By Ahmed Hussein
This commentary was published in The Guardian on 06/05/2011
Assad thought his people would never take to the streets to demand freedom because his entourage of cronies, those officials around him who benefit from the regime, convinced him that the overwhelming majority of the people supported the president and his government. This was evident in Assad's beaming face when, during his speech to parliament on 30 March, members gave him a standing ovation, recited poems and showered him with praise. He also thought that the opposition to his rule represented nothing but a tiny minority that, as the state security tightened its grip on the people in Syria, would never take action for fear of the hordes of intelligence officers who are stationed all over the country.
But despite the towering wall of fear the regime has been building throughout the past four decades, Assad has lost his bet and has been stripped of his legitimacy by the protesters calling for freedom. And he is fast losing the battle for the people he needs most – the middle class.
From the early days of the uprising, a major split emerged within Syrian society pitting loyalists and revolutionaries against one another, sometimes even dividing families. Those who have supported the revolution with great enthusiasm have done so out of sheer desperation with the state of their daily lives in Syria today. This is the majority of Syrians – poor and oppressed. Those who have supported the regime have done so because the privileges they enjoy depend on the regime surviving. In this camp you have officials close to Assad, senior security and military officers, and their families.
But there is a third group who so far have also supported the regime for fear of an unknown future. These are the middle classes, the people who own businesses and trade. This third group is affected by scenes of Syrian cities turning into military cantons for the first time in our modern history. They have been led to think the demonstrations are a prelude for civil war – another Libya.
Nevertheless, the continual mistakes of the regime have led the middle classes to shift position with each passing day from being silent supporters of the regime to supporters of the revolution. The Syrian government is fumbling, like all governments that faced and are still facing Arab revolutions have done, as they continue to escalate the situation to the extent of waging war on an unarmed population. Think Deraa, al-Rastan, Banias.
The Syrian government imitated the tactics used by other governments to suppress the demonstrations, particularly the methods of the Libyan regime. They used professional snipers who targeted the heads of the demonstrators, using bullets that explode inside the victim's head leaving horrible mutilations, in order to terrorise people. The government also recruited "thugs", pro-regime armed groups that are involved in trafficking of drugs and weapons, to spread chaos and create sectarian strife. Those thugs opened fire on people from speeding cars and motorcycles. They also infiltrated demonstrations to spread provocative sectarian slogans.
The security apparatus is quite used to eliminating anyone who dares to even whisper a word about reform or human rights. Now they see large demonstrations calling for the overthrow of the regime, so they react by attacking hospitals and mosques, killing protesters everywhere and terrorising the entire population. This mess is made worse by the state media, who belong to a prehistoric era. They spread lies that are deeply provocative even to those supporting the regime and they still cannot comprehend what's happening now.
Perhaps some people might wonder what drives demonstrators to the streets despite the threat of death at the hands of security forces. The reason is simply that the Syrian people have come out to tell the world that they will never again be silent about the massacres committed in Deraa or the regime's efforts to starve and terrorise its own people. Syrians will never again be silent about the regime's atrocities committed against its own Syrian brothers. The age of silence is over and the age of freedom has just begun.
This is true citizenship in its noblest form. The western world used to spend millions of dollars in an attempt to promote citizenship – today they ought to learn the values of citizenship from the Syrians and from all the Arabs who sacrificed their lives for the sake of citizenship and humanity.
• This article was commissioned and translated in collaboration with Meedan.