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Posts Tagged ‘protests’

In February 2011 pro-reform protestors took to the streets of Sohar, burning cars and a local government building. The angry shouts were concise: “Just like Egypt!”. The wave of Arab uprisings had arrived in oil-rich Oman, a country that had enjoyed 40 years of stability.

The reasons behind the protest were all too familiar. “There are no jobs, no money. The minimum wage is too low”. These complaints might be expected in Cairo or Yemen, but come as a surprise in Oman where the vast oil reserves have been successfully exploited and profits relatively well distributed amongst the population. Unfortunately, as is often the case in countries reliant on oil, a natural and broad-based economy has never developed. While poverty may not exist on the same level as Egypt or Tunisia, young men struggle to find employment amidst a work-force which ranges little from government positions and the oil industry.

In an apparent pre-emptive move to placate any would-be demonstrators, the Sultan increased the minimum wage from $160 to $200. This was obviously too little, too late.

The crowd was relaxed and cheerful and some of the older members dismissed the whole thing with a wave of the hand, “These are only small things, nothing serious.”

Demonstrations later reached the capital Muscat as well as the southern city of Salalah. Sultan Qaboos quickly pledged reforms and reshuffled his cabinet a few times and the protest movement soon died down. The Sultan may have avoided calls for his removal but the protests in Oman were proof that no regime is immune from the Arab Spring.

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Watching the chaos in Syria, it is only natural that the international community might be feeling somewhat impotent right now. Despite growing international condemnation and ever more aggressive rhetoric, including from once strong ally Turkey, the killing in Syria continues as it has done for the past half year.

Even sanctions, one of the few weapons in the arsenal of diplomacy, may not prove as effective, or straightforward, as hoped. More specifically, the West will have to decide how far to take the sanctions and at what price to the population and to themselves.

As it stands, the most significant sanction has come at the hand of the European Union, which has banned the import of all Syrian crude oil, a policy that the EU wonks predict will hit the regime hard. Since 95 percent of oil exports head to Europe, this new sanction should deny the Syrian government a vital source of income.

But we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves. The oil export industry is relatively small in Syria and accounts for only 25 percent of the regime’s hard currency earnings. This is not Libya, where switching off the oil taps effectively brought the income to a halt.

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A week ago I spent an afternoon in Hama in the hope of seeing how the city was recovering after several military blockades and attacks (for various security reasons I decided to hold off posting this until now). An afternoon is far too little time to accurately gauge the condition of a place but from what I could tell Hama has done remarkably well and many of its residents seemed cautiously optimistic.

The central clock tower – note the missing clock 

I arrived in Hama by regular public transport. The road from Aleppo had already revealed evidence of what was happening in Syria’s central provinces. From Idlib down to Homs, the region has suffered the full brunt of Assad’s security forces. The bus passed dozens of tanks sitting in fields and amid olive groves, their long barrels pointing toward the road. The army had taken up residence in numerous half-built houses, turning them into observation posts and barracks. (more…)

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After several months confined to the city of Damascus I recently decided that it was time to travel to the northern commercial centre of Aleppo to see how the uprising had affected Syria’s second largest city. While the road and the towns along the way held plenty of evidence of the 5 months of protest and brutal crackdown, Aleppo, like much of Damascus, remains in comfortable denial of the thousands of deaths throughout the country.

Along with a partner in crime, I headed north from the Harasta bus terminal in an air-conditioned Pullman coach. The bus quickly escaped the polluted suburbs of Damascus and after being waved through a makeshift military checkpoint we were out on the open road, surrounded by rocky desert and scraggly bushes.

After a couple of hours we knew that we were approaching Homs by the increasing number of military trucks on the road.

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There have been numerous comparisons made between the now successful Libyan revolution and the ongoing Syrian uprising, even though the two scenarios are wildly different. The Syrian opposition cannot look to Libya for tips in how to topple a dictator. Mass defections in the military and NATO intervention can’t be expected in Syria.

But Syrians will be looking back at the early stages of the Libyan campaign, in particular at that crucial moment when the until-then peaceful protest movement took up arms and turned itself into a violent rebellion. With hindsight, that decision seems to have paid off. After only 6 months, the rag-tag rebels have put an end to over 4 decades of brutal and mindless repression. It is also possible that the opposition had little choice but to arm itself. When an already violent and unpredictable despot promises to hunt you down like “cockroaches”, grabbing your gun seems like a logical course of action.

But in doing so the opposition also alienated large parts of the Libyan population that would have otherwise been willing to join the cause. It’s a lot easier to take part in non-violent street protests than it is to reconcile with the possibility of killing someone.

We should also remember that the Libyan uprising enjoyed several successes before it took up arms. Massive, unarmed protests shut down most of the country and encouraged the defection of several high ranking military and political figures. Incredibly, they even took the city of Benghazi with little blood spilt.

If the early Libyan opposition campaign had any weakness it wasn’t that it was unarmed but that it focused too much on a single tactic – protests. When movements rely exclusively on protests they become extremely vulnerable to the state security apparatus. An opposition campaign should instead combine protests with strikes, boycotts, sit-ins and go-slows. Even the most well organised security services can’t handle such widespread civil disobedience and the effect on the national economy will eventually drain the regime’s available resources. (more…)

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The shabeehah were out in force last night, hundreds of young men armed with sticks and batons, sitting outside the main mosques of Meedan and Kafr Souseh, waiting for protests to emerge. Large green public buses ferried them into the centre so that they could stand around, intimidate and make the odd arbitrary ‘arrest’. A young guy in a cream coloured shirt lead in handcuffs towards a minivan, the curtains pulled shut.

Qaboun, north east of the Old City, has experienced growing demonstrations over the past two weeks. Last night however, it was completely deserted. The only proof of the neighbourhood’s dissent is the opposition graffiti on the walls which has since been blacked out by loyalists, leaving ugly dark patches on the white walls. Pro-regime slogans have been scribbled next to them in denial of the area’s growing frustration and anger.

Further east, Harasta was in complete darkness. The region is regularly denied electricity by the regime to thwart opposition attempts to organise and mobilise. Residential buildings shrouded in a gloomy dark loomed above the beams of car headlights below. “It’s as if there’s a war”, said our taxi driver. Despite the blackout, a few shops were still open, lit by torches and candles. A glowing furnace provided the only light in a pizza shop.

The deliberate power outages will have been particularly annoying as residents of Harasta hoped to spend their Ramadan evenings watching the season’s best television series and staying up all night eating and socialising. People did their best to enjoy their Friday evenings, gathering outside on plastic chairs or congregating in front of the few shops with a generator. But still, the area was eerily quiet.

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The opposition in Damascus will have been waiting for a day like this. They needed it. For almost 5 months, the rest of the country has been taking to the streets, shouting, chanting and dying. But the capital remained frustratingly quiet.

But the first Friday of Ramadan has brought change. It’s hard to gauge the exact number at this point but reports from al Jazeera, Twitter, and first hand accounts suggest that the scale and ‘spread’ of last night’s protests were greater than anything seen before in Damascus. And the death toll keeps rising.

From the information that I have been able to gather so far the largest demonstrations were in the Midan area, just south of the Old City. Accordingly, Midan is also generating the most reports of dead and injured protestors. A YouTube video supposedly shows plainclothes police officers firing on protestors.

The other flashes of protest have occurred in a loop around central Damascus, a circle of dissent. There are unverified reports of protests in Al-Qadam, al-Hajar al-Aswad, Kafar Souseh, Harasta, Zamalikah, Maamouniyeh, Doumah and Rukn al-Deen, amongst others.

There have been no sequels to Tuesday night’s protests in Abu Roumaneh, Roudah and Salihiyiah but the fact that the opposition hit the area at all this week is quite a feat. Security is tight and, as mentioned in the last post, the area is staunchly pro-regime. But there is no doubt that the opposition activists and organisers will be eyeing the area up. If they can manage a repeat – angry protestors marching through the streets of the commercial and political heart of Damascus – it will be a major blow to the regime’s confidence.

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