On May 12, there will be a free community event held at Latin Palace--a showing of a Theater of the Oppressed play by El Taller's traveling theater group out of Puebla, Mexico. This Spanish langauge interactive play will address issues of social justice and feminism. The organizers of the event are looking for ways to promote community organizations in
Tales from Cafe Tahrir:
Veteran activists of the current Syrian uprising share their tales of struggle and revolution.
Last Modified: 01 Apr 2012 16:36
Cairo, Egypt - The Syrian revolution began gradually; a protest in Damascus, the detention of teenage anti-regime graffitists in Daraa, and the subsequent mass rally for their release that led to a strong military reaction happened over just a few days and slowly sparked protests across the country with still no clear end in sight. One year since the revolution began, the Assad regime may still be in power but Syrian society has transformed dramatically.
In mid-March of last year,
A day after the Hariqa demonstration, in which dozens marched through the busy commercial area calling for greater freedom, local shopkeepers and residents showed no enthusiasm for what was to come. When asked about the topic in the context of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, many expressed sympathy for those countries, which they imagined to be in chaos, and saw no parallels with
Inside Story -
Some members of minority communities voiced the same apprehensions. In Yarmouk,
Those who supported the idea of a revolution often said so in a cautious whisper, and only after glancing around them for possible informers. In
A second look into the Syrian opposition in Cairo, one year after the revolution began, provides great insight into how the attitudes of Syrians, as a people, have transformed over the past year, and how the complacency and fear of the past four decades under Assad rule is being slowly undone.
Syrian exiles and refugees have been flooding into
On the first anniversary of the Syrian revolution, five Syrians gathered to mark the occasion in a cafe at a corner of
The Assad dynasty
The first of those who gathered was a Damascene woman, Salma, who had lived in
"You are a lucky generation. You are witnessing the downfall of the Assad dynasty; we, on the other hand, witnessed its rise and the height of its tyranny," Salma told the youths, as she thought back to her years in
Her first political memory of the time was a slow awareness of the
The regime of Hafez al-Assad, Salma said, destroyed all ambitions of her generation; it cancelled foreign language instruction in schools, while other subjects were restricted to materials determined by the state - and opportunities were highly limited to those with connections to the leadership. Efforts to divide the population began under Hafez al-Assad and often involved drastic measures. Differences were emphasised not only among the varying ethnic and religious groups in
Furthermore, the Alawites, the religious sect to which the Assad family belongs, became highly politicised - they received privileges and were expected to be loyal foremost to the regime. Alawite families were planted in cities, especially where they were needed - such as in the historically rebellious
While such practices continued under the rule of Bashar al-Assad, the brutality of his father remains unmatched. No one could utter a word against Hafez al-Assad, which is why a chant cursing the soul of the deceased president is among the more popular ones of the current revolution. Salma told the young rebels stories of Bashar's brother, Bassel, and how a single glance from the man terrified those around him. They are lucky, she said, that they are facing Bashar rather than Bassel al-Assad, who would have been ruler if still alive. Salma expressed her pride, as she sat with the younger generation, not only for their continued courage in facing the regime, but for their ability to break the distrust and disunity among the Syrian population. The group that gathered, with their hodgepodge of backgrounds, was testament to the changing society.
The rise of
Among the youth present was Marwa al-Ghamian, whose loud chants stirred the otherwise quiet streets of the Hariqa neighbourhood on that first day of the revolution. Al-Hariqa, meaning "fire", carries symbolic importance as it was the location of protests against the French occupation, and was then set ablaze by the occupiers to silence opposition. But just as that revolution took years to accomplish its goals, Marwa said, the Syrian protesters are today determined to continue their struggle - regardless of how long it takes. As Marwa told her story, the cafe television was turned down, as an interested Egyptian audience gathered to hear about a revolution that they had partly inspired.
Marwa and other young people had attempted to organise protests several times in February and early March, but it was only on March 15 that they gathered enough courage to risk their lives for the sake of greater freedoms. Around 150 protesters marched through the streets of old
The episode did not deter her from continuing the struggle. Upon her release, Marwa helped organise protests throughout
The persistence of the Houran
Mohamed Abazid of Daraa, one of the young protesters present, sees his hometown as the real instigator of the revolution. Few expected the Houran region, the southern plains known for their traditionalism, to play any significant role in the modern trajectory of
At the detention of teenage anti-regime graffiti artists, younger relatives of Mohamed's and locally known youths, it was unthinkable for the close-knit community to remain silent. Mohamed's parents, like those of others in the community, told him of the brutality of the 1982 Hama massacre and warned him not to protest - lest they meet the same fate as the residents of that city. The youths, however, had not witnessed that episode in Syrian history and proved more fearless than the older generation. The mass protest that followed was greeted with gunfire. Two young protesters were killed that day, the first fatalities of the revolution. Many in Daraa did not instantly blame the regime itself, but were expecting someone to be held accountable for the deaths and an official apology to be made; their wait was futile. The popular outrage expressed in protests that followed was even greater than before.
Mohamed calls Bashar al-Assad the "real leader of the revolution". The first protest, he says, called for the release of those detained and for reforms, but stopped short of demanding the downfall of the regime. It was the Assad government's use of force against the protesters that sparked even stronger reactions, starting in Daraa and spreading throughout the country. Mohamed participated in and photographed the protests. He remained in Daraa through major military attacks on the city, including the invasion and shelling of several neighbourhoods reportedly by the fourth fleet (the most notorious Syrian military unit, led by Bashar's younger brother Maher). Mohamed left the country in October, just as detentions of his fellow protesters were increasing and his call-up for military duty was imminent.
Together, the stories of Salma, Marwa and Mohamed suggested some of the reasons that the revolution in
While the revolution, and the brutality of the Assad regime's crackdown, has allowed Syrians to build a type of unity absent in the country for decades, there are still some points of weakness. A number of ethnic and religious sects in the country remain either relatively dormant or supportive of the regime for varying reasons. While their mobilisation may not be necessary for the downfall of the Assad regime, it would certainly hasten the process.
The stories of the Kurdish activist of the Tahrir gathering are perhaps the most indicative of where the biggest obstacles for the Syrian opposition lie. The young Kurd recalled a more recent attempt by the Assad regime to fragment the population, and specifically to spark Kurdish disdain for the majority Arab citizens. The 2004 incident involved a football match in the northern Kurdish city of
The Kurdish activist sees this incident as one of the main reasons that Assad's troops had yet to launch a significant military offensive against any Kurdish city in the country. "They are well aware," he said, "that any sizeable aggression against the Kurds will cause the entire region to rebel. If Arab Syrians were more like the Kurds, this revolution would be over." The young man, who wears a pin badge of the Kurdish flag, rather than the symbol of Syrian independence donned by his fellow protesters, professes to be an activist for the cause of the Syrian revolution, but perhaps misses the irony of his statements. It is the fact that many Kurds view themselves as distinct, and drastically prioritise their ethnicity over their nationality, that hinders the revolution.
The question of pro-regime sects, such as the Alawites, is a more problematic one than that of more dormant groups such as the Kurds. The politicisation of Alawites in particular has made them a symbol of disdain among the population, leaving little opportunity for Alawites opposed to the government to voice their views. Alawites have come to be known as the privileged, the informers and the thugs of the country. The threat of retribution against them, following the revolution, means that the circle of regime supporters will remain unified. It is important for the Syrian opposition to reassure members of this sect and to make an effort to protect dissident Alawites.
As the brutality of the crackdown on the uprising increases, a sense of unity, both within and outside of
Sarah Mousa graduated from
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs