Last week I wrote an article about the unexpected awakening of popular unrest in Syria, when an unprecedented “Day of Rage” against the Ba’athist dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad was called by protestors in Damascus, and was followed the day after by another protest in which respected opposition figures — both Arabs and Kurds — called for the release of 21 political prisoners out of the many thousands of “prisoners of conscience” held in Syria’s notorious prisons. These include Far Falestin in Damascus, whose reputation for torture was such that, when George W. Bush and his close advisors were looking for countries where men and boys seized in the “War on Terror” could be tortured, Syria was chosen, along with Egypt, Jordan and Morocco.
Since last Wednesday, the ripples of dissent in Libya have spread, leading to major unrest in the southern city of Dara’a, where, last Friday, protests about the arrest of a group of 15 schoolchildren who had dared to scrawl graffiti on a wall explaining that “the people want the overthrow of the regime” escalated into something far more grave, when the security services opened fire, killing three protestors in cold blood. Dubbed “Dignity Friday” by protestors, who had been using social networking sites to coordinate their activities, the clampdown in Dara’a immediately echoed throughout the region, where other protests had been taking place, and the next day, as the Guardian explained, “a much larger, angrier crowd — estimated to number as many as 20,000 — turned out for the burial of the previous days’ victims.”
For a country generally stunned into public silence since 1963 by emergency laws that prohibit any demonstrations against the regime — and by vicious reprisals on the rare occasions that dissent has previously threatened the regime — two protests in the capital in a week (even before the bloodshed in Dara’a just days later) was extraordinary, and the government’s response indicated how — despite the small number of people involved — senior officials were clearly rattled. A small clip of the “Day of Rage” was made available on YouTube, where it has, to date, been seen by over 125,000 people, but the response to the call for the release of the 21 political prisoners was even more significant, because of the government’s overreaction.
Of the 150 protestors last Wednesday, the majority were themselves human rights activists — or relatives of the 21 political prisoners whose release the protest was designed to secure. The 21 include Kamal al-Labwani, a Kurdish doctor and artist, and one of the most prominent members of the Syrian opposition movement, who was imprisoned in 2007; Muhannad al-Hassani, the Kurdish president of the Syrian Human Rights Organization, who was imprisoned in June 2010; Ali al-Abdallah, imprisoned two weeks ago — not for the first time — for criticizing Syria’s close relations with Iran, as a member of the “Damascus Declaration” group, which has long called for Syria’s transition to a democratic nation; and Anwar Bunni, a human rights lawyer and activist, and another member of the “Damascus Declaration” group, who was imprisoned in April 2007.
At noon last Wednesday, as announced in advance, the group of protestors –including Kamal al-Labwani’s son and six other relatives, human rights activists Mazen Darwish, Suhair Atassi and Sereen Khouri, and former prisoners of conscience Nahed Badawiya and Kamal Cheikho — gathered outside the Interior Ministry in Damascus to present a petition calling for the prisoners’ release. However, as a human rights activist who was at the demonstration explained:
When we got to the ministry, we could see that there were a lot of security services around. I saw five buses full of security members parked 300 meters from us. At first, an employee from the Ministry of Interior came out and told us that the families of the detainees would be allowed to present the petition to the minister. We asked for five minutes, as some families were still arriving. When a few families raised photos of detained relatives, the security services suddenly attacked us and beat us with black batons.
Providing corroboration, the daughter of a prominent political prisoner stated:
We had barely taken my father’s picture out when men ran toward us and started beating us. They beat my mother on her head and arm with a baton. They pulled my sister’s hair and beat her as well until my uncle managed to get her away. We started running away, but they followed us.
Afterwards, witnesses stated that 40 of the protestors has been seized by the security services, and only six were known to have been released — including Mazen Darwish, Tayeb Tizini, the celebrated author and professor of philosophy at Damascus University, and Hassiba Abdel-Rahman, a former prisoner of conscience, jailed in 1979, 1986 and 1992 for having belonged to the “Labor Party of Syria” and for meeting members of Amnesty International.
It was reported that violence had been used on some of the protestors, and that “security services interrogated each person separately and asked him for the password to his Facebook account.” One demonstrator told Reuters that the security services “pulled Suhair by her hair and took her away,” and Mazen Darwish explained to the BBC that he was set free “only after being held for five hours in the military security branch’s detention centre alongside 20 others, including women.” He also said, “When I showed them my international press card, they shouted and said, ‘Why were you standing among protesters and not among the journalists?’”
The next day, the Syrian government announced that it was charging 32 of the prisoners, and released a list of 25 names, including rights activist Suhair Atassi and four relatives of Kamal al-Labwani. The prisoners were charged with “attacking the reputation of the state, provoking racism and sectarianism and damaging relations between Syrians” — the type of Orwellian “crimes” that plague the charge sheets of anyone who publicly dares to criticize the Libyan state.
Expressing dismay at the charges, Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa, said in a news release, “Like many of the political prisoners whose release they were calling for, protestors appear to have been arrested simply for the peaceful expression of their views. The Syrian authorities must immediately release all those arrested in the last two days for merely attending peaceful protests, and stop these attacks on freedom of expression and assembly.”
The events of March 16 — and the resonant history of those held in Damascus, with their long and determined commitment to democracy and human rights — provided an important historical weight to the infectious eruption of violence in the south, although clearly, if a tipping point is to be reached, many different elements of dissatisfaction, bubbling under the surface for decades, will have to prove impossible for the President al-Assad’s regime to suppress, as Maher Arar, a Syrian-born Candian citizen rendered by the US for torture in Syria during the “War on Terror,” explained in an article for the Guardian on Wednesday. After explaining that he knew, from personal experience, how Syria’s human rights situation had degenerated under Bashar al-Assad, Arar proceeded to analyze the Syrian people’s reluctance to embrace revolution, noting, for one thing, their “ethnic divisions”:
The ruling Alawite minority, to whom Assad belongs and whose members have full control over sensitive military and intelligence posts, is only one of many. There is also the powerless Sunni majority, Christians, Kurds, Ismailis and Duruz. There are also over 1 million old Palestinian immigrants and, more recently, more than 1 million Iraqi refugees have decided to make Syria their home. All these groups have competing and conflicting interests. These ethnic divisions make it extremely challenging to have a unified popular voice, but what is encouraging is the fact that the Syrian youth who are leading this non-violent reform movement have made it clear that it is purely secular in nature and they will not allow it to be hijacked by any opportunist ethnic group or opposition party.
At present, it is unclear whether the necessary tipping point for revolution has been reached, although it is starting to look like it has, for two reasons. The first is the anger that was expressed even before the clampdown, when, as Rania Abouzeid explained in a perceptive article for Time:
[D]escriptions of the uprising in Dara’a were dramatic. The alleged details included dozens of young men pelting a poster — in broad daylight — of a smiling President Bashar al-Assad; a statue of his late father and predecessor Hafiz al-Assad, demolished; official buildings including the ruling Ba’ath Party’s headquarters and the governor’s office burned down. “There is no fear, there is no fear, after today there is no fear!” hundreds of men chant, captured in shaky mobile phone footage allegedly taken on Monday.
The second reason is the entrenchment and escalation of those sentiments, as the state’s violence has continued to escalate over the last few days. After the shooting in Dara’a last Friday, the security forces have been on the offensive, as the Guardian reported, noting that they have responded to protests “with water cannon, teargas, rubber bullets and live ammunition,” and that “The total death toll now stands at 16,” after the authorities “launched an assault on a neighbourhood sheltering anti-government protesters, fatally shooting at least nine in an operation that lasted nearly 24 hours,” according to witnesses. As the Guardian explained, “At least six were said to have been killed in an early morning attack on the al-Omari mosque” in Dera’a, and police “shot three other protesters in the city centre after dusk,” according to a local activist.
To his credit, the President responded swiftly to the deaths, “sending a high-ranking delegation to deliver his condolences to the families of the dead,” as Time reported, and also sacking the governor and releasing the schoolchildren whose graffiti set the chaos in motion, although reports of the scale of the assault on the people of Dera’a have continued to grow alarmingly over the last 24 hours, which can only devalue the President’s efforts.
As Channel 4 News reported, claims of fatalities have been revised steeply upwards, and now range “from 32 to more than 100,” with Amnesty International also reporting that the number of human rights activists who have “disappeared” has also increased sharply from the 32 charged in Damascus last week to a total of 93. As Channel 4 News also noted, chillingly, “Here in the newsroom, we have watched amateur footage on ‘YouTube’ which suggests that armed troops did open fire protestors in Dera’a. In scenes too shocking to broadcast, demonstrators lie motionless, some in pools of blood.”
Moreover, as Arabic language websites have been reporting, the protesters have not given up, and have, instead, given the government “until Friday morning to meet a list of demands relayed back to the President by his delegation,” as Time explained, which include the lifting of the emergency law and the release of all political prisoners. If their demands are not met, they have promised that this Friday will be the “Friday of the Martyrs,” not just in Dara’a but throughout the country.
That sounds ambitious, but on the other hand, one thing we should all have learned from events in the Middle East this year is that movements can grow so swiftly that the unthinkable can become possible, and those of us in the West can only watch in wonder.