Despite Concessions, Syria Protests Continue

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In Syria Tuesday, the government announced the repeal of the emergency law, which has been in effect for nearly 50 years. It has allowed the government to arrest people without cause. A state court where political prisoners were tried in secret would also be abolished. The measures meet a key demand of anti-government protesters — but protests have not ended. Michele Norris speaks with NPR's Deborah Amos.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

In Syria today, the government announced the repeal of the emergency law which has been in effect for nearly 50 years. It has allowed the government to arrest people without cause. A state court would also be abolished, a court where political prisoners were tried in secret. The measures meet a key demand of anti-government protestors, but protests have not ended.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

NORRIS: This is the sound of gunfire from the city of Homs, posted on YouTube this morning. Protestors there have occupied the town square. Overnight, Syrian security police cleared the square with tear gas and live fire.

NPR's Deborah Amos is following the developments in Syria from Beirut, because the Syrian government has banned most international media. She joins us now.

Deb, can you tell us what happened in Homs?

DEBORAH AMOS: Michele, the details are really hard to confirm. Here's what we know. Homs had been relatively quietly and then it appears on Friday, there was a small protest in the nearby village. According to Syrians I've talked to, a tribal sheikh was arrested. He died in detention and that led to a funeral, which led to a round with the security police, which led to a larger funeral.

By Monday night, protestors in Homs decided they were going to have a sit-in on the town square with tents and food and water. And early this morning the shooting started. Now, we know that perhaps a dozen people died in the previous days. We really don't know how many people were killed in this shooting. But it has become a pattern in these protests that killings lead to funerals which lead to more protests.

Syrians radicalized by the violence. And the policy of the Syrian government, carrots and then this big stick of the security police, isn't working because it creates grievances which are huge.

NORRIS: Now, the government has a slightly different explanation for the violence. They say that it's an armed insurrection carried out by Islamists and other enemies of Syria. Do Syrians buy that explanation?

AMOS: Some of them do. Syrian state television has shown pictures of police and army officers shot and killed during these protests. And in the chaos of these places, it's not clear if there are regime enemies that are stirring the pot in Syria.

Among the upper middle classes, those who have vested interests with the regime, they are afraid of instability and they want the president, Bashar al-Assad, to move on reforms. But even regime supporters I've talked to worry that it's too little too late. They say that lifting the emergency law would've had a whole lot more clout if it was done a month ago.

And here's the thing: How do you reform a security service that's acted with impunity for 40 years? Now, the regime is facing an uprising across the country and the protesters, they're getting bolder. Today, about 200 doctors at Damascus University staged a protest - they posted it on YouTube - and there are reports that more than a dozen of them were detained.

NORRIS: Now, as we said, the protesters have been calling for the end of emergency law and lifting emergency law was supposed to be some sort of concession. Will it go some way toward perhaps calming the streets?

AMOS: Well, the emergency law will be lifted. There's going to be a new law that allows peaceful protest. But at the same time, the interior minister in public statements today, he warned Syrians to stop demonstrations because he said that this amounted to armed insurrection. So he's already defined away that peaceful part.

The government has also been releasing some of those detained, that's another demand of the anti-government protests. But these release prisoners say they were beaten and in some cases they were tortured. And they've been documenting these gruesome wounds on YouTube.

In the past month, the Syrian regime has changed and the Syrian people have changed. This was a society that had no real history of mass protests. The large youth population, they were mainly apolitical. They were worried about getting a job. But they've had a crash course in political organizing in the past 30 days. And the Assad regime is going to have to be very nimble to keep ahead of the anger, and their past performance has show that they don't have a very deep playbook.

NORRIS: That's NPR's Deborah Amos, speaking about the events in Syria. She joined us from Beirut. Deb, thanks so much.

AMOS: Thank you.

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