The Syrian government, in a gesture to protesters who have shaken the country for the past 13 days, announced Thursday that it will draw up new antiterrorism legislation as a first step toward lifting the country's 48-year-old emergency rule.
The announcement, relayed by the official Syrian Arab News Agency and national television, seemed designed to soften the impact of President Bashar al-Assad's stiff speech Wednesday in which he offered no concessions and blamed the pro-democracy demonstrations on conspirators out to undermine Syria's strength as an Arab leader on the front lines against Israel.
The government also appeared intent on reducing enthusiasm for another round of protests called for today by an informal network of human rights activists. Inspired by revolts across the Arab world, the protesters have demanded that Assad expand democratic freedoms for Syria's 23 million people.
Activists denounced the announcement as a ploy, suggesting that Assad is only offering to replace one set of repressive laws with another, baptized this time as antiterrorism. "Under the emergency laws we were conspirators. Under the terrorism law we will be terrorists, and the role of the security apparatus will stay the same," said Razan Zeitoneh, a Syrian human rights lawyer.
"This is not significant," said Ammar Qurabi, the Cairo-based head of the Syrian National Organization for Human Rights. "It would take just one minute to reverse the emergency law. They are just trying to find something to replace the emergency law."
Assad's Baath Party, the announcement said, will name a committee of lawyers to draw up new legislation. The lawyers must turn in their proposals by April 25, but there was no mention of when the state of emergency itself might be abolished.
Getting rid of the emergency legislation has been a major demand of the protesters who have taken to the streets in Damascus, Daraa, Hamas, Latakia and other Syrian cities, mounting the most serious challenge to Assad in the 11 years since he inherited the presidency from his father. According to the New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch, about 60 people have been killed in confrontations between protesters and security forces, most of them in Daraa, on the border with Jordan.
The emergency laws, which were enacted before the 45-year-old president was born, allow security forces to arrest suspects and hold them without charges, censor the news media and impose stringent political controls. They are a key pillar of the one-party government that rules Syria with an iron hand.
Egypt's Justice Ministry on Thursday imposed a travel ban on three top associates of former President Hosni Mubarak, citing corruption suspicions, in the latest move against the pillars of the old regime, the Associated Press reported. Parliament speaker Fathi Surour, presidential chief of staff Zakariya Azmi, and ruling party head Safwat el-Sherif were some of the closest cronies of Mubarak and controlled access to him. The legal pursuit of former regime officials is for many Egyptians one of the key achievements of their 18-day revolution that toppled Mubarak on Feb. 11.