Tales from Cafe Tahrir: Syria’s greater revolution

Veteran activists of the current Syrian uprising share their tales of struggle and revolution.

As protesters gather to discuss the uprising one year after it began, Assad's crackdown continues [AP]

Cairo, Egypt – The Syrian revolution began gradually; a protest in Damascus, the detention of teenage anti-regime graffitists in Daraa, and the subsequent mass rally for their release that led to a strong military reaction happened over just a few days and slowly sparked protests across the country with still no clear end in sight. One year since the revolution began, the Assad regime may still be in power but Syrian society has transformed dramatically.

In mid-March of last year, Damascus was a tangibly tense city. As news, videos and photos spread of the first protest in the old city neighbourhood of al-Hariqa, a sense of denial abounded in the capital. Perhaps out of fear, or from a genuine desire for stability – rather than the uncertainty that an uprising would bring – many in the city underestimated the significance of the protest.

A day after the Hariqa demonstration, in which dozens marched through the busy commercial area calling for greater freedom, local shopkeepers and residents showed no enthusiasm for what was to come. When asked about the topic in the context of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, many expressed sympathy for those countries, which they imagined to be in chaos, and saw no parallels with Syria. When pressed on the topic of the Hariqa protest, one shopkeeper told me that only “fifteen” protesters were involved, as a passerby suggested that “five” was a better estimate. As the military invasion of Daraa began, Damascenes were again often, at least publicly, in denial; claims that nothing unusual was happening in that city were echoed repeatedly.


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Some members of minority communities voiced the same apprehensions. In Yarmouk, Damascus’ largest Palestinian refugee camp, locals viewed themselves as guests in the country and were thankful for their relatively positive treatment by the regime. Some Kurds living in Damascus expressed frustration at their treatment as second-class citizens, but preferred the slowly increasing freedoms that they had enjoyed under Bashar al-Assad to an uncertain future. During a celebration of Nowruz – a spring festival marking new year – south of Damascus (itself a significant spectacle in a country that had banned such public celebrations in the past), Kurds spontaneously chanted in support of their president.


Those who supported the idea of a revolution often said so in a cautious whisper, and only after glancing around them for possible informers. In Cairo, where a fragmented Syrian enclave has long existed, many gathered to protest at the Syrian embassy from the very start of the uprising, but were often too apprehensive to communicate with one another. The attitude reflects the extent to which the Assad regime was successful in the creation of an informer state, under which even Syrians abroad were suspicious of each other. Some Syrians in Cairo would go so far as to say that the shabiha [“thugs”], loyal to the Assads, should be feared throughout the Arab world. The paranoia paralysed Syrians and served to further maintain divisions among them.   

A second look into the Syrian opposition in Cairo, one year after the revolution began, provides great insight into how the attitudes of Syrians, as a people, have transformed over the past year, and how the complacency and fear of the past four decades under Assad rule is being slowly undone.

Syrian exiles and refugees have been flooding into Cairo over the past several months. While some groups include families, the overwhelming majority are youths, especially those who had been involved in the uprising and are escaping potential detention. Among them are those who had been detained in the past, and left the country to avoid further punishment. While some tell stories of smuggling themselves through the Lebanese or Turkish borders before coming to Egypt, others left officially with few problems. The Assad regime, they say, is eager to rid the country of its problematic youth.

On the first anniversary of the Syrian revolution, five Syrians gathered to mark the occasion in a cafe at a corner of Cairo’s Tahrir Square. I listened as they reflected on the past year, speculated as to the future of their country’s changing society, and revealed the implications of the challenges that lie ahead.

The Assad dynasty

The first of those who gathered was a Damascene woman, Salma, who had lived in Egypt for decades. “The greatest ambition of our generation,” she said, “was to leave the country.” The daughter of a former prominent member of the ruling Baath Party, her recollections are speckled with personal stories of the Assad family. The four others, young protesters from Damascus, Daraa, Aleppo and the Kurdish north listened to Salma attentively as she told them of life under the rule of Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad.

You are a lucky generation. You are witnessing the downfall of the Assad dynasty; we, on the other hand, witnessed its rise…

– Salma

“You are a lucky generation. You are witnessing the downfall of the Assad dynasty; we, on the other hand, witnessed its rise and the height of its tyranny,” Salma told the youths, as she thought back to her years in Damascus.

Her first political memory of the time was a slow awareness of the Hama massacre of 1982, in which tens of thousands were killed in a military attack on the city that aimed to quash the Muslim Brotherhood for its dissident role. Then a schoolgirl, she recalled that it took several weeks for Damascenes to grasp what had happened, but as they did, the state presence increased in the city to gauge and suppress any reaction. Students were watched closely, and a war was waged against any symbols of religiosity. Salma recalls watching an officer pull a scarf from an elderly woman’s head, who then covered herself with a garbage bag as she ran in humiliation.

The regime of Hafez al-Assad, Salma said, destroyed all ambitions of her generation; it cancelled foreign language instruction in schools, while other subjects were restricted to materials determined by the state – and opportunities were highly limited to those with connections to the leadership. Efforts to divide the population began under Hafez al-Assad and often involved drastic measures. Differences were emphasised not only among the varying ethnic and religious groups in Syria, but from city to city, and even between and among families. The regime of Hafez al-Assad went so far as to officially change the last names of members of some branches of larger families, in order to make it more difficult to identify and maintain kinship ties.

Furthermore, the Alawites, the religious sect to which the Assad family belongs, became highly politicised – they received privileges and were expected to be loyal foremost to the regime. Alawite families were planted in cities, especially where they were needed – such as in the historically rebellious Hama or the heart of Damascus, where the government is based. Over the past decades, many large families of Damascus were effectively driven to the outskirts of the city by tax hikes and other methods; the vacancies they created were reserved for the privileged Alawite clan. Salma referred to it as a sort of occupation. The Assads successfully fragmented the population; an atmosphere of complete distrust enveloped the country, where public mention of any politically related topic was taboo.  

While such practices continued under the rule of Bashar al-Assad, the brutality of his father remains unmatched. No one could utter a word against Hafez al-Assad, which is why a chant cursing the soul of the deceased president is among the more popular ones of the current revolution. Salma told the young rebels stories of Bashar’s brother, Bassel, and how a single glance from the man terrified those around him. They are lucky, she said, that they are facing Bashar rather than Bassel al-Assad, who would have been ruler if still alive. Salma expressed her pride, as she sat with the younger generation, not only for their continued courage in facing the regime, but for their ability to break the distrust and disunity among the Syrian population. The group that gathered, with their hodgepodge of backgrounds, was testament to the changing society.

The rise of Damascus

Among the youth present was Marwa al-Ghamian, whose loud chants stirred the otherwise quiet streets of the Hariqa neighbourhood on that first day of the revolution. Al-Hariqa, meaning “fire”, carries symbolic importance as it was the location of protests against the French occupation, and was then set ablaze by the occupiers to silence opposition. But just as that revolution took years to accomplish its goals, Marwa said, the Syrian protesters are today determined to continue their struggle – regardless of how long it takes. As Marwa told her story, the cafe television was turned down, as an interested Egyptian audience gathered to hear about a revolution that they had partly inspired.

Marwa and other young people had attempted to organise protests several times in February and early March, but it was only on March 15 that they gathered enough courage to risk their lives for the sake of greater freedoms. Around 150 protesters marched through the streets of old Damascus that day. Marwa, along with many of her fellow protesters, was detained during the demonstration. For ten days, she said she was questioned and tortured.

The episode did not deter her from continuing the struggle. Upon her release, Marwa helped organise protests throughout Damascus, including sizeable demonstrations in the more populous neighbourhoods of al-Midan and Kafr Souseh. Marwa became a target of the Assad regime; her home was surrounded by security forces and her movements were closely watched. Life in Damascus became difficult, and in late September she managed to escape house arrest and go to the airport, from where she had planned on travelling to Qatar. Marwa was arrested at the airport, and detained for the following week. The regime was particularly concerned with her attempt to travel to Qatar, where officials had been outspoken critics of the Assad regime’s brutal crackdown. Marwa’s second attempt to leave the country, in October, was successful. Much to Marwa’s chagrin, an Egyptian onlooker asked the group why Damascus had yet to rise against the Assad regime. “Damascus was the first to rise,” she said, “and is where this revolution will end.”

Damascus was the first to rise and is where this revolution will end.

– Marwa al-Ghamian

The persistence of the Houran

Mohamed Abazid of Daraa, one of the young protesters present, sees his hometown as the real instigator of the revolution. Few expected the Houran region, the southern plains known for their traditionalism, to play any significant role in the modern trajectory of Syria. However, Daraa, the epicentre of that region, has gone down in history as the vanguard of the Syrian revolution. Mohamed is not surprised by his hometown’s resistance, citing a significant increase in education in the city over the past decade. But it is perhaps the fact that Daraa is a more neglected and traditional province within which the real reason for its persistant rebellion lies.

At the detention of teenage anti-regime graffiti artists, younger relatives of Mohamed’s and locally known youths, it was unthinkable for the close-knit community to remain silent. Mohamed’s parents, like those of others in the community, told him of the brutality of the 1982 Hama massacre and warned him not to protest – lest they meet the same fate as the residents of that city. The youths, however, had not witnessed that episode in Syrian history and proved more fearless than the older generation. The mass protest that followed was greeted with gunfire. Two young protesters were killed that day, the first fatalities of the revolution. Many in Daraa did not instantly blame the regime itself, but were expecting someone to be held accountable for the deaths and an official apology to be made; their wait was futile. The popular outrage expressed in protests that followed was even greater than before.

Mohamed calls Bashar al-Assad the “real leader of the revolution”. The first protest, he says, called for the release of those detained and for reforms, but stopped short of demanding the downfall of the regime. It was the Assad government’s use of force against the protesters that sparked even stronger reactions, starting in Daraa and spreading throughout the country. Mohamed participated in and photographed the protests. He remained in Daraa through major military attacks on the city, including the invasion and shelling of several neighbourhoods reportedly by the fourth fleet (the most notorious Syrian military unit, led by Bashar’s younger brother Maher). Mohamed left the country in October, just as detentions of his fellow protesters were increasing and his call-up for military duty was imminent.

Syrian unity

Together, the stories of Salma, Marwa and Mohamed suggested some of the reasons that the revolution in Syria is a longer process than elsewhere in the region. Not only was the fear barrier higher, due to the brutality of the regime, a systematic fragmentation of the country and atmosphere of distrust forged over the past four decades had first to be undone. The persistence of demonstrations in Daraa, a city relatively untouched by the divisive mechanisms of the Assad clan, is indicative of the type of societal atmosphere needed for a successful mass movement.

While the revolution, and the brutality of the Assad regime’s crackdown, has allowed Syrians to build a type of unity absent in the country for decades, there are still some points of weakness. A number of ethnic and religious sects in the country remain either relatively dormant or supportive of the regime for varying reasons. While their mobilisation may not be necessary for the downfall of the Assad regime, it would certainly hasten the process.

The stories of the Kurdish activist of the Tahrir gathering are perhaps the most indicative of where the biggest obstacles for the Syrian opposition lie. The young Kurd recalled a more recent attempt by the Assad regime to fragment the population, and specifically to spark Kurdish disdain for the majority Arab citizens. The 2004 incident involved a football match in the northern Kurdish city of Qamishly, during which Kurdish fans were attacked by armed thugs, likely sponsored by the government, who were portrayed at the time as Arab fans of the visiting football team. The incident was followed by days of anti-government protests throughout the Kurdish region of the country; dozens were killed and hundreds detained before the uprising was quelled.

The Kurdish activist sees this incident as one of the main reasons that Assad’s troops had yet to launch a significant military offensive against any Kurdish city in the country. “They are well aware,” he said, “that any sizeable aggression against the Kurds will cause the entire region to rebel. If Arab Syrians were more like the Kurds, this revolution would be over.” The young man, who wears a pin badge of the Kurdish flag, rather than the symbol of Syrian independence donned by his fellow protesters, professes to be an activist for the cause of the Syrian revolution, but perhaps misses the irony of his statements. It is the fact that many Kurds view themselves as distinct, and drastically prioritise their ethnicity over their nationality, that hinders the revolution.

The question of pro-regime sects, such as the Alawites, is a more problematic one than that of more dormant groups such as the Kurds. The politicisation of Alawites in particular has made them a symbol of disdain among the population, leaving little opportunity for Alawites opposed to the government to voice their views. Alawites have come to be known as the privileged, the informers and the thugs of the country. The threat of retribution against them, following the revolution, means that the circle of regime supporters will remain unified. It is important for the Syrian opposition to reassure members of this sect and to make an effort to protect dissident Alawites.

As the brutality of the crackdown on the uprising increases, a sense of unity, both within and outside of Syria, also increases. The Syrian revolution was forged by a people fed up with a government not only for its suppressive policies, but for its systematic division of the population. It is thus under the banner of popular unity that the Assad regime will fall, and a new government will replace it. On the question of whether Assad will be able to successfully divide the population, “impossible” was Marwa’s response; “if the Syrian people can’t stop him,” she said, “the Arab people will.” The Egyptian audience surrounding the group concurred. 

Sarah Mousa graduated from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs in 2010, and was a 2010-2011 Fulbright Scholar in Egypt.