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Despite his domination of the state, Hafiz al-Assad faced a serious challenge with the outbreak of a rebellion spearheaded by the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood (al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun), a Sunni fundamentalist movement originally founded in Egypt in 1928 and with branches throughout the region.
The Muslim Brotherhood, like all groups deprived of any legitimate outlet for political activity, opposed the regime both for its avowed secularism and for its Alawite basis (conservative Sunnis considered Alawites to be heretics).
In 1976 Muslim Brotherhood militants launched a campaign of assassinations of senior Alawite and regime figures and bombings of regime symbols, such as military headquarters and offices of the Mukhabarat. The campaign escalated, and the attacks became more daring and spectacular.
In June 1979, for example, 200 Alawite cadets were killed in an assault on the Aleppo Artillery Academy.
The Islamists were not the only aggrieved part of society. The Syrian army’s intervention in Lebanon against a Muslim/Palestinian/leftist alliance fighting a rightist, Maronite-Christian-dominated establishment supported by Israel was deeply unpopular in Syria. So too was the ostentatious corruption of al-Assad’s elite, the favouritism enjoyed by Alawites in official appointments, and the pervasive powers of the Mukhabarat.
In addition, the economy, which had grown rapidly in the early 1970s, was now stagnating, and spiralling inflation was causing serious hardship to the lower-paid. Along with Islamist terrorism, the regime faced increasingly fierce criticism from intellectuals, professionals, and activists from secular opposition parties. Protest strikes were organized by those professional associations, such as the doctors’ and engineers’ associations, that had managed to maintain their independence of the state.
While responding to the Islamists’ bloody violence with mounting brutality of its own, the regime also moved to crush its non-violent and non-Islamist opponents. The lawyers’, engineers’, and doctors’ associations were disbanded in 1980 and their leaders imprisoned. Thousands of Islamist suspects were detained, as well as hundreds of intellectuals and activists from secular opposition parties.
The climax of what was nearly a national rebellion against the Baathists was a three-week uprising in the central city of Hama in February and March 1982, to which the regime responded ferociously. The city was pounded by artillery, and much of its historic centre, including its Great Mosque, was flattened. Estimates of the numbers killed range from 5,000 to more than 20,000.