Security forces opened fire on protesters outside the Omari mosque in Deraa early on Wednesday, killing at least 15 people,according to al-Jazeera. However, the Syrian Revolution Digest, citing activists on the ground, says the number of dead could be 150 or more. Many of those injured were reportedly taken away by army vehicles to an unknown destination (not to local hospitals).
Journalists are not being allowed into Deraa, so these accounts are impossible to confirm independently.
The Syrian Revolution Digest, which has a number of videos of the scenes, is a new blog by exiled dissident Ammar Abdulhamid. He writes:
"Meanwhile, Syrian officials are mounting an extensive public relations campaign, as their spokesmen flood TV stations speaking as if they were members of the opposition, calling for reforms, admitting mistakes, saying the 'president' intends to call for a major conference on political reform, all while raising all sorts of doubts about foreign agendas, infiltrators and suspicious happenings in Deraa.
"This is an old tactic and, despite the greater exposure by Syrians to different versions of the 'truth' thanks to satellite channels, it can still be effective, among those too scared to act ad are in search of excuses and justifications for their behaviour.
"How effective this tactic [is] will be demonstrated on Friday. Activists are calling for mass demonstrations to take place following the noon prayers, the size of the crowds willing to respond will divulge much about the pace, course and nature of events in the days and weeks to come."
Time magazine has an article about the origins of the uprising. It says:
"The words have been repeated from Tunisia to Egypt, from Yemen to Bahrain. 'The people want the regime to fall' – the mantra of revolution. And so, last week, after 15 kids wrote those words on a wall in the agricultural town of Dara'a in southern Syria, the local governor decided to come down hard. The young people – all under 17 – were thrown in jail. The punishment stunned the town, and suddenly, Syria – so confidently authoritarian – got its first strong taste of rebellion in the Arab Spring."
For readers of Arabic, there is a new "Syrian Revolution" Facebook page which has been "liked" by more than 73,000 people.
President Salih's new emergency law was rushed through the Yemeni parliament on Wednesday. There are disputes as to whether the session – which had been boycotted by the opposition – was quorate. Parliamentary officials said 164 members were present and all but four of them voted in favour of the measure. The opposition Islah party said only 133 attended. For a vote to be valid, at least 151 of the 301 members must be present.
The effect of the emergency law is to suspend the constitution, allow media censorship, ban street demonstrations and give far-reaching powers to the security forces.
Human Rights Watch has issued a statement pointing out that the emergency law does not override the government's obligation to respect fundamental human rights under international law.
"Emergency laws are no excuse to use unlawful force to quash peaceful protests," a spokesman for HRW said. "The world is watching to see whether President Saleh will respect the basic rights of his citizens."
Meanwhile, the Financial Times reports that the authorities have closed down al-Jazeera's bureau in Sana'a – a day after its offices were raided by armed men. On Saturday, two al-Jazeera correspondents were deported after the information ministry accused them of "professional infractions during their coverage of the current events in Yemen".
Mark Katz, a professor of government and politics at George Mason University, has written for the CNN blog under the headline "Yemeni President Saleh should go now". His article makes some additional points to those I made here on Wednesday.
He argues (as I did too) that Salih's early departure would not necessarily bring a cataclysm to Yemen:
"I, for one, believe that the Yemeni situation is more likely to improve if Saleh leaves office now. While Yemen has been afflicted with many conflicts, it also has a strong tradition of successful internal conflict resolution – as occurred at the end of the 1962-70 North Yemeni civil war and the elaborate agreements on unification between north and south that resulted in unification in 1990 (and which Saleh subsequently reneged on).
"Among other things, Yemenis know better than anyone else just how well armed their fellow citizens are, and thus know how futile engaging in a civil war would be.
"Without Saleh and his constant machinations to keep them isolated them from America and the west, Yemenis would have much greater prospects for exercising their conflict resolution skills ...
"America and the west need to realise that the conflicts in Yemen are mainly over local concerns. Encouraging and enabling Yemenis to resolve them on their own (as they have in the past) is the best way America can make sure that the role of Iran and al-Qaeda remain limited in Yemen."
Saudi Arabia has unexpectedly announced that it will hold local government elections on April 23. This move, apparently brought about by demands for reform, will be only the second opportunity for Saudi men to vote during the last 45 years or so.
In 2005, half the seats on local councils were offered for election(with the remaining 50% appointed by the king). Women were not allowed to vote but there were assurances that they would be allowed to do so when technical difficulties resulting from gender segregation had been overcome. That was hailed at the time as a small step towards democracy.
The councils were due for re-election in 2009, but nothing happened then and the reason given was that the elections had been
postponed for "re-evaluation".
Once again, women will not be allowed to vote in the coming elections and John Burgess on the Crossroads Arabia blogsuggests that a few more months' delay would not be a problem if it allowed the voting rules to be changed in the meantime in order to include women.
In the 2005 elections Islamist candidates preformed unexpectedly well, causing alarm among liberal reformers. Possibly the king is hoping for a repeat of that, which would dampen calls for a further extension of the kingdom's minimalist democracy.
Posted by Brian Whitaker, 24 March 2011