As the current crisis in Egypt continues, and the United States scrambles in its damage control efforts, one sign in particular points to the recent unrest in Arab countries being far more than simply an angry reaction to authoritarianism. That sign is that — even with the Tunisian revolts spreading to neighboring Egypt as well as to Jordan, Yemen, and other Arab countries — the people of Syria have not revolted against their leader, Bashar al-Assad. Recent efforts to organize a protest in Damascus failed.
Bashar was appointed president of Syria by his predecessor (and father) Hafiz al-Assad. Barring the collapse of his regime, he will likely be president for life and appoint a successor. There is no more “freedom of speech” in Syria than in Mubarak’s Egypt or Ben Ali’s Tunisia. If the current string of uprisings are truly reflective of Arabs’ democratic aspirations (which American officials and media outlets are suggesting), then wouldn’t it be natural for the flames of democratic revolt to spread to Syria? One would certainly think so.
Something is missing from this narrative. The people want more than simple “free speech.” These recent revolts reveal something else about the sentiments of Muslims in the world today.
This Gallup poll may offer some insight that other sources have curiously ignored. According to the poll, an astounding 88 percent of Egyptians want Islamic law to be a source of legislation in their country.
Far from reflecting an upsurge in democratic aspirations, these poll results seem to validate the idea which Iranian leader Seyyed Ali Khamenei alluded to in his recent speech: that the revolts are the manifestation of an “Islamic awakening.”
Perhaps, then, the reason for the failure of the planned Syria protest owes to Assad’s reconciling of his secular government with his staunchly religious population? Assad’s father became a pariah in the Arab world for aligning his country with Iran in the Iran-Iraq War, and Syria has further made itself an outcast among Arab countries by supporting Hezbollah in Lebanon. Secular Syria — though remaining secular — has managed to Islamify itself enough to appease the people. This calculated move has resulted in Assad becoming arguably the most popular head of state in the Arab world.
This is a bad omen for policymakers in the US, whose efforts to pick up the pieces of the Egyptian crisis are ever more likely looking like they will be in vain.