land since 2nd world war.

    • LOL. You, sir/madam, are the perfect example of being brainwashed. I suggest that you go to Syria and see for yourself that it is more tolerant than ‘the West’.

  10. Quite a summary of opinions mentioned above. This uprising that started in Tunisia, followed by Egypt is not because of the info-leak. We all know that corruption is rife in both. There seem to be a common hatred for the US and its mid-east policies. The mention of Al-Baradei as next in line, defeats the object. Al Baradei is well known to be a puppet to the US. I believe that the “Ikhwan al Muslimine” (Brotherhood of Islam) will take over.

  11. The Syrian army is not like the army in Egypt and Tunisia. The Syrian army are very loyal to the president who is one of them and will carry out any order including killing a large number of their own people. The Syrian army has done this before on the orders of the former president, the father of the current president.

    While some people in Syria believe Bashar al-Assad is being held back by the older members of his fathers party; that is all a lie. The “old guard” are mainly dead or retired. You’d think that they’d live that long?! In fact the entire family of Bashar is involved in the politics of the country. They grow fat off the coffers of the state while majority of young Syrians have been unable to find work. Much of this country’s economy is going stagnant because some of the policies of the government. Syria doesn’t even have that much money to buy modern weapons for its military. Iran has to keep giving Syria loans to buy weapons off its military companies. This explains why secular government that has routinely killed Islamists has to depend of Hezbollah in Lebanon to do the fighting for Syria.

  12. Mr, LONDON,
    I think you got it in wrong direction, but i think people can see the history of the governing syrian people like we see in any other EUROP country like Switzirland ,Germany, Holland, Denimark and so on, but i can see people has all right of freedom please do not compear Syria them as all the world can see higest standerd of life is in EUROP. THE baath party and thir ruls about the UNITY, FREEDOM, AND SOCIALISTIZM , and thir gols for UNITED FOR ARAB NATIONS its fear enough to undrestand the they are nitionalist without respect of any other nations in the Middle East, . i think the Siryan State running by inelagant agency and Irannian sheaa. it has nothing with perlamant or democratic ellection . Mr Assad gone and his sone came strait away to power why its that why he is been ellected by 99% op population wy it wasn’t at least 70% because its difinetly the kurdish had never and ever going to allect some one who his hand is thire blood and mor thar 300000 kurdis up to now has no idintification of sirya, because they
    treating thease people like less than nomber 3 citizion in the state. and i think kurdish are not braine washed at all are open minded . if the wearn’t kurdish leaders like (Ruknadeen, Sallahadeen , and tens more of srongest army leader who they succesed islam you wouldnt have ben in syria now. respect them better than call them brain washed thy all human like us . However ISLAM is giving right to all nations but you are not giving up to know because natioalism and you think you are stronger, in my openion the kurdish are most strogest people in the world we all can see they never give up on their rigts nad land so that syrian government should and must give this rigts other wise would be taken one day i think this day its going to bo so soon. I went to SYRIA and i know lots syrian in EUROP and i have several frinds. i dont need to go thire becasue people taking advantages and not open minded. they using poor Iraqi refugees girls for sex bussness. its a shame on syria.

    • listen, we realize you’re likley Kurdish and please understand me correctly when I politely say that we don’t care.

  13. Dr. Phillips has done a credible job in presenting whether or not the protests in Egypt will follow Tunisia’s in removing Mubarak or not and spread to Syria. His comparison and contrast between Egypt and Syria was dead on.

    However, I do think that a key element is missing, and that foreign interference–especially the US. Mubarak’s Egypt has been America’s most amenable partner. It mouths the right words about the Iranian threat, maintains the blockade of Gaza, hostile to Syria, a haven for America’s rendition purposes, etc. There is already growing concern in the US policy makers–those that gave us Iraq, Afghanistan, predator strikes in Pakistan, push for war against Iran, sought overthrow of Assad, clandestine wars in Yemen and Africa, etc–about keeping Egypt in line.

    Providing Egypt with $1.3 billion a year buys America a lot of influence with Egypt’s army. The Washington wonks would support Egypt’s army in suppressing the protests–now with warnings of Muslim Brotherhood or radical Islamists being raised to instill fear in America.

    Whereas the US would participate in regime change in Syria, it would oppose it in Egypt. The unseen hand of America has historically played a role from the 1950s in the Middle East, and I do not see why this would change now. American drive to control the Mideast and the oil prize has not changed.

    For all that Egyptians may resent Mubarak, it does not take into account America’s hegemony in the area. Only the unlikely event of Egypt’s army turning on 30 plus years of Egyptian allegiance to the US would real change come to Egypt. But, that is not going to happen

  14. yes go on syrian herros.

  15. Have just come across an article that reflects the barcaric genocide against the Gaza population. http://thedisclosureproject-steelmagnolia.blogspot.com/2011/01/i-want-to-tell-world-story.html
    Should the Islamic Brotherhood take control of the Egyptian Government, this will mean a total blockade of Israel and a possible freedom of Gaza. Khamas, Hizbullah, Jihad, and others will join forces to liberate them.
    Iran, Syria and Iraq will join forces to take control of the (Hilal) Crescent in the region.

  16. Pingback: Syria Comment » Archives » Syrian Authorities Jubilant about Prospect of Mubarak’s Fall and Shifting Balance of Power in the Region

  17. Its All a Matter of Time

    Countering your paragraph on the ‘Case against Syria being next’

    Your first paragraph ‘by most Syrians you speak to and retains a popular image of someone who is trying to reform Syria and move it forward but is held back by the ‘old Guard’ of his father’s regime’

    I would counter that statement by noting that most Syrians live in fear. So if the Syrian is told that Mr. Assad is the Messiah, then they will take it and run with it out of fear. Syrians have been told to what to think for several generations now, that is why they cant compete in anything. Theres no creative thinking or nor critical thinking. Which is exactly one of the problems that Mr. Assad has in has plate now and is one of underlying reasons why Syria will be in the gutter if the status quo is upheld.

    ‘…but is held back by the ‘old Guard’ of his father’s regime’. Most Syrians don’t realize that the ‘old guard’ is his family. Whenever the population’s patience with Mr. Assad’s extended family reaches a point that become unbearable is when they will turn against their masters. Some go far in saying that Rami Makhlouf’s businesses are just an extension of the Assads’ accumulated wealth since 1970. Unfortunately for the syrians, they don’t really comprehend the amount of theft claimed under the guise of nationalism and old guard/new guard rhetoric. Finding individuals who believe Mr. Assad controls the country with an iron fist is like finding fish in the sea. Case in point, normally a city’s international airport will give the visitor a mirror image of what they can find later on in the city. A law was passed sometime ago that restricted smoking within Damascus International Airport. People still smoke at the airport in non-designated smoking areas. Also, recently at the airport, the roof collapsed at the arrivals hall. Rumors spread like wild fire as to why. Find out who was in charge of the refurbishment of the airport and you’ll know why.

    Regarding your third paragraph and the Syrian economic situation…

    Syria has just come out of a horrible drought in the northeast. Some have speculated that Mr. Assad’s recent trip to the Ukraine was to buy some wheat. And due to the drought in the northeast, migrants from the countryside have been flooding the cities in the hope of finding something better. But as we all know the Syrian cities aren’t exactly the beaming light of hope they would like to think of. The cities have a ridiculous amount of inflation, high unemployment, idle college graduates, iraqi and Palestinian refugees and the ‘in your face’ gloating of those that have the right connections. During the last Eid celebrations in Damascus, people resorted to eating donkeys rather than the sheep because it was too expensive.

    ‘ …wealth is more evenly spread…’ Actually wealth is not evenly spread. If wealth was more evenly spread, one would come to the conclusion that there is a middle class in Syria. What middle class? The real spread is the widening gap between those with the wealth and those without any type of wealth. Just because fewer people live under the poverty line doesn’t excuse the fact that there are those that are barely over the poverty line. What is that figure by the way? That’s where most of the population stands, straddling the line.

    Regarding your fourth paragraph and the army…

    True, most Allawis hold high positions in the government, party and army, but by demographics alone one should come to the conclusion that if most Allawis hold those positions, that would mean most of their foot soldiers are Sunnis. If they wanted to use sectarian strife as an ignition or defense of the status quo, then it would be clear that a Sunni from Aleppo will think twice about firing on a protester who is a Sunni from Damascus.

    Your 5th paragraph regarding civil society…

    This is correct. They do not have a mature, let alone an independent civil society to speak of. But that is just a matter of time. Every internet savvy syrian knows about proxies and banning facebook and YouTube is pointless. They even have those applications on their Iphones. There is a demonstration planned already in front of the parliament on February 5. it was organized on facebook, in Arabic on January 25 or around that date. Unfortunately for those demonstrators, a counter demonstration is being planned by those with the government. Whether this demonstration sees a large participation or even sees the day of light or receives any media exposure is yet to be seen. The trade unions don’t exactly have a fantastic relationship with the Baath party. Ask anyone in any of the trade unions. And lets not even mention the amount underground material those fundamentalists preach that can’t be preached in the government controlled mosques. One of Ben Ali’s goals was to secularize the country. One way of doing it was by outlawing the headscarves in universities. Google it. Its there.

    Tunisia indeed started something that was completely unexpected. The first decade of the 21st century brought to the Arab masses an influx of western influences and exposure not seen before. A rethinking of their political systems, their religions and their way of life has been simmering since then. This decade, 2010-2019 is truly that of the Arabs. Nothing might happen now, tomorrow, next month or next year, but something will happen by the end of this decade.

  18. Excellent Article Chris ..as always

  19. Would love feedback from Chris and Anonymous: How do you think the events in Hama in 1982 factor into peoples’ calculus when contemplating protests, and how heavy a hand do you think the state would take with protesters should they come out this weekend?

  20. What a sycophantic article…no mention of the oppressed Kurds? No where in this blogpost does the author even call the Assad regime as oppressive….but the best apologetic line is:

    “Assad successfully transcends resentment against ‘the government’ and ‘the party’ by most Syrians you speak to and retains a popular image of someone who is trying to reform Syria and move it forward but is held back by the ‘old Guard’ of his father’s regime. If any protests do occur in Syria it is quite possible that people will call on Bashar to reform the regime”

    The major figures in the old guard are related to Assad!

    But even if your argument was to be accepted, how could Assad reform if he is “held back” by the old guard? You’re contradicting yourself. I expected better from the LSE and more importantly from a PhD graduate/aspiring academic….we’ll wait and see what your next academic piece will be, following your thesis that is.

  21. Nice web blog, if only to acknowledge the limits of ‘shop talk’ among intellectuals. You’ve done well here. Peace, William

  22. Perhaps in your free time you’d like to post an article on my blog. I invite you to consider it for we have similar interests. Let me know.
    Peace,
    William J. Holland
    wjholland.wordpress.com

  23. ismael alhalabee

    in fact I think the majore difference between any country in the world and syria is that the system in my country takes control every thinh in the country and we are living as if we are in a tower for example if any thng happen in jordan or egypt it will be shwon in Aljazeera but we see nothinh about syria like arresting people in aleppo and in the last three days ther is aheavy presence of police and security forces in fear of any demonstrations against the system thought ther agreat dislike of the system because if u say any fucking single word about the system you will get aressted and nobody even your parents donot know about your place only our god knows wher are you and without judging you please answer back

  24. All the western analysis have failed so far, after libya everything is possible, no one is as merciless as qadafi, and you are wrong, and when the uprising happens in syria (not if) then you will witness mass deflections in the army just like libya, after all the sunnis are the vast majority of the population and the army even if the high ranking officers are not, when the shit hits the fan the regime in syria this time around will fall the fastest. the writer has no grasp of the reality of how opressive and evil this regime is, and no the next syria will be a democracy and quit fearing the islamist bs, most people in the middle east are central in their thoughts and are not looking forward to replace one dictator with another.

  25. CAN ANYONE PLEASE HELP?!?!

    Hi. I have a project about the protesting that currently happening in Syria. I will have to answer:
    the 5 W’s: Who What where When How

    Who is involved?
    What is happening and why is the protesting happening, against the government?
    Key people or groups involved.
    Prediction of possible solutions.

    I will truly appreciate your help.
    Thank you very much for your consideration and time.

  26. Pingback: My Fickle Friends – by Bashar al-Assad | New Civilisation

  27. Pingback: There is Power in the Blog » My Fickle Friends by Bashar al-Assad

  28. Great article, and looks like the domino effect predicted is happening.

  29. I really desired to share this specific posting, “Egypt Protests: Is Syria next?
    | Christopher Phillips” with my personal good friends on
    fb. I actuallyonly just needed to pass on ur excellent writing!
    Thx, Kristen

  30. Pingback: There is Power in the Blog » My Fickle Friends by Bashar al-Assad

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