Yesterday President Bashaar al-Asad lifted the Emergency Law, dissolved the notorious State Security Courts, and legalised peaceful protests.
After the president’s decree, a lawyer asked permission to hold a protest in Hasakeh. He was detained by security forces.
Today – ‘Great Friday’ – large, peaceful, unarmed protests were held in all regions of the country. Police, army and militia used tear gas, electric rods and live ammunition against the people. At least 88 sons and daughters of Syria were murdered. Regime forces prevented some of the wounded from receiving medical help. Other wounded have been arrested from their hospital beds. (Here are ugly scenes in Homs).
Damascus is under lockdown, mukhabarat clustering on every corner. Someone I know tried to cross the city today for entirely apolitical reasons. During the journey he was taken off the bus (with everyone else) and marched to a police station where he was questioned and his details recorded. But protests and gunfire still roared from the suburbs as far into the city’s heart as Meedan.
Words are one thing, actions another. The president’s words have no meaning at all.
The words of the newly-formed, grass-roots Local Coordination Committees, on the other hand, seem to hold great meaning:
Freedom and dignity cannot be achieved except through peaceful democratic change. All prisoners of conscience must be freed. The existing security apparatus has to be dismantled and replaced by one with with specific jurisdiction and which operates according to law.
At this pivotal moment Syria is divided – many individual Syrians are divided – between hope and fear. Minorities in particular fear what might come next: a dispensation in which secular freedoms may be limited, and worse, the misguided ‘revenge’ of those who blame entire communities – the Alawis specifically – for real and imagined regime crimes. Prominent Alawis who have nothing to do with the regime have received mysterious, threatening phonecalls (which could of course come from the secret police). It reminds them of the seventies and early eighties when they were targetted by Muslim Brotherhood terrorists. Many Sunnis, meanwhile, remember the massacre of 20,000 in Hama, 1982, not as a brutal, unforgiveable overreaction to a terrorist group but as a calculated attack on Sunnis as a community.
So the sectarian danger is real. And it isn’t helped by such outside figures as the viciously sectarian shaikh Yusuf Qaradawi, al-Jazeera’s favourite, who so eloquently supported the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya yet opposed the revolution in Shia-majority Bahrain, going so far as to cheer on the Saudi occupiers and the Khalifa family’s ridiculous ‘foreign conspiracy’ narrative. Sermonising on Syria, Qaradawi described Bashaar as a prisoner of his sect, and Syria as a nation of Sunnis unjustly ruled over by Alawis.
Not only does this story exacerbate sectarian tensions in Syria, it simply isn’t true. Baathist rule has not sought to impose Alawi identity on the country in the way, for instance, Saddam Hussain cast Iraq in heroic Sunni terms. Syrian school religious education is traditionalist Sunni in emphasis. Although the highest ranks of the military and intelligence services are overwhelmingly Alawi, the broader regime constitutes an alliance of all Syria’s sects. Most Alawis are no more favoured by the regime than anybody else. Many Alawis have suffered at the hands of the regime. Many have been imprisoned, tortured or killed.
The regime’s strategy has previously been to keep all communities happy by co-opting each one’s elite. Now this has come unstuck. The ordinary people are marching, angry with the corrupt of all sects. This could be a sign that sectarianism’s grip is loosening from Syrian society.
Syrians worry about democracy. Of course they do. The neighbouring ‘democracies’, after all, are torn across violent sectarian faultlines. But it need not be the same in Syria. Neither Iraq nor Lebanon won democracy through unarmed popular uprising. Iraq was destroyed by sanctions, invasion and occupation before ‘democracy’ was established. Lebanon is a sectarian democracy because it was created so by France. Neither country (in the contemporary period) built a sense of national identity through a common national struggle.
The security forces have lost over 40 men since the uprising began. The families of some soldiers claim their dead were killed for refusing to fire at protestors. Families of dead soldiers in the north west, however, blame infiltrators, Hariri-backed Salafis or men allied to former (and exiled) vice president Khaddam. Near Banyas, commanders were ambushed and killed with their families, their bodies mutilated. Opposition figure Mahmoud Issa was arrested after telling al-Jazeera that he knew who’d killed the officers.
I don’t know who killed them, but let’s imagine it was Salafis, or vengeful relatives of dead protestors. Still it would be wrong to associate the whole uprising with these criminals. That’s the sort of illogic to keep people in their cage. The protestors in their vast majority are chanting for freedom and national unity.
Not every ‘Allahu Akbar’ has a Salafi agenda behind it. For most protestors, it’s an uttered response to oppression. What they’re saying is, God is greater than tear gas, batons and bullets. It’s a way for them to master the fear of death. I watch them on the youtube videos, chanting Freedom as they march, then Allahu Akbar when the fire falls on them. It makes perfect sense.
Next, whether we like it or not, most Syrians are profoundly religious (spiritual is another matter), and will express themselves religiously. This in itself is fine, so long as the religious understand that for democracy to work they must allow minorities and secularists to express themselves too, to live in safety and conviviality with those around them.
How long should Syria wait for change? Half a century of one-party rule hasn’t solved the sect problem. It has in fact worsened. Curing sectarianism by dictatorship is like solving emotional problems with hasheesh – it might temporarily avert a crisis but only by numbing the patient and freezing his neurosis in place. In the long term, failure to address the problem feeds it. The talking cure is the best solution – for sectarianism as for emotional problems (and sectarianism is an emotional problem).
If Bashaar had made good his (implied) promise of political reform eleven years ago, we’d be in a stronger position now. If Syria had had a reasonably free press, if NGOs, activists and non-sectarian political parties had been permitted to operate freely, then there’d have been a debate, which would have allowed people to let off steam, and would have allowed political organisation beyond the mosques, on practical rather than mythic-symbolic issues.
Two snippets of news today: Kurds in Qamishli and Amouda chanted “The Syrian People Are One. Arabs and Kurds are Brothers.” The imam of a Banyas mosque told a journalist, “There is no problem between Alawites and Sunnis. The problem is loyalty to the regime.”
Meanwhile, video proof emerged of an armed gang terrorising Syria – not Salafis, Lebanese, or Americans, but pro-regime shabeeha militia.
It’s become academic to discuss whether or not the uprising is justified. It’s happening. History is on the move.
I remember Maadamiya very well. It’s a fairly poor western suburb of Damascus, friendly, and it’s where my wife and I ‘wrote the book’ for our marriage. The following snippet if from al-Jazeera’s live blog.
A doctor from Madamia, a Damascus suburb, tells a journalist working with Al Jazeera:
“There are four people killed and about 50 wounded and we cannot take them to the public or private hospitals. At Daraya hospital security were shooting and arresting people. So I have been treating people inside homes. It is very hard to treat the wounds because many have been shot in the head.
“I can tell you now, the situation in Madamia will never be calm. Today is an historical day for the country. There is now a new strategy to kill all the protesters, not even arrest them.”