DAMASCUS – Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is to address the nation Wednesday in his first speech in two weeks of unprecedented dissent and one day after his cabinet resigned, a senior official said.
“The president will address the country tomorrow Wednesday from parliament,” the official told AFP, without giving further details.
The news came shortly after Prime Minister Mohammed Naji Otri tendered his government’s resignation and was tasked with acting in a caretaker capacity until a new cabinet is formed.
The president is expected to elaborate on a string of reforms announced last week, which came in response to two weeks of protests demanding reform and more freedoms in the country ruled by the Baath party since 1963.
Presidential adviser Buthaina Shaaban has told AFP the state decided to lift the state of emergency, which has been in force since the Baath seized power.
Syrian authorities are also studying the liberalisation of laws on media and political parties as well as anti-corruption measures.
The new cabinet, which is expected to be announced by the end of the week, will face the task of implementing the reforms.
Otri had formed his government in 2003. It was reshuffled several times, most recently in October 2010.
Assad, who rose to power after the death of his father Hafez al-Assad in 2000, is facing extreme pressure at home as the protests turn increasingly violent.
Syrian authorities have accused fundamentalists and “armed gangs” of aiming to incite unrest in the country, particularly in the southern governorate of Daraa and the northern port city of Latakia which have emerged as the focal points of dissent.
Small demonstrations demanding “freedom” also surfaced in the capital Damascus earlier this month, but were immediately quelled by security forces.
Activists say more than 130 people have been killed and scores injured in clashes with security forces at the Daraa and Latakia rallies. Officials have put the death toll at around 30.
And despite the state’s promises of reform, analysts say it is too early to assess what the announcement will mean in terms of real change in the key Middle Eastern state renowned for its tight grip on security.
Meanwhile, in Damascus, hundreds of thousands of Assad supporters turned out for a massive rally at the Sabeh Bahrat (“Seven Fountains”) square on Tuesday, in a state-organised popular show of force.
“The people want Bashar al-Assad,” they chanted in unison at the rally under a massive picture of their president hoisted on Syria’s central bank.
“We are ready to die for Bashar. Every last drop of my blood I am willing to give for him,” said Rajeh, a university student, as he made his way through a crowded Damascus street.
“The media wants to see protests in Syria? Here are the protests of Syria.”
State-run Syria Television also showed footage of massive crowds gathered in other governorates on Tuesday, including Aleppo and Homs.
No rallies were reported in Latakia and Daraa but a rights activist reported some 300 people marched through Daraa, a tribal town at the Syrian border, chanting “Revolution” and “God, Syria, freedom.”
Popular Facebook group The Syria Revolution 2011, which has continuously called for “freedom” in Syria, urged Syrians to stage sit-ins across the country Friday despite the state’s conciliatory moves.
“The Friday of Martyrs. In all governorates, in all mosques, in all squares. An overnight sit-in until our demands are met — all our demands,” read a banner poster as the group’s profile picture.
“In loyalty to the blood of our martyrs in Daraa and Latakia. Be ready, oh people in revolt,” read the group’s status. “We do not give up — we are victorious, or we die.”
Syria’s emergency law imposes restrictions on public gatherings and movements and authorises the arrest of “suspects or persons who threaten security”.
It also allows the interrogation of any individual and the surveillance of personal communications as well as official control of the content of newspapers and other media before publication.
The Economist Intelligence Unit’s index of democracy lists Syria as 152 out of 163 countries considered “authoritarian”.
Non-governmental organisation Transparency International classifies the country as the 127th out of 178 states on a corruption index.
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