By Mehrunisa Qayyum
“We must break the cycle of fear for Syrians—wherever they live,” stated Mhyar al-Zayat, the organizer of the Syrian Solidarity Protests in Washington, DC. A decade after the Damascus Spring of 2000, the next generation of Syrians and Syrian-Americans organize to call for solidarity on the following points:
- End the authoritarian regime;
- End human rights abuses sanctioned by the regime; and
- Participate in free and open elections.
June of 2000 kicked off the “Damascus Spring” as Syrian intellectuals and activists seized an opportunity to ignite a political and social debate following the death of President Hafez al-Asad, the man responsible for disappearing several thousands of Syrians.
About a couple hundred have gathered in front of the White House every Saturday for the last two months to echo what Syrians, Libyans, Yemenis, and Bahrainis have shouted from the Middle East. Like the Syrian Facebook page, al-Zayat encourages anyone to join the public Facebook page to participate in Saturday protests. Al-Zayat remains in contact with Fadi al-Tarabulsi, the DC organizer for Libyan protests, to overlap their timings and show support for the larger goal of bringing down authoritarian regimes like al-Asad and Gaddafi. http://www.facebook.com/Syrian.Revolution
Since 1963, Syria’s authoritarian regime has implemented Emergency Law to inculcate a self-fulfilling prophecy of mistrust among neighboring countries, like Israel and Lebanon. Whether Hafez or Bashar function as the dictator, Emergency Law serves as the doctrine to:
- Justify suspending Syrian citizens’ civil liberties;
- Suppress alternative voices, internet, and impose censorship;
- Oppress non-Arab minorities, like the Kurds; and
- Reward those who demonstrate “patriotism” and report on others.
Consequently, the neighboring country mistrust translates into neighborly mistrust within Damascus, Aleppo, and Homs.
End the Republic of Fear
Al-Zayat is a Syrian American, who emigrated to the US in 1996, and repeats what his engineer father imparted to him shortly after the Syrian regime thwarted his father’s business efforts and the Mukhabarat, the Syrian intelligence, punished Mhyar’s father for his opinions on politics and civil society.
When asked why Syrian Americans refuse to provide names in interviews with Al-Jazeera English and other news sources, Mhyar explains that the biggest challenge in organizing protests is getting Syrian-Americans to participate. Many Syrian-Americans fear that the Syrian regime will punish their relatives still residing in Syria. The “Republic of Fear” characterizes the Syrian regime to the extent that Syrians know of at least one person who has been interrogated, detained, imprisoned, tortured, or “disappeared”.
This familiar scenario parallels what Kanaan Makiya, exiled Iraqi writer, emphasizes in his analysis of a repressive regime, Republic of Fear. Makiya accounts how the Ba’aath and Saddam Hussein oppressed political dissent. Makiya, revisited this regime of fear for Iraq, and hinted at the similar dilemma shared by Syrians: “state power always rested on a monopoly of the means of violence”. Extracted from Hobbes’ Leviathon, a “Hobbesian” state employs fear to control its people — and maintain the explicit exchange of freedom for security. Therefore civil society fails to exist within the political realm. Makiya argues that citizens need to distinguish themselves from the state’s realm—via intellectual thought and cultural pursuit.
Makiya’s point is “actualized” a decade later and then some. The protests initiating in Homs and Darrah over the last month defy what both al-Asads and Hobbes argue is the natural state for Syrian existence. For young activists, like al-Zayat, Suhari Atassi, and Kamal Cheiko, to organize protests and utilize Facebook networks defies the “state-centralized network of relationships”—the essence of what Makiya argues was the Republic of Fear’s umbilical cord to define Iraqi society under oppression—led by another repressive dictator, Saddam Hussein. Similarly, the younger al-Asad sees how the umbilical cord is disintegrating as each Syrian breaks away from fear.
Human Rights Watch Monitors the Republic of Fear
On the protest movement’s second point, human rights abuses range from imprisoning dissenting voices to torture, according the Human Rights Watch 2010 report. The al-Asad regime has imprisoned at least 30 known political and human rights activists to stifle Syrian’s civil society. For example, the father-son regime imprisoned Riad al-Seif, a former member of parliament, and Dr. Kamal Labwani, a physician and founder of the Syrian Democratic Liberal Gathering.
According to Human Rights Watch, both al-Seif and Labwani, are serving prison terms for publicly criticising the authorities. Bashar al-Asad sentenced human rights activist, Muhannad Al-Hasani, to three years for delivering a human rights report before the State Security Court. Al-Hasani is the President of the Syrian Organization for Human Rights (Swasiya), which the Syrian authorities refuses to accept its official registration as an organization.
Torture and “disappearances” operate as other tools of the regime to suppress dissidence. Although the Syrian Constitution prohibits torture under Article 28, both al-Asad presidents sidestepped this law by arguing that political prisoners present a security threat, and thereby, hold vital information that must be obtained for state security.
Amnesty International cites that Syria’s Tadmur Prison holds mainly military and political prisoners and reports that,“Tadmur Prison appears to have been designed to inflict the maximum suffering, humiliation and fear on prisoners and to keep them under the strictest control by breaking their spirit.
Bashar’s father, Hafez, died knowing the whereabouts of at least 17,000 “missing” Syrians. Since the early 1970s, the Syrian government refuses to acknowledge its security force involvement in disappearing about 17,000 persons, mostly Muslim Brotherhood members and other Syrian activists detained by the government as well as hundreds of Lebanese and Palestinians detained in Syria or abducted from Lebanon.
Satellite Phones Confront Censorship and Communication Challenges
Former editor of state-run newspaper Tishrin, Sameera Masalmeh, serves as one example of how the Syrian regime censors print media and censures reporters/editors. Recently, Tishrin fired Masalmeh because she told the Al Jazeera satellite station that Syrian security forces were responsible for the April 7th violence in Dara. The AP corroborated Masalmeh’s firing after the interview.
Moreover, the Syrian regime has attempted to infuse fear through the virtual media as well. Specifically, Karim Arbaji blogged for akhawia.net, an online youth forum, as a moderator. Nonetheless, on September 13th, the Supreme State Security Court (SSSC) sentenced Arbaji to three years in jail for “spreading false information that can weaken national sentiment.”
In another virtual media case, Suhair Atassi is being detained by the Syrian regime for running the Jamal Atassi Forum group on Facebook since her interview with Al-Jazeera English. She organized sit-ins and participated in the Egypt’s February Revolution.
What lessons may be learned from the Tunisian and Egyptian successes as well as the current Libyan Revolution? “Get satellite phones into Syria,” asserts al-Zayat. Satellite phones confront the regime’s attempt to cut phone lines and disrupt internet communication. Specifically, Al Jazeera English received updates from organizers in Egypt when Mubarak’s regime turned up the heat reflects al-Zayat.
“Our cause is the same as the rest of the Arab and Middle Eastern worlds: freedom from dictatorship; freedom to participate in free and open elections; and recognizing and enforcing human rights,” concludes al-Zayat. Ironically, to illustrate al-Zayat’s point that Syrians know at least one other Syrian who has been harassed, censored, tortured, or disappeared by the regime, I learn at the end of my interview with him that the DC café that we are using for the interview is actually owned by Atassi’s relative.
Mehrunisa Qayyum, International Policy and Development Consultant, based in Washington, DC, received her MPP from Georgetown University.Filed Under Arab Spring, bashar al-assad, guest post, protests, syria