All it takes is three or four fida’iyyin [persons ready to sacrifice for a cause] in every mosque chanting slogans after the end of prayer. It also depends on many factors. For example, in the coastal city of Banyas, the residents are all very familiar with each other, and it is easy to distinguish “strangers” or “collaborators/spies.” It was enough for one young man, Anas al-Shaghry—who enjoyed everyone’s respect and possessed a certain level of charisma despite his young age (twenty-three years)—to start praising the omnipotence of God and to chanting slogans for the rest of the congregants in the mosque to follow him. Thereafter, most of the city’s residents would follow him. This was particularly the case in the beginning of the revolution, when “beginning” itself required a great deal of nerve and risk taking. Anas is today still under arrest, a month after the invasion of the city and the harassment and torture of its residents. All the young men in the city miss Anas dearly, and they still connect any discussion about the city with him, his courage, his role in the protest movement and in spreading a spirit of hope and optimism among everyone.
Anas’ absence, given that he represents the youth current as well as the absences of the sheikh Hasan ‘Ayrouti, who represents the religious current (who went underground to escape pursuit), has reduced the city’s activism by half. Banyas was one of the more active cities and a frontrunner in mobilizing massive demonstrations and chanting slogans that raised the ceiling of demands. Today, the mosque from which the demonstrations originated is under siege, sealed off by machine-guns as well as security and army personnel. The cumulative effect of the heavy-handed security and military presence, as well as the absence of protest leaders, was to marginally constrain the activism of the city and its inhabitants. But they failed to bury this activism alive.
The leaders of the protests do not play similar roles in all regions, especially in the big cities, where it is difficult to distinguish the “son of the city” from “strangers.” This is the case, for instance, in Damascus the capital, where organizing and starting a demonstration are extremely difficult and challenging. A young man from one of the local coordination committees there said that no two people know each other, especially in the big mosques. Some believe that those who start praising the omnipotence of God [to signal the onset of a demonstration] are in fact security agents who are attempting to bait protestors. Sometimes, some of those present will wait for the number of participants in the demonstration to grow before they think of joining, which is an effective strategy to contain the demonstration before it even begins. In other instances, loyalists to the regime begin supressing the protestors by beating them and holding them captive until the security forces arrive to the scene.
The bottom line is that someone has to begin, and beginning is laced with danger, especially in areas with heavy security presence. In the first attempts at demonstration which took off from the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, video clips showed dozens of security personnel and shabbiha [thugs for hire loyal to the regime], beating young protestors in the mosque’s yard. They then dragged them on the floor leaving a trail of blood behind them as they approached the security cars that would deliver them to the unknown. I asked one of those young protestors about when they first started to chant, about the bravery anyone needs to start chanting “freedom, freedom.” My friend did not give me an answer. He said, “We just start. We do not think of what is to come. We believe that dozens, hundreds or even thousands might join us.” He continued,
In these beginning moments, there are some indicators of success and failure. Certainly, there is prior organizing for these attempts; they are not spontaneous like those that take place on Fridays in cities where tens of thousands take to the streets. The young men arrive at the specified time. Some go to prayer for the sole purpose of demonstrating; they are not religious, and in some cases, not even Muslims. In the first moments, others may answer the call to participate, or both the fear and security presence conquer the attempt. But as soon as the demonstration ignites: you are among all these “infiltrators,” the voices are roaring, you imagine your body carried by the slogans, and you visualize all the walls of fear and the markers of humiliation falling. You are there, and nothing can push you out; not the security personnel, not the shabbiha, not the snipers’ bullets, and not the tank. You feel that you will stand there tall, continuing your hysterical chanting, because for the first time you can hear your voice. You will stay there even as you wrestle with a bullet in the heart or the head, and your body is shown bleeding in a video scene, carried like a rag by dozens of distressed and anguished young men, all shouting allah u akbar [God is Great], while asking you repeatedly to utter al-shahadh. You are still hesitant, not for any other reason than that in your mind you are still standing right there chanting for freedom.
Another friend, and demonstration leader in al-Zabadani, area, said that the overwhelming feeling in those moments, when they were merely fifty “infiltrators,” was fear [“my heart was always between my feet”]. He continues,
In the beginning, fifty of us would enter the mosque and spread out. When our friends started chanting slogans, we would follow gradually to create the impression that the prayers are responsive, and that the entire mosque has risen. But today, with daily massive demonstrations, I feel that I truly own myself and my freedom; sometimes I turn to my friends in the demonstration and kiss them as we exchange congratulations.
This same friend tells me that a demonstration has three fundamental elements: mobilization, media and communication, and security.
Media and communication is the most difficult. We brought the speakers from Madaya, connected them to a “Trex” battery, and mounted them on a car. Slogans are decided upon in planning meetings. We bring the white cotton cloth for the banners from Damascus; the calligrapher is another “infiltrator.” We often borrow our slogans from videos we watch of other demonstrations. At the end of the prayer, when our eyes and spies determine that the security situation is appropriate to start the demonstration, it takes off in stages. As soon as the chanting of slogans begins, hundred immediately join.
I asked my friend if he used to pray before the revolution. He said that he used to go to the Friday prayer occasionally. But today, he never skips a prayer. He meant to say that he never skips a demonstration.
These young protestors are very fond of describing these moments in great detail, especially since planning for them takes hours and nights of discussions, meetings, and controversies. The frameworks that emerged, such as the “Coalition of the Youth of the Revolution” and the “Coordinators Union” to assemble the groups scattered in the field under one umbrella of coordination and unified vision, provided the youth much more gains in moral support than what they have achieved operationally.
The “local coordination committees” were the first of these frameworks. They began at meetings of young activists in a number of cities, who were joined by human rights activists. Soon, these committees evolved to produce a media office to follow events as well as communicate with eyewitnesses and the different media outlets. Most of those who form the media office are activists in exile, and volunteers without any prior experience in media. Nevertheless, and in record time, the office became a distinguished source of news on the revolution. A young woman, active in the media office says,
In the beginning, none of the eyewitnesses and activists that we communicated with knew anything about the committees. With time, we start discussing the matter, especially when the media repeatedly mentioned the committees. Then, these activists spontaneously considered themselves members, and contributed their insights on activities and strategies; they felt they operated under the committee’s umbrella. The feeling that there is someone who speaks in their name and expresses their positions was the most important to them; because irrespective of the committees, the protests on the ground continued.
Coordinated operations, including agreements on slogans, chants and the like, are planned in the offices of the committees. It is still the case that the most difficult and complicated coordination is in Damascus’ committees. Contrary to other cities in which demonstrations have become routine, Damascus’ committees require thorough discussion, planning, and some souls who are willing to sacrifice themselves. The representatives debate positions and the latest political developments. Most of these young men and women have no prior political experiences. They can engage in long discussions that reflect social and ideological differences: some defend Sheikh al-‘Arour while others condemn and accuse him of exploiting the revolution. But they never disagree on what they consider to be the fundamentals: freedom and toppling the regime.
In all cases, the young men and women on the ground appear more relaxed and less nervous than those of us observing the events on computer and television screens, or hearing the stories from “eyewitnesses” or their friends active in the field. Perhaps they feel they own the street. Even in areas under the siege of tanks and snipers, these young men steal moments in the night to demonstrate and chant slogans. They prove that they still own the ground that they liberated from fear. And although the doors are not yet wide open, it is no longer possible to ever lock them again.