Halting Steps Toward Democracy Arab Revolution Caught Between Euphoria and Despair

More than half a year after the beginning of the Arab Revolution, pro-democracy movements in several countries appear to have stalled. The despots in Syria and Libya are fiercely opposing rebellions in their countries, while Yemen threatens to slide into chaos. Will the trial of Hosni Mubarak in Cairo give a new impetus to the protests? By SPIEGEL Staff.


Gilamo's donkey was a cheerful sign of hope in Hama. Its owner had hoisted the animal up onto the empty pedestal that had supported a statue of former Syrian President Hafez Assad until June 10. The regime's troops had withdrawn from the city in western Syria. It was there in 1982 that Hafez Assad, the father of current president Bashar Assad, had set a brutal example when he crushed an uprising led by the Muslim Brotherhood. An estimated 20,000 people died in the massacre.

It was ironic that in that June week, government troops were pulling out of Hama, a city that had been burned into the collective memory of Syria's multiethnic society as a symbol of the regime's capacity to commit atrocities. The city, in which sons bear the names of fathers and uncles murdered in the 1982 massacre, had taken its fate into its own hands.

"We have conquered our fears," said one man attending the demonstrations that took place every evening on Hama's central Assi Square, which had been renamed "Martyrs' Square." For the previous three months, elite government units had crushed every protest march with bullets, killing dozens and arresting hundreds of protesters. Suddenly the troops disappeared, but not before removing the statue of the senior Assad and taking it with them -- thus making room for the donkey Gilamo had hoisted onto the base instead, to the raucous applause of onlookers. "We have toppled Assad," they chanted, "and lifted a donkey into his place!"

The besieged city ran itself for six weeks. Teachers, garbage collectors and traffic policemen returned to work. A committee of doctors, lawyers and engineers, headed by the 60-year-old imam Mustafa Abdul Rahman, negotiated with the governor. "Hama is free and will stay that way," the crowd shouted as it grew larger every evening, savoring the simple pleasure of being able to go out into the streets without being afraid.

Hama was free, but its freedom was short-lived.

Confess or Be Taken Away

The president ordered his tanks back into the city in late July, following in his father's footsteps of waging war against Hama. An estimated 150 people were struck by grenades or killed by snipers.

Tanks are blocking the entrance to the central Hurani Hospital, so that the wounded cannot be taken inside. Men from the intelligence agencies are combing the hospitals, where they present the wounded with a choice: sign a confession that they are terrorists or be taken away immediately. No one knows where the wounded have been taken, but apparently none of them has been returned to the hospital.

The regime's elite troops, militias and thugs have been on a rampage throughout much of the country, with the exception of the downtown areas in Syria's two main cities, Damascus and Aleppo. Doctors treating the wounded and pharmacists handing out medication have all been arrested. In Daraa in the south and Idlib in the northwest, government forces have even stormed printing shops and dragged away men for having printed the obituaries of victims. So far, the opposition claims, 1,800 people have been killed and 12,000 arrested, while 3,000 have disappeared without a trace.

No one can verify these numbers. But it doesn't really matter. Thousands of short, blurred videos have been posted on YouTube, documenting the dead, the protests, the screams of the wounded, the shots coming from soldiers and the wailing of mothers over the bodies of their sons.

Risking Death

Since March the Syrians have taken to the streets, where they risk being clubbed or even shot to death. Until now, they have consistently protested on Friday afternoons after attending joint prayers at mosques. The dead have been carried to their graves on Saturdays, while the remainder of the week has been relatively calm -- until the following Friday. But that will likely change this month. During Ramadan, people congregate daily after going to the mosque to break the fast. Now they will take to the streets every evening.

This has the regime worried. It also explains its current assault on Hama, with which Assad has now abandoned any remaining semblance of being more humane than his father. At the same time, his behavior is becoming increasingly bizarre. He has promoted himself to the rank of field marshal and constantly refers to "conspiracies," against which Syria is apparently "immune."

On Wednesday, activists reported that tanks had entered the towns of Taftanaz, Sarmin, and Binnish near the Turkish border as part of efforts to crush protests. The Associated Press also reported on Wednesday that Hama appeared to be under full government control.

Assad's security apparatus is still intact, with only a few isolated cases of individual soldiers or small units deserting. The army still controls the entire country, and yet it has failed to crush the uprisings. Syria is stuck in a deadly stalemate.

Completely Unpredictable

How much longer will the regime in Damascus last? Is Assad prepared to lay waste to his country, as Moammar Gadhafi has said he will do in Libya? Or will both despots suffer the same fate as former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak?

Half a year after the Egyptians forced him to resign, the once-powerful president had to appear in court on Wednesday of last week. Only a few weeks ago, even optimists in Cairo would have believed this to be impossible. But now it is rumored that the chairman of the ruling military council, Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, could even be called soon to testify against his former commander-in-chief.

If there is one thing the events of the last few months have shown, it is the complete unpredictability of the Arab revolution that began with the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, an unemployed fruit vendor in Tunisia.


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