BEIRUT

Middle East

Syria’s prankster army make case for non-violence

  • Facebook messages from discussions about the revolution have been printed and distributed on streets.

  • The “Freedom Days” calendar.

BEIRUT: A bicycle rider is inconspicuous in the old souks of Damascus. No one noticed as the rider pulled up to the front of a stall at the Hamadiyya souq in the mid-afternoon rush hour to chain one to a post.

Then people heard music. The now infamous revolutionary song by Ibrahim el-Kashoush broadcast across the souq from an unidentified location sent the local security guards positioned nearby into a fizz.

Amused onlookers watched as they tracked the source of profanity to the unassuming bicycle, trying desperately to dismantle the metal box welded to the rear, and remove the sound system inside.

Around Damascus, several similar spectacles have taken place in recent weeks. Last Wednesday, as an Arab League delegation arrived in Damascus, Syrians woke to another surprise: six dummies of Bashar Assad hanging from the neck across six bridges and overpasses, one of which was in clear view of the Presidential Palace.

“Our message is the silent majority of Syrians who are too afraid to go to the streets and risk getting shot, that you can still be heard,” explained “Zaza,” an activist in the Syrian non-violence movement, which is organizing the “Freedom Days” calendar of civil disobedience events.

“And the message is to the regime to say that even though you can’t see us, we are everywhere … It shows them that we are organized and that there is a will for change.”

Organizers of the movement started activities as early as 1993, with awareness campaigns aimed at resisting corruption, cleaning streets and other civil society campaigns.

The group now acts as an umbrella organization for 16 diversified groups, all committed to various forms of non-violent action against the Syrian regime.

The group publishes a weekly calendar of events ranging from online discussion groups to educate Syrians about the history and ideology of non-violence, to awareness activities on the ground, and “surprises” in the form of pranks and symbolic acts on the streets across the country.

“Everybody knows, thanks to the media, that on Fridays there will be protests and that people will be killed,” said Zaza.

“We want to say there is a third way and it is effective. It is still brave. You can make yourself heard through civil disobedience, and not get shot.”

Other campaigns include the infamous white T-shirt days in which people arrange to wear white on a certain day in a secret signal of solidarity, and the “express” campaign, when Facebook messages from discussions about the revolution are printed on colored paper, wrapped as gifts and distributed around the streets.

On the night of Oct. 24, whole sections of Mount Kassiyoun went dark, as people turned out the lights in solidarity with the protest movement.

Bicycle broadcasts and hanging mannequins represent more daring and attention-grabbing campaigns, and Zaza admitted humor is important.

“Humor can always be used to ridicule. It belittles them and shows people they cannot break our spirits.”

As the uprising enters its eighth month, with calls for armed resistance and reports of armed clashes multiplying, Zaza said the message has become urgent and has vowed to step up operations.

“This is why the rhythm of the activities is accelerating,” he said. “All of it is building up toward a call for a general strike.

“You can’t blame people for wanting to hit back. The calls for a general strike are starting to emerge now and we are focusing on building trust to allow it to be successful.

“We want people to try this, and then when they believe in it, things will move from … reaction as it is now, to a more organized and planned set of tactics that will [force] the regime to negotiate.”

Distinguishing between negotiation and dialogue, Zaza said: “We believe that even if people choose weapons at some point there will be negotiations, but in this case, our approach is saving time and more importantly, lives.”

With violence continuing and the death toll surpassing 3,000 by conservative estimates, numbers of protesters are down.

Asked if the time had come to end protests in the face of what many have labeled outright attrition, Zaza said: “We came to the conclusion that the main reason people are not participating [in protests] is fear. This is a normal reaction to the level of violence people are being exposed to … But the revolution is not just protests.

“What is important is that even if we don’t see them in the streets, Syrians will never be like they used to be before March 15,” he said, referring to the arrest of 14 schoolchildren for anti-regime graffiti that sparked the uprising.

“People relate the success of revolution to the number of protesters, but the government is as tired as we are … they can’t last like this forever.

“Of course the numbers will get less, but the movement never stopped,” said Zaza.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 31, 2011, on page 8.
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