Fear of Damascus Regime Stymies Protest

Recent minibus driver strike rare protest in country where majority daren’t consider collective action to improve their lives.

Fear of Damascus Regime Stymies Protest

Recent minibus driver strike rare protest in country where majority daren’t consider collective action to improve their lives.

Friday, 6 November, 2009

It might not count as a big deal anywhere else in the world but a two-day strike by Damascus minibus drivers in September in breach of an official ban on such action was a remarkable event.

Strikes and protests have been forbidden in Syria since 1949. Under the penal code, any individual who participates in a gathering of seven or more people to protest against a decision or a measure by the authorities can be punished with up to a year in jail.

This law is in total contradiction to the Syrian constitution, which guarantees the right to peaceful protest. However, the emergency law, which has been in effect since 1963 when the Baath party took power, has made it very difficult for advocates of freedom of expression to defend their case.

For once, it was ordinary bus drivers who defied the strict suppression of protests and took to the streets to demonstrate against a cut in the fares on one Damascus route.

Although the action was apolitical, it made them appear to be a more courageous group than the activists and intellectuals who are supposed to be the real mobilisers of the masses in the quest for improved civic rights.

Unfortunately, student and worker unions and syndicates, which in other nations spur social development and combat the corruption of the ruling classes, in Syria are totally subject to the will of the authorities.

Over the years, the government has issued numerous decisions that had a negative impact on the lives of ordinary people but only rarely did they take to the streets to call for better living conditions or political or social reforms.

One exception was a series of protests by Syrian Kurds in Damascus, Aleppo and Qamishli in 2005 to demand greater civil rights. These actions were brutally put down by the authorities and died out.

Many people in Syria long to see the streets filled with protesters standing up for their rights as happens in western nations or even in neighbouring countries like Lebanon, Egypt or Iran.

Fear, however, is so entrenched in the minds of the majority of people that most don’t even dare to consider collective action as a way to improve their lives.

For years, the reality of recurrent intimidation and jailing of journalists, intellectuals and dissidents has totally crippled civil society.

The only rallies in the streets today are the ones that are arranged by the authorities to mark national events such as the anniversary of the Baath revolution or to protest against Israeli military action.

With the possibilities for real street protests minimal, citizens, especially young people, are resorting to the internet to voice their objections and demands.

For many, blogs have become a potent form of self-expression where young writers criticise the government’s performance or publish articles on corruption. They include I am Syrian, The New Syrian, I am leaving and not coming back and Syria, what a pity, how much we love it .

As opposition groups have failed to create real movements for change, most of them have also resorted to online activism as a way to build support.

For instance, Damascus Declaration, a coalition of Syrian opposition groups, runs a website from inside and outside the country, where the group continues to call for the release of jailed members in Syria; changes to the constitution; and political parties to be allowed to operate freely.

Most of these sites are blocked by the authorities and some are run from abroad but Syrian internet users find ways to circumvent the restrictions and access the sites.

These websites and blogs present ordinary Syrians with alternative views to those of the government. People cannot respond by objecting openly in the public domain but at least they have found a virtual space in which to post their comments and voice their opinions.

They need to learn from the minibus drivers.

One of these blogs, Syrian Pages, created by a number of Syrian intellectuals, calls for political and cultural mobilisation in the country.
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