Syrian protesters have been violently clashing with government forces for the last five weeks, with more than 200 deaths confirmed. Following the lead of their Tunisian and Egyptian counterparts, Syrians are demanding that the country's repressive Baath regime, which has ruled since 1963, grant its citizens basic civil rights. President Bashar al-Assad dropped a much-hated 48-year-old emergency law earlier this week, but increasingly angry protesters demand nothing less than his ouster. Now, the demonstrators are set for their biggest protest yet — dubbed "Great Friday" — which could be "potentially decisive for the uprising’s momentum," says Anthony Shadid at The New York Times. Here, a brief guide to the conflict:
Did lifting the emergency law change anything?
It certainly didn't change everything. Many of the laws used as justfiication to imprison citizens are still intact. Plus, "the security services are above the law," says Haithem Maleh, a human rights campaigner, as quoted by Al Jazeera. Indeed, the government arrested popular opposition figure Mahmoud Issa at a large gathering in the city of Homs just hours after dropping the emergency law.
How tenuous is the regime's grip on power?
At the beginning of the uprising, many Syrians would probably have been satisfied with Assad's lifting of the emergency law. But the autocrat's brutal response to protests has helped foster a more revolutionary spirit. "I used to be more careful with my predictions," says Rime Allaf a Syrian political analayst at London's Chatham House, as quoted by The Christian Science Monitor. But right now, "people are infuriated by the killings that the regime has done over the past few days. The mood is very defiant."
What should we expect Friday?
Great Friday "may serve as a referendum of sorts" on the Assad strategy of repealing the emergency law, says Anthony Shadid at the Times. The Facebook group "The Syrian Revolution 2011," which is advertising the Friday event, has more than 120,000 fans. And protesters seem confident about the demonstration's prospects. "It’s O.K., don’t worry, we will finish it on Friday," Syrians were said to chant at slain protesters' funerals on Wednesday.
So will Assad survive?
That's anybody's guess. But at least one former government official thinks he's about to follow in Hosni Mubarak's footsteps. "The depth of the rift between the regime and the majority of the people... will lead to the collapse of a regime desperately struggling to survive," says exiled former Vice President Abdelhalim Khaddam.
What would happen to Syria if Assad leaves?
That's even more unclear. While getting rid of the government may be the only thing that will please protesters, observers fear a chaotic post-revolution aftermath. With its potentially explosive mix of minorities (Christians, Sunni Muslims, Kurds, and more), and lack of established political institutions, Syria could be ripe for internecine conflict and score-settling after the fall of a long-established regime.