Why Egypt and Tunisia, but Not Syria?

On the surface, the pro-democracy movements taking place in Syria may appear to share similarities with the revolts of Egypt and Tunisia. Namely, all three uprisings were reactions to the massive physical and emotional daily suffering being felt by large portions of people living in all three countries. Given the harsh conditions being endured by so many people during the last four decades of the Assad regime, it should be no surprise that large swaths of the Syrian people are organizing to create a party that represents working class interests. The movements developing in Syria today were formed through a materialist understanding of the current conditions. They have translated this understanding into a political force that aims to rival the ruling regime and status quo.

Nevertheless, due to the socio-political nature of Syrian society, it is unlikely that a regime-overthrow in Syria will be accomplished in the same way that it was in Egypt and Tunisia. One difference between Syria and its Arab counterparts is that in both Egypt and Tunisia, an organized political elite and a network of trade unions participated in the demonstrations from the outset. Additionally, in both Egypt and Tunisia, local and international civil society organizations (such as the internationally connected "We've had enough!" movement) were involved in the uprisings. In Syria, the same type of organizations did not exist since all the individual and social freedoms guaranteed by the constitution, which would allow for the formation of such civil society organizations, were overridden once the regime consolidated its power. For instance, any Syrian who tried to contact any organization located outside of Syria could be tried in a special tribunal after being charged with "communicating with the enemy." Many revolutionary intellectuals in Syria spent years in prison under such a charge.

Second, the extent to which the ruling regime is employing repressive tactics is much fiercer and belligerent in Syria than in Egypt or Tunisia. Although the scale of the uprisings was larger in Egypt and Tunisia, less people were killed and detained in Egypt and Tunisia than in Syria. According to Human Rights Watch, 300 people were killed in Tunisia and around 800 deaths were reported in Egypt. Meanwhile, so far, up to 2500 people have been killed in Syria. Also, the regime has committed brutal crimes such as torturing young teenagers (some under the age of 15) and subsequently releasing their images and videos to taking potshot at demonstrators.

Third, the Syrian revolts are less centralized than those in Egypt and Tunisia. In addition, the movement does not appear to have any leadership or follow organized hierarchy. The two groups which seem to make up the majority of the demonstrators are unemployed, progressive youth and intellectuals. In Syria there exists a remarkably large socio-economic disparity between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The vast majority of the demonstrators are unemployed youth who have no means of livelihood. They have no social security, benefits, and generally work unstable, low-level jobs as doormen, maids, and porters for the wealthy Syrian elite. The second group is made up of unemployed lower-middle-class university graduates. About 20 percent of young graduates are unemployed in Syria. Due to high levels of unemployment and severe housing shortages, young people must live with their parents and are unable to get married. The median age of Syrian protesters is reported to be about 30.

Despite Syria's rich culture and ancient heritage, the Syrian people are unable to make a living from the tourism industry. For tourists who seek to visit Syria, obtaining a visa is an extremely difficult process. Even when the visa is obtained, government security agents are known to follow tourists around, making the visit to Syria uncomfortable and unappealing. In regards to the agricultural industry, Syria has the potential to be self-sufficient but the state exports the best wheat and cotton while importing lower quality wheat and cotton.

Both men and women have taken to the streets to protest the Assad regime in unity. Young Syrian men and women have attempted to create new public and private spaces to defy the regime with the goal of bringing about economic and political reforms. In the past, Bashar's regime promoted the slogan "God, Syria and Bashar, that's all we need!" Today, the Syrian youth are chanting, "God, Syria and Liberty, that's all we need!" as well as, "United, united, united, the Syrian people are united!"

The current revolts seem to have two main objectives. The first is to change the constitution. The second is to push for a more representative government that can address the needs of the people. The demonstrators have demanded that Article 8 of the Syrian constitution, which designates "the Arab Socialist Baath Party" and the undefined "nationalist and progressive front" as the official state parties, be abolished. Additionally, the constitutions grants the president of the Syrian Republic sweeping powers which allow him to impose curfews, declare and maintain a permanent state of emergency, suspend or enact any law, and establish a "Tribunal of Supreme State Security." He also has the power to dissolve the people's assembly whenever he deems it necessary. The demonstrators believe that instituting real democracy, the rule of law, liberty, freedom of speech and freedom of the press are the remedies to address their needs. Syria seems to represents a complex, geopolitical knot in the region. The question will be whether the decentralized upheavals can give birth to a new left with a strong leadership that can represent the people' s demands.

(This article was published first on Harvard International Review)