The proximity and political relationship with Syria has left demonstrators at odds over Bashar al-Assad’s crackdown.
Matthew Cassel writing in Al Jazeera, 26 Jun 2011
On a May evening in a crowded Beirut theatre, a large white sheet hanging from the ceiling displayed the projected video of Syrian filmmaker Hala Abdullah reading a letter, written in Arabic, to the audience:
“The fear then is not different from the fear today,” Abdullah continued in her letter – delivered as part of a Syrian film screening event organised by Lebanese activists in “support of the Syrian revolution”. The rare event was hosted at the Sunflower Theatre in southern Beirut, one of the only venues that allowed it, and highlighted both the closeness and complexities between progressive communities in the two countries.
More than 35 years after the rise of the Lebanese left and the start of the civil war, people across Syria have risen up against decades of oppressive Baath party rule in their own country. Since demonstrations began in March, rights groups estimate that security forces have killed more than 1,000 protesters, and rights abuses are believed to be widespread.
President Bashar al-Assad and his Baathist regime have drawn global condemnation for the brutal crackdown on demonstrators. However, Beirut-based activists, many who have worked together against issues like sectarianism and in support of Palestinian and other Arab revolts, now find themselves split over their positions on the protests in Syria.
Freedom to liberate
Bilal el-Amine, a writer and activist who describes himself as being “on the left” politically, has been a common face at many protests and events in support of a number of causes in recent years. However, when it comes to the protesters in Syria, he’s yet to offer his support. He admits that there is a legitimate uprising happening in Syria, but also says there is a “counter current” at play led by the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia and other pro-Western groups in the Arab world.
“There is an attempt to bring down the regime because it’s part of the ‘resistance axis’,” sayd el-Amine. “[The Syrian government] has hosted [Palestinian armed groups] Hamas and Islamic Jihad despite intense pressure for it not to; it funnelled support to Hezbollah and backed resistance here in Lebanon logistically.”
El-Amine, who was active in supporting refugees fleeing areas of heavy bombardment during Israel’s war on Lebanon in the summer of 2006, says the Syrian regime played a crucial role in preventing Lebanon’s total isolation.
“In 2006 I realised the importance of Syria with [regard to] Hezbollah. Syria opened the borders to refugees. Israel laid siege to Lebanon during and after the war – and the only reason that it couldn’t work was because Syria wouldn’t take part.”
Less than a century ago, Lebanon was considered a coastal area in the west of Syria, with Palestine to the south. French and British colonialists divided the region after the fall of the Ottoman Empire in World War I. While most of bilad al-sham [“Greater Syria”] received its independence, Palestine did not. In the years during Israel’s creation in 1947-48, a violent campaign waged by Zionist forces sent hundreds of thousands of Palestinian civilians fleeing across bilad al-sham where they remain today. Palestine, home to many of the region’s most important cultural and religious sites, is a rallying cause for people across the Arab world.
El-Amine argues: “If [the regime in] Syria is taken out of the equation it will be a major blow to those who support Palestinian liberation.”
Since the fall of the left in Lebanon, which included the expulsion of the Palestine Liberation Organisation during Israel’s invasion of Beirut in 1982, Syria has been one of the only Arab states to officially support and host armed resistance movements. Such policies have created a rift with a number of western states that want Assad to abandon his support for resistance and sign to a peace treaty with Israel.
Activists such as el-Amine have reservations about the protests in Syria because, he says, the political aims of the organised opposition remain unclear.
“If an Arab revolt doesn’t address the issue of Palestine, especially if it’s a country that borders Israel, then your revolution is only half complete,” el-Amine said. “You can’t have liberty when you have a state like Israel causing so much of the region’s injustice.”
However, Abir Saksouk, an independent Beirut-based activist who describes herself as “pro-resistance”, admits that Palestine and resistance to Israel are major concerns with regard to the demonstrations. But, she says: “I cannot ask an entire people to halt their call for freedom because of resistance movements like Hezbollah and Hamas.”
“It’s become obvious there are two camps in the Arab world,” Saksouk said. “One [consists of] total collaborators with the US who are telling people ‘you have to surrender your freedoms for the sake of stability,’ like [former president Hosni] Mubarak in Egypt. And [on the other side] the Syrian regime telling people to ‘give up your freedoms to resist US and Israeli hegemony.’ And it’s clear that people are rejecting both extremes of this spectrum. We want to be free to be able to free Palestine.”
A battle to support
Since protests in Syria began in March, there have been a number of solidarity demonstrations – both with the regime and with the protesters – held in Beirut, particularly in the city’s Hamra district. Not only is the upscale neighbourhood the hangout for most progressive activists, artists, intellectuals and others, but it’s also the location of Syria’s embassy in Lebanon.
“[Many of us activists have] been supporting all of the Arab revolts. But we were keen to protest in Beirut in solidarity with Syria because we wanted to break the silence and fear. From the first protest at the [Syrian] embassy we were called [Israeli and US] ‘collaborators’ and ‘agents’,” said Saksouk.
At a protest in mid-April, hundreds of uniformed and plainclothes security officers were on the scene before any of the activists arrived. As the start time neared, a group of around 100 Syrian workers in Lebanon marched toward their embassy chanting in support of Bashar al-Assad.
Activists found little space to gather as men in plainclothes filmed anyone who wasn’t part of the pro-regime demonstration. Eventually, when a few activists took out signs condemning the Syrian regime’s violence they were immediately subjected to shouts and slurs from the pro-regime crowd, which encircled the small group.
“That moment made it clear that it was going to be a battle to support the Syrian revolution in Lebanon,” Saksouk said, recalling the incident. “It became an issue of being able to protest freely in Lebanon. It was a blow to our face and a sign that Lebanon is still not independent from the [Syrian] regime.”
The blows became real for some outspoken critics in Beirut. Ali Haidar, who describes himself as a “humanitarian activist”, returned home to Lebanon recently on a break from work in Sudan. Weeks before, Haidar had posted a short statement on Facebook condemning the attack against three of his friends attending a vigil in Hamra in support of Syrian protesters. Haidar said his friends were beaten by the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party (SSNP), a secular organisation that is staunchly supportive of the Syrian administration. In his post he called the SSNP a “fascist militia” and demanded they cease beating people in the streets.
Haidar said that, after posting the message, his family in Lebanon received threats and encouraged him to take it down. While driving into Hamra, Haidar said someone on a motorbike struck the back of his car. When he got out of his car he was assaulted by another man from behind and beaten until security guards from a nearby bank intervened and stopped the attack.
Later that day, a message was posted on his Facebook wall reading: “The beating was nice today.” Further attacks were also threatened if Haidar were ever to criticise the SSNP again.
“They hit me once, what will happen? Do they think this will make me love them?” Haidar said. “I hate [them] more than ever. Before I was only one person criticising them, now there are 20.”
Houssam Abdul Khalak, an activist close to the SSNP who describes himself as a “secular leftist”, could not confirm whether or not the group was behind the attack, but did say that there has been pressure on activists who demonstrate in support of Syria.
Abdul Khalak argued that the resistance forces in the region – Hamas, Hezbollah, and a number of smaller secular and leftist groups in Lebanon and elsewhere – are dependent on the Syrian regime, and these groups he said, “will fight until the last bullet to protect” that resistance.
More than one colour
Many activists in Beirut have hesitated to take a position on the protests in Syria because they question what’s really happening inside the country. With the Syrian regime’s tight clampdown on the media, rumours are rampant and any questions – usually concerning the motivations of protesters and how much support they have – have been difficult to answer. However, those who have been on the ground have been able to provide some clarity.
One of the journalists who has been reporting frequently in Lebanon’s Arabic media from inside Syria is Ghadi Francis. The 22-year-old is a former member of the SSNP, but was kicked out of the party for her reporting in the Beirut-based As-Safir newspaper that “didn’t reflect the party’s political views”, she said.
Francis has traveled across Syria since protests began in March, and has spoken with a wide range of people, including many protesters, and witnessed demonstrations in a number of cities and towns around the country. She concluded that it’s a “true crime” to “paint the [people protesting in the] street or the regime with one colour”.
Francis said one group of protesters was protesting for basic demands such as for jobs and water, while another wanted more political rights. A third group, she said, is protesting strictly for religious reasons. It is this third group that has many secular activists in neighbouring Lebanon worried.
However, Francis said that the blame lies with the secular Baathist regime in Syria, which for more than four decades “has left people with no other place to gather [and organise]” outside of religious spaces.
“Leftists [in Beirut] are right to be against the regime, but they’re not right to judge [the protesters] from the culture in Hamra,” said Francis. “Anyone has to go to witness it and talk to people.”
From what she’s witnessed in Syria, Francis thinks that the protests have already made irreversible change in Syria: “What’s happening [in Syria] is great in the sense that there is a black era of fear broken forever … [the protests have already] broken too many walls.”
A danger for the region
In Lebanon, a country divided among more than a dozen religious sects, the threat of sectarian violence breaking out in a manner similar to the civil war is a constant fear for some who feel regime change in Syria could tip the delicate balance.
Activist Abdul Khalak argued that, because politics and society are tightly interconnected, most politicians in Lebanon from across the political spectrum have remained largely silent on Syria. “Lebanon wants stability in Syria to make sure there is stability in Lebanon,” he said.
However, activists such as Saksouk argue the question of stability is irrelevant to a people’s call for change.
“A fear of what’s going to happening [exists] in every context,” she said. “I’m fearful of people in Egypt hijacking the revolution like in Libya, and I’m totally scared of what’s happening in Bahrain. But we have to be hopeful and we can’t ask people not to revolt because we’re scared about the future. That is exactly what these regimes want us to think.”
Back in the Sunflower Theatre, tears began to flow as filmmaker Hala Abdullah concludes her letter:
“Whoever says that the shaking of the Syrian regime will result in the shaking of the whole region and that any change will be dangerous for the whole region is right. A change in Syria will change the region, the decomposed, corrupted and oppressive region.
“A change in Syria will allow freedom to go on a promenade like a beautiful young woman. On a promenade, naked, and with no fear on the shore of the Mediterranean sea.”
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