A Troublesome Town
COULD the central Syrian city of Hama come to define president Bashar Assad’s rule in the way it did his father before him? The conservative Sunni city was the focal point of the brutal putdown of an armed Islamist uprising a generation ago. Today it is testing the resolve of a regime that has vascillated between violent repression and meaningless reform. After more than 70 people were shot dead during protests in Hama on June 3rd and at least two members of the security forces were killed in reprisals, troops mostly pulled out of the city. Free to protest, tens of thousands took to the streets. Some 300,000 people, including women and children, joined demonstrations on Friday July 1st, the biggest the city has seen. Symbols of over four decades of Assad rule were removed. Protesters chanted that the people of Hama were free.
But on Sunday government forces returned after the local governor was sacked. Several governors have lost their jobs since Syria’s uprising broke out in mid-March but mostly in an attempt to placate the protesters. The governor of Hama, widely popular, was reportedly fired because he was too soft on demonstrators. Since Sunday 22 people have been shot dead. Scores more have been injured and detained. Tanks remain outside the city but reported cuts in electricity and water—though as yet not communications—suggest things could get worse.
Hama, like other restive cities such as Deraa and Homs, has been systematically intimidated and attacked. But memories of the slaughter in 1982 give the city psychological and symbolic resonance. Hama’s residents have erected barricades; some say they are willing to fight back. While Mr Assad’s father Hafez’s month-long siege on the city went unnoticed until weeks later, YouTube and Twitter ensure that the world can watch events in Hama as they unfold. More importantly, unlike the religious uprising in the late 1970s and early 1980s, which had limited support, Hama’s peaceful protesters reflect the widespread—and seemingly growing—discontent across the country.
We will have a more extensive update in the print edition tomorrow.