Who populates the Syrian revolution? The Syrian revolution has three core populations: urbanite survivors of the 2001 Damascus Spring, disenfranchised classes rural and urban, and the traditional opposition. Local histories, not dissidents abroad or foreign entities, created this revolution. Yet some international analysts remain blind to the people of our revolution.
One major engine of the Syrian revolution comprises those who began activism during the short-lived Damascus Spring of 2001, educated youth then in their late teens and 20s and 30s who are now young professionals.They are mostly secularists (and incidentally, in my experience, often three-or-four-pack-a-day smokers). These democracy advocates a decade ago formed groups such as the Committees for the Defense of Democratic Freedoms (for example, young democracy activist Jiwan Ayo, Kurdish, was active on this committee, and during the revolution was imprisoned on September 4, 2011), and now also have younger cohorts who saw them struggle over the past years. They are an extremely diverse grouping in terms of sect and ethnicity, including Alawite activists such as feminist Hanady Zahlout and longtime dissident Habib Saleh, and some of Syria’s most prominent human rights activists from the heavily Druze region of Suwayda.
The democracy-activist population of the revolution organized the Family Vigil for Prisoners in front of the Interior Ministry in Damascus. There, 150-200 kinfolk of political prisoners amassed nonviolently on Wednesday, March 16, 2011. Large numbers of women participated, along with children and men. The vicious response of security to the peaceful crowd, including against the ten-year-old son of a woman prisoner, grandmothers, and a late-term expectant mother (my friend Maimouna Alammar — not among the smokers), turned this into a trigger for subsequent protests.
Four women planned that March 16 Vigil. All four women are secularists, one from a Christian background. All four were Damascus Spring activists, one a blogger and three of them human rights lawyers who have been defending prisoners of conscience in Syria for years. One of the four was lawyer Catherine Altalli, who was imprisoned for two weeks in May, and joined the Syrian National Council after fleeing Syria; I had a chance to review the March 16 event with her, and have been in touch with the other women involved in organizing that event.
Two of the four lead core organizational coalitions in the revolution: Suhair Atassi, who was imprisoned for ten days in March because of the March 16 Vigil, leads the General Commission of the Syrian Revolution, a coalition of local committees, and recently had to flee Syria after living in hiding for months. Lawyer Razan Zaitouneh heads the Local Coordinating Committees, coalition of 14 to 17 local councils (there is flux), and has been living in hiding in Syria for ten months; her husband Wael Hamada was imprisoned as hostage for her, for several months. (I’m not saying all of them smoke, but Razan’s Facebook status the other day, January 15, 2011, was “Never mind the Little Match Girl, I can’t even find a lighter for my morning cigarette!” with which dilemma I deeply sympathize.)
These women did not consult overseas men in suits about planning the revolution.
Another revolution population, and the most prevalent, is the ideologically unaffiliated, economically disenfranchised rural and urban working and middle classes who experience the lack of social justice in Syria on every level. The abandonment of these sectors by some skeptics of the Syrian revolution on the global Left is especially astonishing. Plaster worker Muhammad AboZayd, a 42-year-old father of five in the Damascus countryside town of Daraya, who supported nonviolent protests since March, and was imprisoned August 11, 2011, is one of millions of examples. Members of these diffuse disenfranchised populations protested nonviolently in Damascus on Tuesday, March 15. The crowd of about 150 included short-order gyros chef Mahmud Dorayd, 49, along with his two brothers. Mahmud is now imprisoned; his brother Rashed was killed by the regime during a nonviolent protest on Good Friday.
These undespairing Syrian Bouazizis started this revolution in massive nonviolent demonstrations on March 17 and 18 in the southern province of Dara, where local Christians and Muslims were in solidarity against the regime from the start. Have critics of the Syrian revolution in the global Left heard of the 15 schoolchildren of Dara who were tortured for writing anti-regime graffiti in February, then had their parents taunted cruelly by the security chief, for demanding their release? The parents of the Dara schoolboys did not consult men in suits abroad to know they want an accountable government.
Syria’s disenfranchised Bouazizis are the greatest population of this revolution. Incidentally, a lot of them are also four-pack-a-day smokers (which is also to say, they do not fit the profile of Islamists). I met and shared a smoke with some of them this summer, after they had fled Syria into Turkey. One young man from the city of Binnish, a town near Idlib, told me in July 2011, “I was lost for 12 hours in the mountains. Never mind that I had no food or water — my agony was, I had no cigarettes!” It takes a smoker to appreciate fully the Syrian revolution. (This is not an endorsement of smoking.)
Other local populations, such as the Daraya Youth, a nonviolence study group begun in 1998 in the Damascus suburb of Daraya, pour into this revolution, their members straddling the above two groupings. Back in 2003, the Daraya Youth marched against the U.S. invasion of Iraq — and, well, yes, conducted a local anti-smoking campaign, as well as tried to open a public library called “Paths of Peace.” For such activities, group members were imprisoned for two years. The members of that since-defunct Daraya group were at the forefront of Daraya protest organizing, including imprisoned nonviolence visionary Yahya Shurbaji, nicknamed “Little Gandhi” by townsfolk. Local histories significant to the revolution include the Kurdish intifada of 2004 in northern Syria, in which Kurdish protesters, part of a particularly disenfranchised population, were killed and imprisoned. Assyrians, a Christian population, are solidly in the Syrian revolution, from a deep-rooted history of activism. So is the city of Salamiya, featuring predominantly secular youth from Ismailia backgrounds, to name just one of the 150 communities that protested early, and continue to protest often. (The number is up to 459 communities as of January 13, 2012). Palestinian Syrians form another protest population that has participated significantly in the revolution, beginning with the Palestinians of Dara, who marched in aid of the besieged city.
Some in the international Left appear utterly blind to these Syrian multitudes and formulate instead a western-centric, and often Islamo-phobic, critique of the Syrian revolution. They dismiss its rootedness in local histories. For them, the Syrian revolution begins and ends in geopolitics outside Syria.
Trailing in as a third population in the Syrian revolution is the traditional opposition. These dissidents, including their abroad components, have been trying and failing to effect change in Syria for years. They would be nowhere without the first two much larger populations of the revolution. This cluster includes traditional Kurdish parties, leftists, and Islamists, including the Muslim Brotherhood, whose existence is mainly outside Syria because belonging to the MB has been a capital crime inside since the 1970s.
Armchair pundits opposing the Syrian revolution appear aware only of a third of that third grouping. That is, all they see in the revolution is the Muslim Brotherhood.
Yes, the Muslim Brotherhood is trying to negotiate a place for itself in this revolution. Also, they and other exiles and traditional oppositionists have paid high costs for their dissent, and have a right to be in this revolution, and a right to contest in a post-asaad Syria like any other group. We will have to fight the Muslim Brotherhood politically, those of us Syrians who disagree with their platform, and we will also have to fight the repercussions of the fact that the U.S. seems to like this revolution — and we will do those things in a POST-asaad Syria. This brutal dictatorship is on its way out, come what may; that much is certain.
Also, would that it were just the Muslim Brotherhood — which, in the interest of disclosure, is my family’s historical background, and certainly not my own affiliation, and not a platform I support. Some Muslim Brotherhood leaders, at least, claim to have evolved over the years and now say they know how to behave democratically, after joining other oppositionists in the Damascus Declaration of 2005 calling for gradual democratic reform in Syria. Even more right-wing, and less politically experienced, than the Muslim Brotherhood are the hardcore salafis, extremist preachers such as the Saudi-based Adnan Aroor, who is all over the dissident Syrian TV stations, full of sectarian hate and advocating arming the revolution fully. Every revolution has many elements. This one is certainly part of the picture; it is certainly not the mainstream of the revolution. While their religious fervor has limited appeal among the broader populations of the revolution, such preachers’ political support for the revolution appeals to some in the disenfranchised classes. It’s on the rest of our revolution to get in there and contest that, and this is happening — even amid the daily death wreaked by the regime on all populations in the revolution.
Protesters in any of the types may find solace in religious sentiments. Some secularists may be religious privately. And none of it really has to do with smoking, which is just a hook to get you here — although I am impressed by the amount of it in the revolution. The point is, the vast majority of populations in this revolution are not organizing around political Islamist platforms.
The Syrian people’s history is of deeply felt pro-Palestinian and anti-imperialist sympathies which cut across nearly all ideological sides, and it is insulting to the Syrian people for anyone in the world’s intellectual community to expect these stripes to change suddenly once Syrians are free of a police state. No matter who tries to take advantage of the revolution, Syrians in the revolution have to work out their disagreements through an accountable, democratic contestation process like the one we aim for in Syria post-asaad. Meanwhile, can the global Left rearrange its pencils and rulers around the fact that Syrians just don’t want to live in a police state anymore?
The Syrian revolution since June possesses a small armed flank (the Free Syrian Army), made up of defectors who refuse to fire on unarmed civilians. Yes, many of the Muslim Brotherhood Syrians outside, and certainly the Aroorites as well, are among the FSA’s avid supporters, though not it is only they who support it. Also supporting it are significant numbers of the second group, the unaffiliated rural and urban disenfranchised classes. The revolution’s main organizational structures — dozens of local committees which began organizing from January through April, 2011, and the coalitions they have formed — remain largely nonviolent.
Every revolution has flaws and dangers, and every revolution has internal struggles. Achieving victory through widespread participation in nonviolent civil resistance is crucial to the kind of state we wish to create post-Asaad: a secular, civil, democratic, pluralistic state meeting best international standards in guaranteeing human rights equally for all its inhabitants.
*Photo: Haseeba Abdulrahman, Syrian novelist, who has served time as a prisoner of conscience in Syria.