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 The regime's troops had withdrawn from the city in western Syria.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.
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.
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.
Watching History Being Made on Television
Will the historic trial, which marks the first time an Arab potentate is being brought to trial before an ordinary court in his own country, give new impetus to the democracy movement in the region? The scenes from the Cairo Police Academy, where Mubarak, lying on a hospital bed, was pushed into a cage that had been built in the courtroom, were certainly dramatic. Almost the entire Middle East watched the trial unfold on television.
Syrian state television, on the other hand, seemed uninterested in the trial and aired cartoons instead. Al-Baath, the party newspaper, ran only a brief report on the first day of the trial. Gadhafi's propaganda station, Al-Jamahiriya, scoffed at the opening of the trial and noted that the Egyptians were better off under Mubarak than they are today.
The image of the defendant dressed in white, the color of innocence, is already an icon of the revolution. Within minutes, young Egyptians had distributed the photo on Facebook and Twitter. And within a few hours, Mubarak's words, "I deny all these accusations completely," had already been turned into a popular ring tone.
Egypt's former president is being called to account for the deaths of 846 people, and he is accused of having ordered his forces to shoot at the protesters. Another charge reflects the growing pro-Palestinian mood in Egypt: Mubarak allegedly saw to it that Israel was supplied with Egyptian natural gas at low prices, resulting in a loss to the Egyptian government of €500 million ($715 million).
No Despot Is Safe
No matter what punishment awaits the toppled president at the end of the trial, there is one thing its opening on Aug. 3 has made clear to the Arab world: No despot can feel certain anymore that he will not be called to account one day. The trial also solidifies Egypt's leading role in the Arab world and validates its position, once and for all, as the heart of the revolutionary movement in the Middle East.
But the delight over the trial cannot hide the fact that the opposition is divided. The conflicting interests of the individual groups are becoming increasingly apparent from week to week. More than 60 parties have registered in the run-up to the parliamentary election, which is planned for November. The competition is steep, especially in the liberal camp.
The Islamists benefit from this fragmentation. On the Friday before last, tens of thousands of supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist movements gathered on Tahrir Square in Cairo. What began as a joint rally of secular and religious movements turned into a show of strength for the extremists.
Even the Muslim Brothers are now seen as moderate. Although they want to see religion dominate politics, they also claim to be liberal. They have even demonstratively chosen a Coptic Christian, Rafik Habib, as the deputy chairman of their newly established Freedom and Justice Party.
In contrast, Egypt's revolutionaries are extremely uneasy about the increasingly self-confident Salafists. This movement, which is strongly influenced by Saudi Arabia's ultra-religious model and reportedly receives substantial funding from that country, wants everyday life in Egypt to resemble life in the primitive communities that existed at the time of the Prophet Muhammad. "We are the army of God, and we are here to enforce God's will on earth," a spokesman said on Tahrir Square. Saudi Arabian flags were flying next to Egyptian flags, and some held up posters of the late al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.
There are those who fear that the toppled Mubarak could be proved right in the end. He sought to legitimize his oppressive regime by saying: "It's either me or chaos."
Rebels Divided in Libya
Libya, meanwhile, is already in chaos. The Libyan revolution, which began with protests in mid-February, turned into an armed insurrection within days, which dictator Moammar Gadhafi has been trying to crush ever since. His troops have committed war crimes, shooting and bombarding the civilian population in the coastal cities of Misrata and Zawiyah. A massacre would also most likely have ensued in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi if French fighter jets had not intervened at the last minute on March 19.
There were good reasons for the NATO military intervention in Libya. But almost half a year has passed since the United Nations Security Council approved the intervention, and developments seem to have proven the skeptics right. The rebels are poorly armed and organized, and they have made no progress toward Tripoli from their base in eastern Libya.
Meanwhile, the rebels in the west have gained control of the region surrounding the Nafusa Mountains and are only 80 kilometers (50 miles) from Tripoli. But they have no plans to advance on the capital, a move that would have little prospect of success.
In addition to their lack of military successes, the rebels are divided. After rebel commander Abdul Fatah Younis was murdered two weeks ago, presumably by men from within his own ranks, the movement threatens to break apart. In Benghazi, disputes have erupted between secular and Islamist rebels. Gadhafi's son Saif al-Islam cleverly instigated the conflict by claiming in an interview that the regime was negotiating with the Islamists to offer them a share of power.
A tribal war could also divide the rebels even further. Since Younis's death, tensions have mounted among various clans in Benghazi. In the western part of the country, what began as a revolution has taken on the characteristics of a civil war in which anti-Gadhafi tribes are fighting those that support the dictator. It seems that only the death of Gadhafi could prevent the country from sliding into a civil war that could drag on for years. In August, the hopes of February have long since yielded to a mood of hopelessness.
Things are different across the border in Tunisia, the country that toppled the first of the Arab despots, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Tunisia's first free elections are scheduled for Oct. 23.
Nevertheless, protestors are still ubiquitous in the capital Tunis, though far less so than a few months ago. The city is dominated by bitter political debates between the Islamists and the supporters of the leftists. Both groups try to paint each other in the darkest of colors. And the opinion polls have both running neck-and-neck. The conflicts between the parties are fierce and sometimes even violent, and the Internet and the media are filled with rumors, slanderous statements and false claims. The climate is toxic, but this is apparently considered democracy.
Many see the trials in absentia of former dictator Ben Ali as a charade. While things are getting worse and worse for his people, Ben Ali has been living comfortably in exile in Saudi Arabia. The desert kingdom styles itself as a bulwark against all reform efforts. In February, when Saudi democracy activists issued calls on the Internet for protests, few had the courage to show up -- and those that did were arrested.
The ruling family used its standard method to extinguish these revolutionary sparks. King Abdullah promised to spend an additional $120 billion on support for the unemployed, residential construction and education. In doing so, he effectively bought off the protesters and neutralized the will to pursue democratic reforms on the streets. The major protests that erupted, despite all the warnings, in eastern Saudi Arabia, which has a large Shiite minority, were brutally suppressed.
The Saudi Arabians even sent heavy artillery to neighboring Bahrain when its majority Shiite population rebelled against their Sunni ruler, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. Riyadh, fearing the influence of its hated rival Iran, also sent in a special forces unit, allegedly at Bahrain's request.
More than 1,000 soldiers helped suppress protests in the Bahraini capital Manama. For Al Khalifa, the price of remaining in power was at least 30 dead and hundreds of injured. The situation settled down -- until the Friday before last, when unrest broke out again after a so-called national dialogue had failed.
Concerns about Yemen
The Saudi royal family is far more concerned about its southern neighbor Yemen, where President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who came to office in 1978, initially fought desperately to hold onto power. Saleh was severely wounded when regime opponents attacked his palace in early June, and fled to Riyadh. The democracy movement, which had staged protests on public squares in the capital Sana'a and elsewhere in the country for months, celebrated his departure as a victory.
But a deep divide runs through the country. Yemen, which has always been dominated by tribes, threatens to break apart. Some clans support Saleh's son, who was already being touted as his possible successor before the Arab Spring, and hope for the return of the president, who left the Riyadh hospital where he was being treated on Sunday. Others are fighting for a democratic new beginning. A group feared by both Saleh supporters and their opponents in the reform faction is benefiting from the confusion. Both regional power Saudi Arabia and the United States are helplessly looking on as Yemeni al-Qaida cells gain strength. Their fighters in the south are reportedly already on the outskirts of the city of Aden.
If Yemen falls apart, which is becoming more likely every day, many believe that the jihadists will take control -- a nightmare for the royal family in Riyadh and others.
Relatively Stable Jordan
Saudi Arabia's neighbor to the northwest seems relatively stable by comparison. Nevertheless, as a precaution Riyadh gave impoverished Jordan $1 billion to offset the small desert nation's chronic budget deficit. To buy calm, Jordanian King Abdullah II had announced that the government would increase the salaries of public employees and subsidize food, natural gas and electricity.
Amman is heavily dependent on the Saudi financial aid. The king, who is considered relatively liberal, rules a realm that has no oil and no industry to speak of, but does have a highly volatile population of Bedouins and Palestinian refugees.
Although dissatisfied Jordanians are protesting in the streets of Amman, their anger is not directed against the king but only against his government -- which, however, is firmly under his control. Respect for the Hashemite dynasty is still the glue that holds the country together, but unrest threatens to spill over from Syria. Opposition groups in Syria apparently have connections to Jordan via family and tribal ties. They are even allegedly obtaining weapons and money from the realm of Abdullah II. Will the revolutionary spark jump from Syria to Jordan?
The Muslim Brotherhood could apparently be the driving force behind efforts to organize an uprising in Amman. US intelligence supposedly provided evidence of that to the Jordanian king. It is certainly correct that the Brotherhood is well organized in both Jordan and Syria. In Syria, its stronghold is the rebellious city of Hama.
With last week's attacks on the city, Assad made a decisive return to the tyrants' traditional principle: Violence generates fear, and more violence generates more fear.
But there is also another lesson that even the regimes in Damascus and Tripoli must have learned from the most recent development: The people of the Arab world, from Tunis to Cairo, and from Manama to Benghazi, can no longer be controlled with violence. This is no longer the way the Arab world -- including Syria -- works today.
The tyrants' principle has been reversed: More violence only generates more rage, fueling the bravery of the oppressed -- and not just in Hama.
REPORTED BY DIETER BEDNARZ, VOLKMAR KABISCH, CHRISTOPH REUTER, MATHIEU VON ROHR, DANIEL STEINVORTH, CHRISTOPH SYDOW AND VOLKHARD WINDFUHR