Syria's Youth Opposition

Informers at the University Coffee Shop

The younger generation of dissidents does not even have a political program – but in Bashar Assad's Syria, merely showing some self-initiative is enough to arouse suspicion. Jan Marron reports

Street scene in Damascus (photo: AP)
Hopes that Bashar Assad might initiate a new policy of political tolerance when he took office six years ago were soon dashed

​​None of them consider keeping quiet. Neither the students Georges*, Suheir, and Hassan, nor the agronomist Aida, nor the human rights lawyer Fatima. This entails great risks, however. Fatima has lived for years with a travel ban, and the secret police regularly pick her up at her front door. Georges has had it even worse. He sat for months in prison for supposedly inciting civil unrest.

After his release, he was refused permission to leave the country and was thereby prevented from continuing his studies abroad. He was also barred from attending university within Syria. As a result, the future outlook for this 21-year-old has shrunk to nil. This and the implicit deterrence of potential imitators is exactly what the repression aims to achieve.

This is all more significant in light of the activities of these young people. They document arrests and court proceedings, they debate on human rights in reading groups, and study women's rights.

Debates on the issue of a more adequate punishment for honor killings actually find themselves in good company in Syria, especially after the president's wife, Asma al-Assad, drew attention to the problem, although only in the framework of a staged event. Afterwards, the reform-worthy agenda was once again carefully placed under wraps.

Denounced by students

"Nothing frightens them more than what goes on at the universities," explained Aida and Hassan. "Every morning the informers mingle at the coffee shop in the university." And not only there. The case of the teacher Ghassan Ismail in Tartous demonstrates just how pervasive the state-sponsored spying really is. After leading his class in a political discussion, he was denounced by a student and imprisoned.

Hassan's newsletter provides information on this sort of state intimidation. Together with friends, he has been distributing it for several months.

Fatima remains persistent and confident. "Under Hafez al-Assad, countless people disappeared in prison for years. Things are different under Bashar." Listening to Hassan, however, one does not get the impression that things have actually improved.

Trained to submit

You can be barred from university just by putting on a theater piece, Hassan says. It doesn't even have to be critical of the regime. Merely showing some self-initiative is enough to arouse the secret police. Questions concerning course material are not welcome and learning by rote is preferred. Even under-aged students are expected to apply for membership in the Baath Party.

Bashar Assad (photo: AP)
Not initially Hafis's first pick, Bashar Assad has meanwhile proven to be his father's son - at least in terms of holding down the opposition

​​Whippings and cold-water treatments provide a foretaste of what is to come in the run-up to camp weeks.

The universal opinion is that without external pressure, the only kinds of reform carried out will be those in the manner of the recently launched national newspaper, which promotes itself as the country's "first independent paper."

"Apart from the fact that it belongs to Rami Machlouf, Syria's most powerful businessman and Bashar's cousin, they are now peddling the story that there is no real independence anyway," says Fatima, upset at the level of sheer mockery displayed here.

There is no protection

In contrast to the "old guard dissidents" – at least in their early days – today's 20 to 30 year-olds do not even have a political program. Despite this, they are in a more dangerous position than the "established" dissidents. "Young people are the easiest to have disappear in prison," explains Georges.

Michel Kilo (photo: Larissa Bender)
Today's 20 to 30 year-olds are in a more dangerous position than the "established" dissidents like, e.g., Michel Kilo

​​While groups such as Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders have been highlighting the case of Michel Kilo, imprisoned since last May, the successive imprisonment of eight young men between January and March took place with hardy any protest. The names and particulars of these arrests were only recently made public, although the alleged criminal acts have not been specified. The talk is of activities that were "not authorized" by the government.

The men in custody have said their admissions of guilt were the result of torture.

The secret police and journalists

Support from the old guard opposition was not forthcoming in either case. And this is not the only reason why the young people have quarrels with them. They demand the same kind of blind devotion as the regime. "The chairmen of the various parties have been sitting in their posts for the last ten years," says Georges dismissively. "Whether its Marxism or Pan-Arabism, certain texts are held up as holy cows," says Aida.

Suheir is furious. "I am not a Pan-Arabist, but a Syrian. For the last fifty years, it has been drummed into us that we have to prepare for war with Israel. And what great things have come of this?" Such thoughts cannot be debated with the old guard. "Out of pure vanity, they won't even sent a report or a declaration in our name to the media," laughs Hassan. Instead of receiving the democratic justice preached on paper, these young people are forced to live lives in solitary combat.

Directly addressing the media, though, also doesn't produce the desired results. "Syria's journalists write what is dictated to them by the secret police, even when the journalists work for foreign media. If they were to ever report on youth opposition, they would pick someone who was as inarticulate as possible." The result would be a portrait of youth so dumb as to not deserve any attention.

Nonetheless, they don't receive their fair hearing. Despite this, they are not allowing themselves to be domesticated. This should continue to prove uncomfortable for the dictatorship, especially since Syria is becoming an increasingly younger society.

Jan Marron

© Qantara.de 2007

* All names have been changed by the editors.

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

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