BEIRUT — Syria did away with 50 years of emergency rule Tuesday, but emboldened and defiant crowds accused President Bashar Assad of simply trying to buy time while he clings to power in one of the most repressive regimes in the Middle East.
Repealing the state of emergency, which gives authorities almost boundless powers of surveillance and arrest, was once the key demand of the monthlong uprising. But the protest movement has crossed a significant threshold, with increasing numbers now seeking nothing less than the downfall of the regime.
"They don't want to admit there's a Syrian revolution," said one protester in the city of Banias, among thousands who took to the streets in several cities and towns across Syria. "The people are not interested in small changes here and there anymore," he said, asking that his name not be published out fear for his personal safety.
Instability in Syria has repercussions beyond its borders. Closed-off Syria punches above its weight in terms of regional influence because of its alliances with militant groups like Lebanon's Hezbollah and with Shiite powerhouse Iran. That has given Damascus a pivotal role in most of the flashpoint issues of the Middle East, from the Arab-Israeli peace process to Iran's widening influence.
If the regime in Syria wobbles, it could both weaken a major Arab foe of the West and exacerbate fearsome tendencies toward sectarianism and chaos in the Middle East. Instability in Syria also throws into disarray the U.S. push for engagement with Damascus, part of Washington's plan to peel the country away from its allegiance to Hamas, Hezbollah and Tehran.
The rejection by protesters of the lifting of emergency rule could pose a make-or-break moment for Assad, a British-trained eye doctor who took power 11 years ago but has failed to fulfill early promises of reform. He has said that after this concession, there would be no further "excuse" for demonstrations. That could mean that the uprising – in which more than 200 have already been killed – could take an even bloodier turn.
The announcement signaling the end of the emergency rule Tuesday came just hours after a violent show of strength by authorities. Security forces raided a sit-in in Homs, Syria's third-largest city, where organizers hoped to create the mood of Cairo's Tahrir Square during the Egyptian revolution.
At least one person was killed, witnesses said.
Authorities then issued a stern warning on national TV for the protesters to back down.
The window for reconciliation in Syria is rapidly shrinking, said Bilal Saab, a Middle East expert from the University of Maryland at College Park who regularly briefs U.S. officials on Syria. He raised the potential for an insurgency – hauntingly familiar in Syria from the bloody scenes in neighboring Iraq.
"Insurgency is highly likely in Syria due to the country's low per-capita income, the Syrian government's weak capacity, the existence of foreign sanctuaries in Iraq, Lebanon, and Jordan, and deep grievances on the part a growing number of the Syrian public," Saab told The Associated Press.
Most of Syria's 23 million people were born or grew up under the strict control of the state of emergency, which gives the regime a free hand to arrest people without charge, control on the media and eavesdrop on telecommunications.
But repealing the law will not change much because Syria is not governed by the rule of law. Power begins and ends with Assad and a small coterie of his family and advisers. Other laws maintain Assad's dominance as well, including measures that guarantee immunity for the secret police for crimes committed in the line of duty.
A prominent Syrian writer, Yassin Haj Saleh, who spent 16 years in jail for his links to a pro-democracy group, claimed Assad was looking for a "maneuver to gain time" by removing emergency rule.
"They are basically telling the people, 'We have fulfilled your demands, so go home and if you don't we will break your head,'" he told The Associated Press by telephone from Damascus. "But in reality nothing will change."
So far, Assad's strategy has been to couple dry promises of reform with a relentless crackdown. In addition ending the state of emergency, he fulfilled a decades-old demand by granting citizenship to thousands among Syria's long-ostracized Kurdish minority, fired local officials, released detainees and formed a new government.
Protesters say Assad has unleashed his security forces along with shadowy, pro-government thugs known as "shabiha" to brutalize and intimidate them. Authorities have also played on fears of sectarian strife – so clearly destructive in neighboring Iraq and Lebanon – trying to persuade the broader public that the protests by tens of thousands will bring nothing but chaos.
Syria has multiple sectarian divisions, largely kept in check under Assad's heavy hand and his regime's secular ideology. Most significantly, the majority of the population is Sunni Muslim, but Assad and the ruling elite belong to the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiism.
Assad's actions have only emboldened the protesters.
"The people know that once you hit the streets you cannot go back, or it's finished," said David Schenker, director of the Program on Arab Politics at The Washington Institute.
Assad's regime has labeled the protest movement as an "armed insurrection" and a power grab by Islamic extremists – descriptions that could give authorities the cover to continue the crackdown.
Syria's official news agency SANA said Tuesday the Cabinet also approved abolishing the state security court, which handled the trials of political prisoners, and approved a new law allowing the right to stage peaceful protests with the permission of the Interior Ministry.
The changes need parliament approval, but no objections are expected at its next session planned for May 2.
U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner expressed skepticism about Assad's claims of reform.
"He has cast himself for a while now as a reformer," Toner said. "We've seen a lot of words and not a lot of action. But ultimately it's really for the Syrian people to decide if he said enough, or if he's done enough."
Syria's descent is an astonishing turn because it has been one of the region's most tightly controlled nations for decades, under Assad and under his father and predecessor, Hafez Assad.
As uprisings swept across the Arab world in January, Bashar Assad told the Wall Street Journal that his country was immune to such unrest because he is in tune with his people's needs.
Assad has indeed maintained a level of popular support during his 11 years in power, in no small part because of his anti-Israel policies, which resonate with his countrymen. And unlike leaders in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Jordan, Assad is not allied with the United States, so he has been spared the accusation that he caters to American demands.
But the mood over the past four weeks has changed markedly.
Enraged by a mounting death toll, Syrians are joining the protest movement in growing numbers and from a broader cross-section of society. Assad is now dealing with a cycle driven by rage and vengeance that has all but eclipsed the political aspirations of the original calls for reform.
The crackdown also has altered a view held by many people – in Syria and abroad – that Assad is a reformer at heart who was constrained by members of his late father's old guard who are clinging to power, fearing an end to their privileges.
Despite the range of opinions about Assad's motivations, his road to power followed a path taken by dictators the world over: He inherited power from his father after winning a sham election.
Assad gave up an ophthalmology practice in Britain to enter Syrian politics when his brother Basil, widely regarded as his father's chosen heir, died in a 1994 car crash. To mesh into the military-dominated power structure, he brushed up on military training and became an army colonel.
After his father's death, Parliament quickly lowered the presidential age requirement from 40 to 34 so that the ruling Baath party could nominate him. His appointment was sealed by a nationwide referendum, in which he was the only candidate.
Kennedy reported from Cairo.