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Social Media, Emerging Street Opposition Are Forces Behind Syrian Uprising

  • Margaret Besheer

In this citizen journalism image made on a mobile phone, Syrian men carry bread loaves during a protest against Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime, in the coastal town of Banias, Syria, May 3, 2011

In this citizen journalism image made on a mobile phone, Syrian men carry bread loaves during a protest against Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime, in the coastal town of Banias, Syria, May 3, 2011

For seven weeks a popular uprising against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been raging. Emboldened by successful movements to topple dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, frustrated young Syrians began organizing protests online and then took them to the streets.

Despite periodic cuts in the Internet and mobile network, young Syrian activists have been working their computers and mobile phones for weeks, updating Facebook pages, sending out messages over Twitter, uploading videos onto YouTube and speaking to human rights campaigners, journalists and others outside their country. They try to tell the world what is happening, as most foreign reporters have been banned.

Activists say tools such as Facebook and Twitter were not widely known in Syria until just a few months ago. As the Arab Spring spread across North Africa and the Middle East, Syrian youth began learning about the role of social media in it. Now thousands engage in social media.

Youth movement

Activist Rami Nakhle, who has been living in Lebanon for the last few months to avoid arrest in his native Syria, said the uprising began on the Internet with the youth, but then moved to the streets drawing people of all ages.

"It is a completely, completely spontaneous revolution. That's what I would call it.…. but absolutely, it is led by young people. If young people did not call for protest, the old people would just stay in their homes," said Nakhle. "But old people, when they saw protests in the mosque, they will join; when they saw huge protest pass in front of their houses, they will join. It's like this. But who is organizing it? Who is planning it? They are the young people."

Protesters demanded that an oppressive emergency law banning protests be lifted. They also called for the legalization of political parties and the removal of corrupt officials.

Continuing crackdown

Assad responded with promises of reform and on April 21st said he was lifting the law that allows people to be arrested without warrants. But his security forces have continued their violent crackdown and hundreds of protesters - mostly young men - have been reported arrested or killed across the country.

Syrian activist Khaled el Ekheytar said because of the media ban, it has been up to the protesters to get the word out to the world.

"The guys who are organizing for the demonstration - they are going to the demonstration, they are shooting [videotaping] the demonstration - they might get shot or wounded or killed or whatever," said el Ekheytar. "They need to go back there to upload the video, and then to make sure that they are going to be there everywhere for the guys who need it and prepare for the next day. So it's like they are doing everything."

When asked who is leading the peaceful protests, activists and analysts alike agree that it appears to be a leaderless uprising.

Leaderless uprising

Nadim Houry is the director of Human Rights Watch's Beirut office. He said the protesters have a very informal level of organization, and comprise both secular-liberal and intellectual people, alongside more traditional conservatives, such as sheikhs and imams.

"It is not a top-down organized effort. Like Egypt, like Tunisia, it started out a lot more spontaneously. In the case of Syria, it started out as localized demands in Daraa because of a particularly vicious moukhabarat [secret police] guy," said Houry. "Those protests sort of rippled and echoed via other activists so the information spread."

Houry adds that Syrians in the Diaspora also have played an important role, particularly as relay points for information, but that the movement has been primarily driven from inside the country.

'Old opposition' participates

Some activists say that the "old opposition" - mostly the exiled Muslim Brotherhood and signatories to the 2005 Damascus Declaration, which calls for peaceful democratic regime change - have joined the uprising too late.

A dozen signatories to the Damascus Declaration have served jail time for their involvement in it, while the Muslim Brotherhood operates from Britain.

Nakhle says as a group the old opposition has not been effective, but some individuals from their ranks have been very important to the movement.

"I think those people inside the Damascus Declaration, they would have a great chance to lead this period, to lead this revolution, but they just missed it, because they did not come to a decision all of them together, said Nakhle. "But individuals from them do play a great role."

American University in Beirut political science professor Hilal Khashan said active, organized political opposition inside Syria was crushed under Assad's father, Hafez, and that is why this uprising has no clear leadership.

Conspiracy theory

"There is no opposition in Syria, unless you mean the Muslim Brotherhood. Assad, the late [Hafez] Assad, drove them out of the country after he massacred them in Hama in 1982," said Khashan. "The demonstrators in Syria are largely acting on their own. I am not into the conspiracy theory. It may be that some certain countries are trying to take advantage of the situation as the Syrian regime is claiming, but the fact remains that people who go to the street do so - or did so - spontaneously."

The conspiracy theory he refers to is the Syrian regime's claim that armed gangs and infiltrators supplied with weapons from Lebanon and Iraq incited the protests. The government insists its military crackdown is intended to crush these gangs, not harm innocent citizens.

Khashan said that with time, the pull of the Syrian street will create its own elite. But right now anyone who emerges as a leader of this movement risks jail or death.

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