BEIRUT, Lebanon — 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.
Instability in Syria has repercussions beyond its borders. Alliances with militant groups like Lebanon's Hezbollah and with Shiite powerhouse Iran have 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 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 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.
But enraged by a mounting death toll, Syrians are joining the protest movement in growing numbers and from a broader cross-section of society. Protesters say Assad has unleashed his security forces along with shadowy, pro-government thugs known as shabiha to brutalize and intimidate them.