In the initial days of protests in Daraa, on March 13 and 14, several friends and I began to discuss a strategy for how we could contribute to the cause. An organic uprising had been spawned after the secret police’s arrest weeks earlier of schoolchildren accused of scrawling a wall with anti-regime graffiti.
As a journalist, I had the resources to inform members of the press as to what was occurring on the ground. For one week, we facilitated the spread of information, providing news outlets small and large with video and first-hand accounts of both the demonstrations and the violence used to suppress them. We also created a Facebook group with information and links detailing what was happening and where.
On March 22, however, the abuses of Bashar al-Assad’s regime against which thousands were demonstrating in Daraa and elsewhere in Syria touched home. Simultaneously, a friend’s house and our office was broken into and ransacked. My friend was arrested; when he called, asking us to meet with him, we suspected correctly that it was a trap.
The experience puts into sharp relief the dangers of civic mobilization in Syria and the stunted growth of political expression in the country. Whereas in Tunisia and Egypt — though they were a far cry from free societies before the revolutions — a degree of discourse was possible, Syria is in its infancy when it comes to its citizens engaging one another in debates on national identity. Though some were already circumventing Internet censorship laws, access to social media websites such as Facebook was only granted in February [for more, see comment page 12 and story page 30]. Because of this muzzle, the only formal opposition to the Baath party line has come from the old guard of political resistance: the groups who signed the Damascus Declaration for Democratic National Change in 2005.
These are well acquainted with the heavy hand of dictatorship; combined, they have spent many lifetimes in jail. Laudably, they have devoted their lives to their cause, but now that opposition in Syria has adopted a populist dimension they must open themselves up to a dialogue that incorporates Syria’s disparate voices, be they Sunni, Alawite, young, old, pro-or anti-regime. The old guard has entered the “Arab Spring” with the mindset that they have nothing left to lose. But most of those on the streets of Daraa, Latakia, Damascus and elsewhere have everything at stake. They are not lifelong activists but people searching for a voice in their society, with lives to lead outside of politics.
President Bashar al-Assad has attempted to use the sectarian divisions within Syria in his favor. Should his clasp slip, Syria would descend into an ethnically-motivated struggle for power between the Sunni majority and Alawite, Christian and Druze minorities, or so the line goes. Political adviser to the president Bouthaina Shaaban has been playing up these fears, calling the destruction of “peaceful coexistence” the true aim of the protesters. And in Latakia we have seen the real dangers, as the shabiha, notorious Alawite gangsters close to the Assad family (who may or may not be acting on their orders) killed up to 21 people on March 26.
Together with the diverse sectarian makeup of Syria is a multiplicity of desires within the populace. Some chant for the downfall of the regime, but most desire substantial reforms — an end to emergency law and to Article 8, which prohibits alternatives to the Baath Party. And some wish for no political change at all. At its present juncture, nobody has the right to speak for the movement. For the opposition, the true challenge is to respect and heed these myriad voices. One positive indication of the potential for civic engagement and dialogue lies in the example of the proposed “Personal Status Draft Law” in late-2009. A regressive, sharia-based effort to restrict citizens’ rights (particularly for women), it was eventually abandoned due to a widespread outcry against it on the radio, on blogs and from human rights organizations. Though one of the few examples of successful and diverse political participation, it could be a lesson to reformers still stuck in the absolutist terms of the past; despite differences in experience, there is common ground to be shared beyond the overthrow of the regime.
Without a gathering of opinions, Syrians will be tinder for the sectarian firestorm that Assad is happy to stoke.
ANANT DAMIR is the pen-name of a Syrian freelance journalist based in Damascus