Syria: dying illusions and a slow-burning fuse

AP News
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Posted: Jun 23, 2011 1:02 PM
Syria: dying illusions and a slow-burning fuse

Bayan al-Bayasi had been steadily growing disillusioned with her president over the years, but like most Syrians raised on fear and submission, she kept silent. When the Arab protest wave reached Syria, she even defended Bashar Assad to her friends, saying she was sure he was a reformer at heart.

It was her rising anger at the pictures of dead Syrians she saw every day on Arab satellite channels that drove the 22-year-old student of Arabic literature to join thousands of protesters packing a square on the Mediterranean coast. And behind that were the years of discrimination she says her Sunni Muslim family had put up with from the Alawite minority of Hafez Assad and the son who succeeded him in 2000.

In scores of interviews conducted by The Associated Press with protesters in the past two months, in Lebanon and Syria, by phone and in person, recurrent themes of complaint were corruption, nepotism and religious discrimination.

Al-Bayasi, whose highly religious, blue-collar family lives in the coastal village of Bayda, says the secular regime discriminated against devout Sunnis. "When I was a child, I remember crying over my uncles who spent 20 years in prison just because they were religious. They were just university students back then."

"My brother, like most graduates of Bayda, can't find a job, whereas students from neighboring (Alawite) villages are working in government institutions. Why?"

"I feel discriminated against because I wear the veil. When I walk to the university I get asked for my ID card, as if I'm a terrorist," she said in a phone interview from her home in Bayda.

Alawites make up around 12 percent of the population of 22 million. Sunnis are 70 percent.

Leaderless and only loosely organized, the Syrian protest movement erupted in mid-March, just two weeks after Assad boasted to The Wall Street Journal that he was "in touch" with his people and that Syria was immune to upheaval.

Indeed, even after the movement spread through the Arab world, many Syrians clung to the image of their president, a 46-year-old, British-trained ophthalmologist, as a modernizer held back by hard-liners.

Assad's regime may be shaken but he isn't on his way out yet. There have been large counter-demonstrations in his support and he retains a base of support among the business elite and middle classes who have benefited from his economic policies. Besides, in Syria's potentially volatile mosaic of sects and religions, Alawites and other minority groups fear being targeted if the Sunni Muslim majority takes over.

Initially, several Facebook calls for anti-government protests failed to bring people into the streets. But the lesson of the dictators overthrown in Tunisia and Egypt was sinking in. The spark came with the arrest of 15 teenagers who scrawled anti-government graffiti in the drought-stricken city of Daraa.

The deadly crackdown that followed the first protests shattered Assad's image and shifted the focus from calls for reform to calls for overthrowing the regime.

"Assad developed and modernized the country for himself and the interests of his sect," said Mustafa, a 23-year-old barber who fled to neighboring Lebanon a few weeks into the uprising.

Often, the way up in jobs and education, he said, is via the shabiha, a shadowy pro-government militia. "An uneducated shabiha can get whatever he wants, versus the most educated person in Syria."

The discrimination filters down to the small things, Mustafa said, giving only his first name during an interview, fearing reprisals, even in neighboring Lebanon where Syria has long held political sway. He gave as an example an old Sunni woman in his town of Banias who he said was paying four times more for electricity than an Alawite family.

The two largest cities, Damascus and Aleppo, have been largely quiet, but the uprising has touched all 14 provinces. And even though the almost daily bloodshed has pushed the death toll to more than 1,400, thousands of flag-waving Syrians gather at night in carnival-like rallies.

Ranging from peasants, students, and the unemployed to doctors and intellectuals, they sing, light candles and chant slogans denouncing Assad and his inner circle.

Fayez Sara, a pro-democracy writer in close touch with Syrian youth, says the protest movement is a reflection of a society 40 percent of which is under 20. "They represent Syrian society with its various identities and educational backgrounds," he said. "It would be wrong to lump them as more Sunni than anything else."

Protesters say it was the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt that stirred the sleeping giant in them.

Their world, said Mustafa, was shaped by the regime. "Then the effects of the drug began to wear off."

A carpet seller from Daraa said the children of his city were the "pin that popped the balloon." Speaking via Skype from Damascus after fleeing Daraa, and asking to be referred to by his nickname, Abou Haroun, he said the protests had to continue.

"Now we have smelled freedom," he said"and there's no turning back."