On Friday 18 March more than 2,000 citizens staging a demonstration in the southern Syrian city of Deraa were confronted with live bullets, water cannon, fire trucks and clubs. Four were killed and dozens were injured. The following day 8,000 mourners turned out for their funerals.
Despite the release of detainees, various promises of reform and an increase in salaries, last Friday became a day of solidarity. More than 150,000 of Deraa’s 900,000 inhabitants gathered. They chanting “Silmiya, silmiya[peaceful, peaceful], freedom freedom – the people of Syria cannot be humiliated. Dignity and freedom.”
Despite all the presidential promises not to fire on protesters, there was more shooting in Deraa and al-Sanmeen, where more than 100 were killed in one week with up to 60 others missing. But the young people did not give up; they moved from demonstrating to a sit-in at the biggest square in the city. They had broken the fear barrier and were no longer willing to accept the status quo. The demonstrations spread to other cities, with scores killed in Latakia. This tide of democratic change had become irreversible.
The resignation of the government led by Naji Atari will not suffice in quelling the popular demand for change. Neither would the ending of the state of emergency, which President Bashar al-Assad unexpectedly kept in place yesterday. Although these would be steps in the right direction, they don’t go far enough. The previous Tunisian and Egyptian governments offered similar changes and they too were spurned. The Syrian regime needs to understand that the youth are demanding a new politics that ushers in a genuine democracy.
The Syrian authorities have lost all political legitimacy. The government’s opposition to the Iraq war and its support for Palestinian resistance can no longer be used as an excuse to obstruct internal changebecause the non-governmental political community shares these exact positions..
The youth who marched in Deraa are the same young people who welcomed the Lebanese refugees during the Israeli bombardment in 2006, and who raised funds for the Palestinian people in Gaza. They followed the struggle of the Egyptian youth in Tahrir Square. They regard themselves as the legitimate representatives of the Arab revolution, rejecting all forms of sectarianism and violence because they have for too long been the victims of authoritarian violence. They are building a model capable of restoring hope.
The Syrian authorities do not begin to grasp the extent of the changes that have taken plays. Days before the eruption of demonstrations, the authorities commemorated the 48th anniversary of the state of emergency as if such repression was the Syrian people’s destiny. Those who called for an end to it were arrested. There was a widespread feeling that the Syrian authorities would not move towards any reform. It was this which led several youth groups to plan for the “Friday of dignity”, paving the way for genuine democratic change.
The authorities still retain the same old outlook. They offer sweeping promises, with no detail, as if it is still possible to buy time. But the demands of the youth of Deraa have become national demands throughout Syria. Some of the old opposition parties, now in exile, are looking at events as they unfold, led by a generation they do not know. Some of them are trying to position themselves as future leaders, and others are calling for foreign intervention. But these voices find no echo among young people in the country. This youth, who witnessed the results of the invasion of Iraq in the arrival of half a million Iraqi refugees, will not allow the older generation to control the direction of change.
Therefore, whatever happens, and no matter how fierce and aggressive the forces of the old regime may become (as is happening in Libya today), the future can only be better than the past. Those who say all will descend into fear, discord, disruption and chaos are simply afraid of their own freedom.
The youth’s civil resistance is unfettered by ideology – what they want is simply that democracy be consolidated and that the resources of the country be used for the good of its people – without exception, exclusion, marginalisation or discrimination.
Despite all that has occured in the region, the Syrian authorities are determined to go on regardless. The best answer to their actions is that put forward by the Youth Movement for Democratic Change: “If you do not change, you are going to be changed.”
By Haytham Manna, a Syrian writer and spokesman for the Arab Commission for Human Right.