Society and the role of scientific research
High profile and immensely costly projects such as the city of science are a far from efficient way to attempt the regeneration of Egyptian society, argues Tharwat El-Sherbini*
Syria's President Bashar Al-Assad has become the sick man of the Arab world, hopelessly addicted to Baathist ideology and ruthless autocracy. Like Libya's colonel Gaddafi before him, he continues to live in a virtual world of illusions, mindless of the fact that the Syrian people are rebellious against him and the authoritarian rule of his family.
More than four decades of iron- fist rule and Baathist indoctrination since the rise of his father Hafez Al-Assad to power in 1970 have failed to endear the family regime to the Syrian people. Al-Assad has developed the mentality of a psychopath. The fact that more than 6,000 Syrians, including women and children, have been killed by his troops, artillery and tanks, that many more have been barbarically tortured and that the country is tottering on the brink of civil war, have not persuaded him that his countrymen want him out.
He is following in the footsteps of his father who, in 1982, shelled rebellious Hama for one month, reducing it to ashes and killing 20,000 of its inhabitants. And, like other Arab dictators, he believes it is worthwhile to kill half the population of the country in order to retain his seat of power. It is doubtful that any set of reforms, constitutional amendments or international diplomacy could resolve the situation. Al-Assad and his clique have to be routed out.
The Syrian regime has received an encouraging shot in the arm by the twin Russian/Chinese veto in the UN Security Council and the more recent visits by the two countries' foreign ministers to Damascus. By evading the condemnation of the Security Council, the Al-Assad regime has won a stay of execution, not a pardon. That, however, did not save it from an overwhelming 137-nation condemnation in the General Assembly -- a clear signal that the majority of the world's countries are appalled by the excessive use of force against Syria's civilian protesters. While China and Russia, for their own domestic reasons, went to Damascus in a show of solidarity, they also communicated to Al-Assad a warning that his situation was untenable enough to require serious reform, if only to take the steam out of the boiler of the international community.
Soon after the two visits, Al-Assad announced a referendum on constitutional amendments that would be conducted in late February. The reaction of Western powers was negative, especially when the siege and bombardment of Homs continued unabated for a third week, with 200 artillery shells raining on the defiant city in one day. The people of Syria had learned never to trust the Al-Assad family and their response this week was to march on Al-Mazza neighbourhood in Damascus where the presidential palace and the residences of the political and Baath party elite are located.
By announcing the referendum, Al-Assad was sending out a message that he would continue in power at any price, with some cosmetic embellishment of the regime. The Syrian people's message is that they are determined to push him out of the window if he refuses to jump. By the referendum on constitutional change, Al-Assad and associates want to hoodwink the international community and the Arab countries that have frozen diplomatic relations with Damascus that he has the situation under control. In the meantime, he is intensifying the crackdown on protesters in the hope of ending the rebellion before facing more dismal consequences.
Al-Assad is losing the momentum. Despite the massacre his army is inflicting on all mutinous towns he has failed to quell the protest or convince Arab governments and people that his strategy will restore peace and reconciliation to Syria. On the regional front, he can count on the measured support of Iran which, like Syria, is suffering from the mounting pressure of Western sanctions because of its nuclear programme. Iran, too, believes that by supporting the Al-Assad family regime it can leverage its foothold in the Arab region through the Alawite minority in Syria and the Shia majority in Bahrain, in addition to its Hizbullah allies in Lebanon.
The twosome support of Russia and China is coming under increasing attack from other governments and people whose true judgment of the Al-Assad family's vicious attack was expressed in the General Assembly vote. That vote, by extension, has isolated both powers as much as it censured Al-Assad and his clique. What the three of them have in common is the distorted doctrine of a regime against people in the name of the people. And what binds them together is that the one-party dictatorship of the Baathists of Syria is a reproduction of the totalitarian dictatorship of Russia and China which still survives in camouflage in Russia and in a muted form in China. This probably explains why Al-Assad, in the hackneyed clichés of autocrats, is trying to reduce the Syrian people's uprising to a case of conspiracy against Syria's steadfast resistance of imperialist- Zionist plots, fueled by external intervention.
The Syrian revolution has reached a point of no return. President Bashar Al-Assad's survival in office is doubtful as much as his dependence on a military solution is wearing thin. His military personnel of all ranks are defecting to the Free Nationalist Army. The matter of the physical survival of the Al-Assad family and partners, as well as the potential backlash against the Alawite sect in Syria, raise serious concerns. As the case in Libya has demonstrated, there is little room for reconciliation even after the revolution has been consummated.
This is part of the challenge the Friends of Syria Conference, scheduled to be held in Tunis before the end of February, will face. It may have to set up a mechanism to negotiate a ceasefire, send an Arab peacekeeping force to restrain Al-Assad's army and protect civilian protesters, provide a safe exit for Al-Assad and his family, and establish reconciliation of the Syrian people. The exit of Al-Assad may be opposed by Algeria and the two major powers, Russia and China. Algeria, on the one hand, is facing a lurking domestic rebellion that may gain final momentum if the Syrian uprising should succeed in ousting Al-Assad. Russia and China had previously faced problems of secession in Russia's Chechnya and in China's southwestern province of Xinjang with its restive Uighur nationalists. Besides, these and a minority of other countries dread the concept of ousting a sitting ruler who has allegedly been chosen by the people in presumed free and fair elections or royal succession. The Arab League is sponsoring the conference and, despite its mediocre performance over the years, it would mark a milestone in Arab history if it could save a nation from its dictator.
Should the conference fail to agree on a common strategy to resolve the costly Syrian conflict, it should at least establish the right of the Syrian people to defend themselves against their killer regime with whatever means their friends can provide them with. President Al-Assad has lost all reasoning except to reiterate his discredited arguments about foreign intervention "to destabilise Syria".
For all that could be said in support of the Syrian uprising, disagreement between the different factions of the revolution is undermining its objectives and image. The protesters who march in the streets of two dozen towns and are killed every day feel that the opposition in exile is trying to micromanage the uprising. Protesters argue that they know the situation on the ground better and are more capable of carrying the rebellion to its ultimate objective, which is the overthrow of Bashar Al-Assad and ending the Baathist regime. The opposition in exile claims it could better serve the uprising through the solid contacts and lobby efforts they have pressed for many years. Should these differences surface at the Tunis conference they would be used by pro- Al-Assad sympathisers to undermine the uprising. That, among other factors, could weaken Arab resolve and divide international support for ending the Al-Assad dictatorship.
Syria's uprising is a shining example of the evolution of the Arab world towards democracy that would mark a historic change since it was conquered and ruled by the Ottoman Empire.
* The writer is former corespondent of Al-Ahram in Washington, DC, and former director of the UN Radio and Television in New York.