By Rania Abouzeid
The plainclothes not-so-secret police, or moukhabarat, arrived early, more than 40 minutes before the protest was due to start at 5 p.m. opposite the three-story Libyan Embassy in Damascus last Wednesday. They milled about in clumps of four or five, their black leather jackets and hard stares giving them away as much as the walkie talkies that some barely tried to conceal. They joined the dozens of black-clad policemen, many armed with AK-47s, lined up in front of the high white stone wall of the embassy. The anti-riot police, decked in olive green uniforms, were last on the scene. They assembled at several intersections along the street in upscale Abu Rummane, shields at the ready, the black paint on many of their wooden truncheons worn away.
It was a formidable show of force, clearly meant to intimidate. The security personnel easily outnumbered the small crowd of less than 200 that was prevented — by a human barricade of uniformed men — from gathering anywhere near the embassy to denounce violence against anti-government protesters in Libya. Instead, the demonstration moved to a nearby park some 100 meters away.
The Syrian government is taking few chances that it will be sucked into the revolutionary vortex in the Middle East. In Syria, the self-declared beating heart of pan-Arab nationalism, public displays of pan-Arab solidarity, even candlelight vigils, are tolerated to a degree but still considered a potential threat to one of the region’s most policed states, a country with an almost 50-year-old emergency law prohibiting unofficial gatherings.
So far, there’s been little anger on Damascus’s streets. Facebook calls for “days of rage” protests on February 4th and 5th fizzled. There are new rallying cries for March 4th and 5th, as well as the 15th, but few here expect them to fare any better. Several small, peaceful candlelight vigils have been held for protesters in Egypt, although one on Feb. 2 was dispersed violently according to Human Rights Watch, the 15 protesters beaten and accused of working for foreign agents by plainclothes thugs who identified themselves unashamedly to several protesters as “baltagiya,” Egyptian slang for paid goons. There was also an uneventful vigil in front of the Libyan embassy on Tuesday.
The most successful public outpouring of fury wasn’t directly linked to events in Tunisia, Egypt or Libya, although it is unlikely to have happened without them. On Feb. 19, the son of a store owner in Hariqa, near Souq Al-Hamidiyah in Damascus, was insulted and allegedly beaten by a traffic cop. Nothing unusual so far. But then hundreds, and by some accounts more than 1,000 people quickly massed into an angry crowd, chanting “the people will not be humiliated.” Within half an hour of the incident, the country’s powerful interior minister was on the scene, apologizing and promising that the alleged culprit would be reprimanded.
“The Syrian government fears that these demonstrations against Libya and others will plant the idea in people’s minds that demonstrations are possible” says Ammar Qurabi, head of the National Organization for Human Rights in Syria. “The regime fears that after a while these demonstrations might transform from supporting the people of other countries to protesting against the Syrian regime.”
Most of the chants repeated at Wednesday’s protest were specific to Libya and its president Muammar Gaddafi, phrases like “Gaddafi, you low-down, Libyan blood is not cheap” (it rhymes in Arabic) and “Green man — leave!” a reference to the president’s 1969 coup, or green revolution. Still, several like “You’re a traitor if you beat your people” could have just as easily applied to Syria.
“Okay you’ve made your point,” a mustachioed officer with a chestful of colorful honorary decorations told protesters who approached the cordon to request permission to get closer to the embassy. “If you don’t mind, retreat and go back to where you were.”
“If you don’t mind we want to walk,” replied a young woman in the front line.
The crowd sensed an opportunity, and picked up a new chant as it inched forward. “Peacefully” somebody shouted. “To the embassy” came the reply. The standoff continued for a few minutes, and then it got ugly.
The anti-riot police lowered their shields and surged forward as the regular police officers retreated in tandem. “As soon as they reached us they started hitting the people,” says Ahmad, a 20-something postgraduate student at Damascus University whose name has been changed to protect his identity.
People fell to the ground as the crowd frantically dispersed. “I tried to help one guy who was hurt and on the ground,” said Ahmad. “Unfortunately I was wearing a black suede jacket, he saw the jacket and thought I was a policeman and started screaming at me to leave him alone.”
The green-clad forces swarmed around the protesters, joined by their plainclothes counterparts who were picking up several young men and shoving them into a mini-bus parked off to the side. “They were swearing at us,” said Mazen, a protester in his 30s, “saying ‘you dogs, you sons of bitches.’”
Ahmad, who had found out about the protest on Facebook and talked a friend into coming, was soon snatched by two of the men in black leather jackets, but quickly grabbed hold of a nearby metal fence. “I was going to try and resist because I had no idea where they would take me,” he says. “They started beating me. One was grabbing my head, another twisting my arm behind my back, there were about three or four. I don’t know how much time passed, it felt like seven or eight minutes, maybe it was more, I don’t know.”
At first, Ahmad said he tried pleading with the security men to stop hurting him, but to no avail. He noticed a small group of people watching the melee. “I knew that they couldn’t approach and help because if they did they’d be beaten too and might be arrested. Still, I called out to them: ‘people, help us.’” Nobody dared come forward.
After a struggle, the young man with the long lashes and shy demeanor, was hurled into the mini-bus and told to keep his head down at the risk of further beatings. Fourteen young men were detained that day. “They were yelling at us as they drove us away. ‘You traitors,’ ‘you animals, you want to demonstrate?’ things like that.”
According to Ahmad, another detainee as well as several human rights activists who spoke to detainees, the group was taken to the Political Security division of the Interior Ministry. “I was thinking if this is the beating I get outside, in the open, what will they do to me once they get me inside?” Ahmad recalls.
He was surprised. The group was offered water, the use of the bathroom and the chance to wash up before being addressed by an officer who seemed to be in charge. “He didn’t introduce himself to us, but he said ‘We are all the sons of this country, we don’t doubt your nationalism or your love for your country but we would prefer that this episode not be repeated,’” Ahmad says.
Some of the young men, perhaps emboldened by the civil reception, got the nerve to speak, asking why they’d been called traitors and beaten up. The officer reportedly put it down to ignorance. “Somebody told him that we were showing our support for the Libyan people,” Ahmad says. “The officer replied, ‘we also support the Libyan people, but if demonstrations were useful, we’d all take part in them, but they’re not.”
The group was politely released several hours later, after their names and contact information were noted and their mobile phones returned. But rather than frighten him, Ahmad says the detention (his first) has emboldened him. Still, he has taken precautions, changing his phone number and buying a new phone “in case they planted something in it.”
“I overcame my fear before I decided to go down to the streets. As soon as I was on the streets, that was it, there was no point in worrying about being afraid,’ he says. “I think the main reason for all of these demonstrations across the Arab world was the economic situation. If that’s the case, then our economy is really bad too. I will continue to demonstrate, but I don’t know where it will lead me.” His future, like many others, will depend on whether Syria will tolerate small acts of dissent, or if it will utilize the iron fist it has honed over decades.