The movement, which I’d call a popular movement for a Syrian revolution, has sought the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad since it first began in the southern city of Daraa when [two teenagers were arrested for painting a slogan on the walls] that has been the main one at every demonstration ever since: “The people want to topple the regime!”].
This movement is like the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt in that it is spontaneous, with the difference that in Tunisia, for example, an organized political elite and the trade unions took part from the beginning, and human rights and other civil society organizations with international connections were involved in both countries. In Syria, the trade unions are part of the state apparatus (the left and other organizations are forbidden to work in them), and the repression has been much more fierce. Any Syrian contacting organizations abroad on the Net risks a trial before a special tribunal for “communicating with the enemy” and years in prison. The kinds of political currents like the “We’ve had enough!” movement that influenced Egyptian intellectuals and even workers have not existed in Syria. Intellectuals with any revolutionary inclinations have spent at least 15 years in prison.
The revolt is not generalized across the country and society. It is more like a series of neighbourhood uprisings than a centralized revolution. The main actors so far have been educated youth and unemployed youth seeking access to modernity.
Industrial workers take part as individuals, but many of the people in the streets are what I would call lumpen proletariat, people who are unemployed or without regular jobs, who have to live as best they can. They work a few days here and there, mainly in services for the bourgeoisie, as maids, porters, doormen, etc. They have no social security or other benefits. The other component of this movement comes from the lower middle class, especially young unemployed university graduates. About 20 percent of young graduates are unemployed. They can’t get married because they have to live with their parents, due to both unemployment and the severe housing shortage.
There is a mix of boys and girls together in the street; the participation of women is welcomed. You can see on Facebook how creative they are, inventing new revolutionary methods in literature, media and organization. The median age of the protesters is about 30, whereas among the political parties and civil society members it’s probably about 50.
These youth do not put forward social demands; they think that political democracy and liberty can solve all the problems they face in their daily lives. Their main specific goal, in addition to toppling Assad, is to change the constitution. They especially want to get rid of Article 8, which designates “the Arab Socialist Baath Party” as the leadership of the state, along with an undefined “nationalist and progressive front”. The latter means the two historic communist parties and the Nasserite (Pan-Arab) and nationalist parties federated with the Baath Party, although they no longer have much influence.
This movement has not been able to seriously threaten the regime’s existence. As I’ll explain, there is a real danger that it could be aborted by a military coup, which might get rid of Assad but not change the power structure, or a civil war along religious and ethnic lines. To mobilize millions of Syrians, the revolt would have to put forward not just demands for political democracy but also social demands that could win over people far more broadly.
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Peasants are for the revolt because the rural bourgeoisie and big landlords are allied with the regime economically, although not necessarily politically. The agrarian reform redistributed feudal land to small peasants but they can’t get the aid they need, like credit, tractors and purchasing organizations. They are constantly threatened by drought and their dependence on former feudals for credit. They often work for former feudals either as wage workers or as sharecroppers or renters. Proof of peasant sympathy with the revolution is that people in the small cities and the outskirts of larger cities went into the streets long before the big city centres.
In Damascus and Aleppo, the country’s two biggest cities where the industrial workers are concentrated, the demonstrations have been confined to a few university faculties, such as the medical and science students who staged a sit-in in the capital. The chambers of commerce and industry in those two cities have played a very negative role.
The biggest demonstrations have been in cities such as Daraa and villages like Nawa and Zalkhab. Daraa has remained a main focal point. It’s a bastion of the movement because it’s a bastion of poverty. The people are mostly small peasants or masons. During the Syrian intervention in Lebanon, many masons went to work in construction for the Lebanese bourgeoisie and the Gulf oil rich. Since Syria was forced to withdraw, Syrian workers, especially the masons of Daraa, have had to come home. There’s no work for them in Syria because there’s so little construction — the regime restricts the real estate market in order to keep prices low. So these unemployed masons are one important reason why Daraa has played the role that it has.
Daraa is the capital of the Hauran region, where many villages are in revolt. This is a major wheat producing area, but the land is volcanic and therefore peasants tend to be very poor. Other Syrians make fun of these people as good workers but stupid, willing to work for nothing. Because of poverty, the educational level is very low. People have to go to work very young. Generally they’re not very represented in the government.
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The situation in Syria is far from generalized civil disobedience, principally because of the almost complete absence of slogans putting forward social and economic demands, notably the struggle against hunger, poverty and unemployment. Such slogans could come to the forefront alongside calls for democracy only in a broad democratic united front in which the left played an important role. But in Syria there is neither such a front nor a left.
The Friday of Defiance on May 6 was the high point in the movement so far, there were about 10,000 demonstrators across the country. These protests were scattered, decentralized and spontaneous. And ferociously repressed by the security forces. There have been about 800 dead in the two months since the revolt began, and about 8,000 people disappeared or detained. The political class, including the left, calls this movement an “uprising”. They don’t use the word revolution. These parties are reformist but their thinking is not so different from what the regime itself wants — a gradual and negotiated reform. So far there has been no agreement between the regime and the opposition because the regime says there can be no negotiations until the revolt stops, while the opposition calls for the release of political prisoners and negotiations now. But the masses of people don’t want to hear about dialogue and so on. They are in the streets because what they want is change that doesn’t come from within the power structure but goes against it.
There are several possible scenarios. One is that the revolutionary mass movement can give rise to a new left that can centralize and broaden the movement. Another is that political Islam may take over the movement and divert it towards a religious civil war. About five weeks after the revolt arose, small groups of people began chanting, “The Alawites to their graves, the Christians to Beirut.” The failure of the left to break with the regime provides favourable conditions for the fundamentalists. It is also possible that the movement could be successfully repressed and the Bashar regime consolidated, or that a military coup would replace the present political leadership with one unencumbered by an alliance with Iran and Hezbollah.
Hassan Khaled Chatila, a Syrian born in Damascus in 1944, holds a doctorate in political philosophy from the University of Paris, a city where he has lived as a refugee for many years. He is a member of the Syrian Communist Action Party founded in 1975. The text above is a collection of short excerpts from a long article titled “The Revolt in Syria: Its Roots and Prospects,” composed of interviews that A World to Win News Service (AWTWNS) conducted with Chatila, which was circulated by AWTWNS on 17 May 2011; it is reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes. The full text of the original article may be read at <uk.groups.yahoo.com/group/
AWorldToWinNewsService/message/415>. Cf. Myriam Ababsa, “Privatisation in Syria: State Farms and the Case of the Euphrates Project” (2005); Angela Joya, “Economic Liberalization and Reform in Syria: 1970-2005” (2006); Raymond Hinnebusch, “Modern Syrian Politics” (History Compass 6.1, 2008); An-Nour, “Disturbing Events in Dara’a” (MRZine, 1 April 2011); Syrian Communist Party (Unified), “The Syrian Communist Party (Unified) Emphasizes the Importance of National Unity and Investigation of the Causes of the Recent Events” (MRZine, 1 April 2011); As’ad AbuKhalil, “(Former) Communists for Liberal Democracy” (MRZine, 14 April 2011); Syrian Communist Party (Bakdash), “Regarding Syria” (MRZine, 18 April 2011); Syrian Communist Party (Unified), “Stop Violence Now and Start National Dialogue!” (MRZine, 27 April 2011); Salim Kassem, “Demystifying Syria” (MRZine, 30 April 2011); Reinoud Leenders, “The Syrian Opposition’s ‘National Initiative for Change’: A Missed Opportunity” (MRZine, 1 May 2011); RIA Novosti, “Opposition’s Call for General Strike Falls on Deaf Ears in Syria” (18 May 2011).