Bowing to pressure from a popular uprising, Syria's president promised Saturday to end nearly 50 years of emergency rule this coming week but coupled his concession with a stern warning; that further unrest will be considered sabotage.
The protest movement has been steadily growing over the past four weeks, posing a serious challenge to the 40-year ruling dynasty of President Bashar Assad and his father before him. A British-trained eye doctor who inherited power 11 years ago, Assad acknowledged Saturday that Syrians have legitimate grievances.
But he warned there will no longer be "an excuse" for organizing protests once Syria lifts emergency rule and implements a spate of reforms, which he said will include a new law allowing the formation of political parties.
"After that, we will not tolerate any attempt at sabotage," Assad said in a televised meeting with his Cabinet.
Thousands of protesters took to the streets before and after Assad's speech.
Just after the speech ended, opposition activists called on the president to show serious effort for reform, release all political prisoners and allow peaceful protests.
More than 200 people have been killed over the past four weeks as security forces tried to crush the protests using live ammunition, tear gas and batons.
Syria's widely despised emergency laws have been in place since the ruling Baath party came to power in 1963, giving the regime a free hand to arrest people without charge and extending state authority into virtually every aspect of life.
The regime says Syria is under a state of emergency because Damascus is technically at war with Israel. But many say that is only a pretext to give the government unlimited powers to ban demonstrations, control the media and allow eavesdropping.
Critics said Assad should simply have lifted the emergency law himself Saturday, something that is well within his authority in a country where the real power is concentrated around Assad and a tight coterie of family and advisers.
Instead, he put the onus on the new Cabinet, urging them to take swift action. Assad spoke at the swearing-in of the Cabinet, which replaces the government dissolved in late March in an attempt to placate protesters.
"We have been chewing the same bit for 10 years now," said opposition figure Haitham Al-Maleh, adding that he expected the street pressure to continue throughout the country. "The president can lift the state of emergency laws with a presidential decree, there is no need for all this stalling."
There was also concern that Assad will replace the emergency laws with equally harsh restrictions on public expression.
"We do not want to be hasty," Assad said Saturday. "Any reforms have to be based on maintaining internal stability." Assad has tried to quell the protests in recent weeks with both force and limited concessions that have failed to appease an emboldened movement inspired by the Arab uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.
He also said armed gangs and a "foreign conspiracy" were behind the unrest, not true reform-seekers.
Still, he offered vague promises of change, such as forming committees to look into replacing the emergency laws and freeing detainees. He also fired his previous Cabinet _ a move that was largely symbolic, as Assad holds the power.
But the protesters have raised the ceilings on their demands every week. As the protest movement has swelled in numbers, an increasing number of people have started shouting for the downfall of the regime, rather than just reforms.
"The people simply want to see Assad go now," said a protester from the southern city of Daraa, where thousands of people took part in a protest Saturday, many of them calling for regime change.
He asked that his name not be used for fear of government reprisals.
In the seaside city of Banias, up to 10,000 people turned out for the funeral of Osama Al-Sheikha, 40, who died Saturday from wounds sustained last week when security forces cracked down on dissent in the seaside city of Banias, several witnesses said. The army sealed off the city several days ago as the protests there turned violent.
Activists also said hundreds of people in the Damascus suburbs took to the streets in anger following Assad's speech.
The witness accounts could not be independently confirmed because Syria has placed tight restrictions on media outlets and expelled foreign journalists.