The battle to name Syria’s Friday protests

Online vote to choose the slogan under which protesters rally against President Assad shows divide among activists.

As violence against demonstrators intensified, Friday names began calling for international protection [Reuters]

Tens of thousands of Syrians have been protesting against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule under the banner: “A revolution for all Syrians”.

The slogan for this Friday’s demonstrations was chosen after a fierce online competition among activists. Each week, the main Syrian Revolution Facebook page posts a poll and calls on Syrians to choose among different slogans submitted by the major activist groups.

This week, more than 30,000 Facebook users voted, in what some described as a battle between secularists and moderates on one side and those with strong Islamist views on the other. Rallies on Friday were just a few hundred votes away from being called “The armies of Islam: rescue Syria” when the poll closed at 12am on Wednesday.

That name lost only after an intense last-minute campaign against it on Twitter and Facebook by prominent activists.

Change of tone

Rami al-Jarrah, an exiled Syrian activist, was against the Muslim connotation for the name of the protest because he said it would not represent all the people of Syria.

“All minorities are taking part in the uprising,” he said. “Even if their numbers are smaller, it doesn’t mean their voices shouldn’t be heard.

“We’ve had names in the past connected to the Christians or Alawites minorities. But by choosing a name connected to the Sunni majority, minorities could be frightened.”

Almost 60 Fridays have passed since the uprising began last March. Activists have named each weekly demonstration after being inspired by Yemeni protesters, who did the same thing during their uprising against former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

The weekly names initially sent out messages of defiance and national unity. The first one, in March 2011, was called the “Day of Dignity”. Other subsequent Friday names included “The Friday of Anger”, the “Friday of Defiance” and the “Friday of Sheikh Saleh al-Ali”, an Alawite national hero.

As violence against demonstrators intensified and the armed rebellion against government forces began to grow, Friday names shifted to calling for support for the rebel Free Syrian Army and for international protection.

Some of the later slogans had religious connotations, such as: “If You Support God He Will Grant You Victory”.

A majority of the Syrian opposition are from the Sunni sect of Islam, which makes up more than 75 per cent of the population, and al-Jarrah acknowledged that the names had taken on a more religious tone.

“Under oppression, and in times of war or similar circumstances, whatever your religious background, people tend to depend more on religion,” he said. “We saw this after 9/11 in the US, there was a lot of talk about Christianity, so this is not isolated to the Middle East or Syria.”

Calls for intervention

Hadi al-Abdallah, a spokesperson of the Syrian Revolution General Commission, the activist network that suggested the name calling for support from “armies of Islam”, said the slogan was an expression of how they had lost hope that the international community would intervene.

“We have, in earlier Friday names, sent messages calling for military intervention,” he said. “We sent messages to the Arab world and to the international community and their response was negative or insufficient every time.

“This time, we wanted to send a special message to the armies of the Islamic world, like Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, given that we share common pains, hopes and aspirations.”

Activists reported hundreds of protests on the Friday named ‘Revolution for all Syrians’ [Reuters]

Some observers don’t think the Friday online polls accurately reflect the views of protesters. 

Many in Syria do not have internet access – especially since communications have been cut off in many areas since the uprising began. 

Fadi Salem, a Syrian Dubai-based social media strategist, believes many voters are not even Syrian.

“The names are setting an agenda that’s not necessarily representative of the Syrians on the ground,” he said.

“Some policy makers are making decisions based on the names. For example the [main opposition bloc] Syrian National Council will say ‘this is what Syrians want’.”

Friday names calling for foreign intervention are not representative of the Syrian majority, he said. 

“There are many with Islamist views around the Arab world who would vote for names supporting arming the revolution and even for NATO intervention

“The names get a lot of attention. They feed into traditional media, which feed into policy making in the region.”

‘Source of tension’

Jida, a protester in Damascus who did not want her real name used, normally abstains from voting since she sees the naming as something mainly meant to attract media attention. 
“These voting are mainly Syrians who have access to the internet, which is a luxury here, and expats,” she said.
“But this week, especially that it is the Easter Good Friday, I felt we needed to stress that our revolution is for all Syrians, as the regime is trying to export the idea that all the people who are revolting are Sunnis or even extremists.

“If you live in Syria you know that neither the regime supporters nor the opposition come from one sect or one religion.”

Some say, however, that this week’s voting battle had little to with a divide between secularists and Islamists. Instead, they say it was a victory for those who still believe in peaceful protests rather than armed resistance.

Parts of the opposition support armed resistance but others want to keep the uprising peaceful [Al Jazeera]

They say the slogan compliments recent attempts by activists to return to the initial peaceful image of the uprising.

The past week has seen daring protests in the centre of the capital, Damascus, in heavily secured areas. Youth held demonstrations in front of the parliament and the Palace of Justice, and staged a flash mob at a shopping mall.

But those supporting the rebel Free Syrian Army and the armed struggle against Assad say the brutality of the Syrian regime’s crackdown can only be met with force and that the names of Friday protests should reflect this reality. 

“We have for the longest time campaigned for a peaceful uprising,” al-Abdallah said. “During one of the early protests, I saw a demonstrator picking up a stone to throw it at the security forces. I ran towards him and took it out of his hand and told him ‘this is a peaceful revolution’.

“But this regime is willing to kill everyone to survive. They don’t care about their people, nor do they listen to the calls from the international community. We have the right and the duty to defend ourselves.”

Omar al-Khani, an activist in the Damascus neighbourhood of Qaboun, said some activists are giving the Friday names issue more importance than it deserves.

“The naming has become a source of tension,” he said. “This is just another division among Syrians that could be spared.”

Follow Basma Atassi on twitter: @Basma_

Source: Al Jazeera