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Syria awaits end of decades-old state of emergency

March 29, 2011

A Syrian pro-Assad protester shouts slogans as he carries a picture of Syrian President Bashar Assad along a national flag during a sit-in in front of the Syrian embassy in Beirut, March 27, 2011. — Photo by AP

DAMASCUS: Syria is counting down the hours until President Bashar al-Assad makes the promised announcement of the end of 50 years of emergency rule, but the move will have but symbolic impact unless accompanied by other major reforms, analysts say.

“To lift the state of emergency is a symbolic gesture at best,” said Faysal Itani, deputy head of Middle East and North Africa forecasting at London-based risk assessment group Executive Analysis.

“Even if it were followed would not address the key issue, which is the high degree of economic and political power in the hands of a select political elite,” Itani told AFP.

“The only thing that would do, in the current situation, would be sweeping reform of how power is distributed.”

Syria has a religiously and ethnically mixed population. Alongside a large Sunni Muslim community, it has Christian and Kurdish minorities as well as a significant Alawite population, from which President Bashar al-Assad himself hails.

Growing unrest in Syria has turned increasingly violent in recent days, as Assad faces his deepest crisis since he succeeded his father in 2000.

Syria has been under a state of emergency since 1963, when the Baath party seized power. After a series of palace coups, Bashar's father Assad, rose to presidency in 1970, crushing any signs of dissent in his three-decade rule.

The 45-year-old Bashar is expected to address his country in the days to come, but there is no confirmation that he will officially announce that emergency rule has been lifted.

And even if he does, analysts say, more reforms are needed for Syria to shed its reputation and quell simmering dissent in impoverished areas.

“For lifting the state of emergency to have a real impact, President Assad will have to dismantle the state security court and other institutions created over the past 30 years to enforce the repressive rule,” said Nadim Houry, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.

“While it would be a positive step forward, a lot more reforms are needed to provide Syrians with the freedom they deserve.”

A key step forward would be to set up an independent body to supervise Syria's multiple infamous security agencies and enact laws in compliance with international human rights norms, Houry said.

Syria's emergency law imposes restrictions on public gatherings and movement and authorises the arrest of “suspects or persons who threaten security”.

The law also authorises interrogation of any individual and the surveillance of personal communication as well as official control of the content of newspapers and other media before publication.

In a conciliatory move last week, the state announced talks were underway to adopt new laws on the media and licensing of political parties.

But analysts say it is too early to say what the announcement will mean in terms of press freedom in the key Middle Eastern state.

“The state of emergency only provides legal cover of something that is already being done by force,” said Itani.

Houry said: “The steps that need to be taken for true reform, for example, include the establishment of an independent electoral commission to register new political parties.”

And until the heart of the matter is addressed, the wave of unrest is unlikely to subside, the analysts agreed.

“About 80 per cent of the population feels disenfranchised, and they are the hardest hit by socio-economic problems,” Itani said.

“The Baath is going to have to open up to power-sharing and it is not clear that they are willing to do so.”