Damascus // Syria inched closer to the end of decades of repressive emergency laws yesterday when its newly appointed cabinet approved draft legislation to lift martial rule and abolish the state security court.
The move was cautiously welcomed by civil rights campaigners who, along with thousands of anti-government protesters, have been demanding the law be scrapped.
But it was unclear last night how long it will take for the decision to be endorsed by either the president or parliament and come into effect. Parliament is not due to meet before May 2.
Analysts have warned that Syria's powerful and largely autonomous security agencies will be reluctant to surrender any of their influence and there have been cases before of presidential decisions not being implemented.
In addition, other repressive laws remain in place, including legislation that gives security forces immunity from prosecution for any act committed in the line of duty. The government has also pledged to introduce new anti-terrorism laws that some fear will be as draconian as the legislation they replace.
Yesterday's cabinet decision, which included a law requiring protests to be authorised in advance by the interior ministry, came after four people died when army units fired live ammunition and tear gas to break up a sit-in in Homs, Syria's third largest city.
Protesters there have been calling for sweeping political reforms far beyond simply ending the state of emergency.
Homs remained tense last night, and the streets largely deserted except for military patrols.
There was increasing anger among residents about the rising death toll. At least 17 protesters were killed there on Sunday night.
Security forces were also on edge after another two soldiers were killed in Homs yesterday and their corpses mutilated, according to the government.
The interior ministry warned Syrians to stay away from any future public demonstrations, and said the country was now facing an armed insurrection by Islamist gangs.
It specifically named Homs and the city of Banias as centres of militancy, which provoked an immediate response from Banias's residents. Many took to the streets denying the claim and repeating their calls for "freedom".
Toughening government rhetoric about the demonstrations, which have spread across much of Syria during the past five weeks, has alarmed some observers, who caution the country may now see new repression of dissent.
"I know this regime, they do not want to reform," one independent political analyst said. "They are playing for time with the emergency law and they will say they have met the people's legitimate demands and that anyone else protesting from now on is a terrorist."
Legal experts and civil rights activists were divided about what bureaucratic step comes next in lifting the state of emergency; some said the new laws simply require a presidential signature, which may happen as soon as today, while others suggested parliament had to rubber stamp the decision at its next session, scheduled to start on May 2.
Civil rights activists said it was too soon for celebrations. "It's a positive step and there is no real precedent for it from the Syrian government," said Abdul Karim Rehawi, head of the Syrian human Rights League. "But for now at least nothing has changed on the ground so we wait for that. We are waiting for all the political prisoners detained under emergency laws to be freed."
The state of emergency was declared 48 years ago, in communiqué number two issued by the Baath party's revolutionary command council immediately after it seized control of the country in a military coup. In place since, on the grounds Syria remains technically at war with
Israel, it has given the country's numerous security agencies a free hand to operate with almost complete impunity.
It is under the emergency laws that the Supreme State Security Court was brought into existence and used to prosecute the regime's political opponents in trials that civil rights lawyers said were never fair.
"I'm happy to hear that this step to lift the emergency law has been taken and I'll be very happy when the state of emergency is actually lifted," said Mazen Darwich, a leading civil rights activist. "But still the important thing is to know the details, there are many questions that have to be answered.
"Since emergency rule was declared much legislation has been passed that builds on it, so we need to know exactly what this will mean to all of that."
Mr Darwich said he expected demonstrations to continue even after the emergency law is lifted.
"The decision about the emergency law is to correct a mistake that comes from Syria's past," he said. "But people are now campaigning for the future, still the majority want to see the country transformed from a one party state to a democratic nation."