Syria’s newly appointed Cabinet on Tuesday endorsed proposals that appear to broaden civil liberties in the highly restricted one-party state, an attempt to stave off a burgeoning protest movement that threatens President Bashar Assad’s regime.
But in a sign of possible discord within the ruling elite, security forces continued a violent crackdown on protesters and warned Syrians “to refrain from any mass rallies or demonstrations or sit-ins under any title,” the official Syrian Arab News Agency reported.
The concession and warning came hours after at least three protesters were slain by security forces in the city of Homs. Hundreds of people reportedly have been killed in recent weeks during protests inspired by democracy movements across the Middle East.
Activists showed little sign of being impressed by the Cabinet’s proposals to lift a 48-year-old state of emergency that restricts civil liberties, abolish a powerful security court and regulate political gatherings. Protests reportedly broke out in Damascus, Baniyas and Latakia.
“Lifting the emergency law was the demand before what happened over the last three weeks,” said Razan Zaitouneh, a human rights lawyer and activist in Damascus, the capital. “People didn’t go into the streets and get killed and tortured to lift the emergency law. People want democratic change.”
If enacted and implemented, the proposals could bring sweeping change to the structure of the Syrian state, which has been dominated for decades by the president, his late father, Hafez Assad, and their Baath Party loyalists. They still require the signature of the 45-year-old ruler, who publicly requested the changes at a meeting Saturday.
The official news agency reported that the proposals would abolish the 43-year-old High State Security Court, which has the authority to try and sentence defendants in secret. The changes would allow for peaceful protests “as one of basic human rights guaranteed by the Syrian constitution.”
The Cabinet also asked officials to draft laws allowing and regulating opposition political parties, which are currently banned, as well as changing rules that limit media, which are now tightly controlled. In an attempt to alleviate some of the economic roots of the unrest, the Cabinet discussed creating a youth employment program and lowering standards for government employment to help university graduates.
“This package of strategic bills is part of the political reform program that aims at bolstering democracy, expanding citizens’ participation, strengthening national unity, guaranteeing the safety of country and citizens, and confronting various challenges,” the news agency reported.
One analyst close to the government told the Los Angeles Times that officials have asked authorities to hand over protesters in custody to civil courts and allow detainees the right to retain lawyers. “The emergency law could be lifted region by region, including those areas that have seen serious demonstrations,” said the analyst, who asked not to be named for security reasons. “There is a series of measures that this draft law could implement.”
But many questions about the sincerity of the proposals remained. The proposal to allow peaceful assembly requires approval of rallies by the Interior Ministry, headed by Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ibrahim Shaar, the former chief of the military police who is widely seen as a hard-liner. The proposals for loosening restrictions on media and political parties are vague. And the modest economic proposals did little to address the widely held perception that Assad and his extended family and entourage have enriched themselves with privatization deals while ignoring the poor.
The tone of the Cabinet’s announcement differed sharply from the Interior Ministry’s warning to clear the streets, the latest in a series of harsh statements and violent moves by security forces. It was not immediately clear whether the security branches would abide by reforms that would curb their authority. Even as authorities purport to move toward granting new rights, they have also aggressively sought to paint the protesters as Islamic extremists in an attempt to justify using violence against them.
Just hours before the Cabinet announced the proposed changes, plainclothes security forces opened fire on a peaceful gathering in Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, where demonstrators took over the central square and renamed it Tahrir, or Liberation, a nod to the center stage of Egypt’s recent uprising
“The changes might create some feelings of real change,” said Zaitouneh, the human rights lawyer. “But there’s nothing real. Even now as this law is issued, there are arrests of Homs. It’s not even applied on the ground. There are thousands of prisoners. Will they be released?”
Over the weeks of protests, slogans have shifted from simple calls for freedom to demands for the overthrow of the regime. Even as the government announced possible reforms, there were signs of fresh unrest. Security forces clubbed protesting students at the medical school at Damascus University, injuring several, a witness said.
Small protests also reportedly erupted in Latakia, and activists and residents in Homs gathered near the southern entrance to the city to bury two of the overnight victims, said a witness reached by telephone.
“There is a lot of tension right now,” the pro-government analyst wearily acknowledged, “with no end in sight.”
Lutz is a special correspondent. A special correspondent in Damascus contributed to this report.