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First Tunisia, Then Egypt -- Will Syria Be Next?

Now that Tunisia overthrew its ruler and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak is facing calls to leave office from a variety of sources, including demonstrators, former President Jimmy Carter, and Egyptian actor Omar Sharif. So you might wonder: who's next on the topple-a-Middle-Eastern-despot list? Maybe Syria. And you can bet companies doing business in that region continue to scramble.

According to the Middle East Media Research Institute, Syrian Facebook pages have called for demonstrations on Saturday, February 5. People have apparently created pages for this purpose, calling the planned protests a "day of rage." A question is whether people have access to Facebook to see the message.

There have been reports of a Syrian Internet shutdown, however, it is not clear whether that is actually happening. Earlier in the week, the Syrian government banned applications that provide cellphone access to Facebook . People had used mobile connections as a way around a block of Facebook's main page. According to Al Jazeerra, there is still Internet access, albeit slow with searches for news on Egypt often crashing browsers. And, still, young people are using Facebook on mobile devices and Internet cafes.

Links from Google's Syria directory page seem to work. The United Nations in Syria website, whose .sy ending indicates hosting in the country, is still available.

So, communications likely remain, and the Internet has not historically been a necessary part of popular revolutions. The Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia the Czech Republic happened late in 1989, as did the fall of the Berlin Wall. Even without Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube, enough modern communications remain to facilitate what could happen without them.

The question is whether the conditions in Syria are sufficiently similar to those in Egypt or Tunisia. Both of the latter have seen high spikes in commodity food prices. Combined with high unemployment and widespread poverty, the result is conditions that can spark anger and a sense of little else to lose. As Al Jazeera suggests, the situation in Syria may not be as economically extreme:

One in 10 Syrians live in poverty - but this figure is far below Egypt's rate of some 40 per cent. Official figures in Syria show unemployment fell from over 12 per cent in 2005 to 8.1 per cent in 2009, one per cent lower than the official rate in Egypt, where some analysts put it as high as 25 per cent. Average salaries in Syria have risen to $200 over the past few years, more than double the rate in Egypt.
It seems clear from the outside that the Syrian government is extremely nervous about the potential for protests. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad gave a rare interview to the Wall Street Journal, stressing that he saw his country as stable because it was already undergoing reform to more closely align government policy with the interests of its citizens:
If you did not see the need for reform before what happened in Egypt and in Tunisia, it is too late to do any reform. This is first. Second, if you do it just because of what happened in Tunisia and Egypt, then it is going to be a reaction, not an action; and as long as what you are doing is a reaction you are going to fail.
Next Saturday may show whether the Syrians would agree to the extent of reform to date.


Image: Wikimedia Commons user Scott Ehardt.
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