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Syrian president dismisses Cabinet

Assad vows stop to emergency laws

A progovernment demonstrator waved the national flag and displayed posters of President Bashar Assad during a rally at the central bank square in Damascus. A progovernment demonstrator waved the national flag and displayed posters of President Bashar Assad during a rally at the central bank square in Damascus. (Wael Hmedan/Reuters)
By Zeina Karam
Associated Press / March 30, 2011

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DAMASCUS, Syria — Facing an extraordinary wave of popular dissent, President Bashar Assad of Syria fired his Cabinet yesterday and promised to end widely despised emergency laws — concessions unlikely to appease protesters demanding sweeping reforms in one of the most hard-line nations in the Middle East.

The overtures, while largely symbolic, are a moment of rare compromise in the Assad family’s 40 years of iron-fisted rule. They came as the government mobilized hundreds of thousands of supporters in rallies in the capital and elsewhere, in an effort to show it has wide popular backing.

Nearly every aspect of Syrian society is monitored and controlled by the security forces, and the feared secret police crush even the smallest rumblings of opposition. Draconian laws have all but eradicated civil liberties and political freedoms.

The coming days will be key to determining whether Assad’s concessions will quiet the protest movement, which began after security forces arrested several teenagers who scrawled antigovernment graffiti on a wall in the impoverished city of Daraa in the south.

The protests spread to other provinces and the government launched a swift crackdown, killing more than 60 people since March 18, according to Human Rights Watch. However, the violence has eased in the past few days and some predict the demonstrations might quickly die out if the president’s promises appear genuine.

“People are tired from all this pressure and violence and I think if he [Assad] shows he’s taken the people’s demands seriously, they might stop,’’ said a protester in Daraa who gave only his first name, Ibrahim, for fear of reprisals by security forces. “We’re all waiting for his speech.’’

Still, tensions remained high in Daraa, where several hundred people were still staging a sit-in yesterday, and in the Mediterranean port of Latakia, which has a potentially volatile mix of different religious groups.

Assad, who inherited power 11 years ago from his father, appears to be following the playbook of other autocratic leaders in the region who scrambled to put down popular uprisings by using both concessions and brutal crackdowns.

The formula failed in Tunisia and Egypt, where popular demands increased almost daily until people accepted nothing less than the ouster of the regime.

The unrest in Syria, a strategically important country, could have implications well beyond its borders given its role as Iran’s top Arab ally and as a front line state against Israel.

Syria has long been viewed by the United States as a potentially destabilizing force in the Middle East. An ally of Iran and Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon, it has also provided a home for some radical Palestinian groups.

But the country has been trying to emerge from years of international isolation. The United States recently reached out to Syria in the hopes of drawing it away from Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas — although the effort has not yielded much.

Today, Assad is expected to address the nation for the first time since the unrest began, formally announcing an end to nearly 50 years of emergency laws imposed by his late father and predecessor, Hafez Assad.

The laws give the regime a free hand to arrest people without charge. Still, there is scant reason to believe that dropping them will result in much immediate change; rights groups have been documenting mass arrests in Syria since the protests began.

Meanwhile, in Bahrain, the Parliament yesterday accepted the resignations of 11 lawmakers from the Shi’ite opposition, a sign that the political crisis and sectarian divisions are deepening in the tiny Gulf kingdom.

The state-run Bahrain News Agency reported the 40-member house approved the resignations of 11 Al Wefaq legislators. They and seven other lawmakers from the party submitted resignations last month over the deadly crackdown on antigovernment protests. The agency said Parliament postponed deliberations on the six other resignations.

In a statement yesterday, the Shi’ite opposition called on supporters to continue challenging the Sunni monarchy’s monopoly on power with acts of disobedience such as public mourning of “the martyrs who died to achieve the legitimate rights for Bahraini people.’’ Al Wefaq is the largest of seven opposition Shi’ite parties.

The opposition declared Saturday an official day of mourning. It also urged people to visit the graves of those killed by government forces every Thursday starting March 31.

Bahrain’s Parliament is the island nation’s only elected body. It holds limited authority since all the country’s decisions, including appointment of government ministers, rest with the king.

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