Q&A: Syrian activist Suhair Atassi

In an interview from her native Syria, Atassi shares her views on the need for political reform in her country.

Suhair Atassi

Suhair Atassi is an outspoken Syrian activist living in Damascus. She runs the Jamal Atassi Forum group on Facebook, an extension of the banned Jamal Atassi Forum. The forum calls for political reforms in Syria and the reinstatement of civil rights and the cancellation of the emergency law that has suspended constitutional rights since 1963.

In an email interview with Al Jazeera, she shares her views on the need for political reform in her country.

She also describes how she and other activists were attacked during a vigil held in Damascus in solidarity with the pro-democracy protests in Egypt. Human Rights Watch has condemned this incident, which came as activists on Facebook and Twitter called on Syrians to take to the streets to protest against the government on February 4 and 5.

Were you involved in the campaign calling for demonstrations to be held in Syria February 4 and 5?

No. I called for a peaceful sit-in on February 3 in protest against the systematic looting and the continuing monopoly of Syria’s two mobile phone operators, MTN and Syriatel.

Was there any intimidation of activists ahead of February 4? Did you receive any warnings not to participate?

I don’t know about February 4. I have received threats for having participated in “A candlelight vigil for Egyptian demonstrators” and for calling for a peaceful sit-in against MTN and Syriatel. Threats began on January 27.

Were there any demonstrations anywhere in Syria that weekend?

Personally I did not hear about any sit-ins that took place in Damascus (where I live) on February 4 and 5. Streets were only filled with security forces.

Why do you think there were no big demonstrations?

Syria has for many years been a ‘kingdom of silence’. It has witnessed an uprising known as ‘Damascus Spring’ which was soon suppressed by the authorities. The so-called ‘Spring’ lasted only for a few months and was quashed by a mouth-muzzling policy, with arrests and martial law, pre-decided trials dominated by security services, as well as discharges from work and travel bans. The state of emergency is still hanging as a sword above the necks of citizens. Fear is dominating people’s lives, despite poverty, starvation and humiliation. We do not expect that people can easily break the barrier of fear and silence.”

 [The Damascus Spring was a period of intense political and social debate in Syria which started after the death of President Hafez al-Assad in June 2000 and continued to some degree until autumn 2001, when most of the activities associated with it were suppressed by the government.]

Do you think Syrians want change?

“The state of emergency is still hanging as a sword above the necks of citizens. Fear is dominating people’s lives”

I think Syrians are not satisfied with the reality of their lives. The Syrian regime has established in the minds of people such terrible dualism: ‘to keep the regime or descend into chaos’ as if it is the guarantor of stability in the country. It is merely cosmetic stability strongly imposed by using repression and fear. People are afraid of repeating Iraq’s scenario. Despite the intense resentment they have reached, they are afraid of change for the worse. Is there anything worse? That is the question. Is Iraq’s model the only model of change?

I think what has happened in Tunisia and Egypt has changed the equation and restored faith in people to bring change by their own hands and for their interests. When I was on my way to attend a sit-in against Syria’s only mobile phone operators, the MTN and Syriatel, I explained to the taxi driver where I was going and why. He told me: ‘Please organise a demonstration against the high cost of diesel prices. The cold is killing us’. I asked him: ‘Are you ready to demonstrate with us against the high diesel price?’ He replied ‘I’m afraid of being arrested because I’m the only breadwinner for my family!'”

What exactly happened at the February 2 demonstration?

Our sit-in held at Bab Touma Square at 6pm in the evening was peaceful. The person who attacked us identified himself as a ‘baltajiya’ [thug]. He and other ‘thugs’ asked us to go back to our homes or go to Egypt if we wanted to support Egyptian demonstrators. The thugs outnumbered us. They began harassing us.

“We wondered why there were no police present as this has been the case every time a sit-in has been held since January 29. Security forces used to ask for ID cards of young people to intimidate them. We also found it odd that just a few of the security forces had video cameras to film us during the sit-in. They usually film us during every protest.

“We came to complain of an abuse we had encountered in the street, and the result was that we were beaten, insulted and threatened to death inside a police station!”

“Two women were with the “thugs”. They began to insult us and use bad language, and soon they began to beat us. One of the female thugs took her belt and then ran after some young girls beating them while using curse words I dare not mention. We were running while they were chasing us, beating and swearing at us while the police at the police station in Bab Touma Square were just watching.

“We went to the police telling them that we wanted to file a complain. They took our ID cards. They asked us: ‘Who were they?’ We answered: You were watching everything and you know who they were.’ Certainly they know who they were. We had noticed that when a policeman tried to approach, one of them said: ‘keep away – we are security forces’.

“Then I said ‘We want to file two cases – the first is that security forces have sent ‘hooligans’ to the street to harass us and end the peaceful solidarity sit-in this way. The second is that the police were watching and kept silent’. The police were going back and forth and then they asked the rest to leave the room as they wanted to question me. After some time [almost half an hour, maybe less] a man in civilian clothes came in with another two. He refused to identify himself and locked the door of the room and began insulting me. I heard words I never heard in all my life.

“He accused me of having a website that was ‘infiltrated by Israel’, describing me as an ‘insect’ and a ‘germ’, working against the country’s interests. He lashed out at me as I was answering every word … He hit me on my left cheek. He kept insulting me … He opened my suitcase violently and took my mobile phone and my camera. He said ‘you are under arrest’.

“He returned and gave me a final threat saying ‘I expect that someone may come to kill you at any moment while you are in the street, to rid the country from a germ like you’.Then he and those accompanying him left. The police opened the door, asking me to leave. I saw signs of regret in the eyes of a police officer but he was helpless. Then the police chief came and gave us back our ID cards and my mobile phone and camera after deleting all pictures.

“Police are supposed to serve the people. We came to complain of an abuse we had encountered in the street, and the result was that we were beaten, insulted and threatened to death inside a police station!”

Source: Al Jazeera