Sawt al Hurriya – remembering the Arab Spring

Ten years ago, people across the Middle East and North Africa rose up in protest against their corrupt, autocratic and repressive rulers, demanding freedom and democracy. Tyrants were toppled or feared that power was being torn from their grasp as millions of demonstrators surged through the streets, chanting that “the people demand the fall of the regime”.  

Myth and memory often embellish the stories and the glories of oppressed people rising up against the power, but when we recall these oft-times forlorn hopes, from Spartacus to the Arab Spring, it is difficult to imagine ourselves, in our relatively comfortable, free and democratic countries, in the position of people desperate and passionate enough to risk life and limb and to face the terrible consequences of heroic failure.  We can but sense, vicariously, the ache and the urge behind Lord Byron’s passionate couplet:

Yet, Freedom! thy banner, torn, but flying,
Streams like the thunder-storm against the wind.

As Patrick Cockburn writes in a gloomy opinion piece in The Independent,

“There was nothing phoney about this mass yearning for liberty and social justice. Vast numbers of disenfranchised people briefly believed that they could overthrow dictatorships, both republican and monarchical. But …the dream of a better tomorrow expressed by herself and millions during the Arab Spring in 2011 was to be brutally dispelled as the old regimes counter-attacked. Crueler and more repressive than ever, they reasserted themselves, or where they had fallen, they were replaced by chaotic violence and foreign military intervention.

… none of the kleptocratic powers-that-be intended to give up without a fight. They soon recovered their nerve and struck back with unrestrained violence. … across the Middle East and North Africa, rulers used mass imprisonment, routine torture and summary executions to crush dissent. Repression not only affected places where the Arab Spring had been at its peak, but spread throughout the region, which is home to 600 million people, as frightened rulers sought to stamp out the slightest hint of dissent in case it could become a threat to their regimes …

… Could could the Arab Spring have ever succeeded against such odds? The question is highly relevant today because oppression by regimes, aptly described as “looting machines” on behalf of a tiny elite, is no less than it was in 2011. Even more people now live crammed into houses with raw sewage running down the middle of the street outside while their rulers loll on yachts anchored offshore.”

We published the following piece just over a year ago. Little has changed since them – if anything, with the world distracted by the pandemic and the US and its allies – and also  adversaries, indifferent if not complicit, the situation has gotten much worse. 

In Egypt, the grip of Egyptian strongman Abd al Fattah al Sisi has tightened. Civil wars rage still in Yemen and Libya exacerbated by outside interference (see Tangled – a cynic’s guide to alliances in the Middle East). Syria’s misery continues with the regime almost but not quite on the verge of victory, and the Kurds betrayed by the Trump administration and defeated by Turkish forces and their Syrian mercenaries. Lebanon, which avoided the fate of other Arab countries a decade ago, although enduring the influx of millions of Syrian refugees, in the wake of a winter of protests, economic meltdown and political paralysis, and the explosive destruction of Beirut’s port and environs, is on the edge of an abyss (see our Lebanon’s WhatsApp Intifada).

All is, as Kent lamented in King Lear, “cheerless, dark and deadly”.

Sawt al Hurriya – Egypt’s slow-burning fuse

In That Howling Infinite, 9th October 2019

Déjà vu

Last month saw the death in exile of former Tunisian strongman, dictator and kleptocrat Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, and the resurgence on 20th September of Friday street protests in Cairo and smaller Egyptian towns – and around the world – against the corruption and oppression of Egyptian strongman Abd al Fattah al Sisi and his military cronies. Predictably, some three thousand people have been arrested – protesters, prominent activists, journalists, lawyers and politicians, including Islamist and leftists alike and dissenters in general. These have now been added to the tens of thousands that have already been incarcerated on conspiracy and terrorism charges, largely without trial.

it appears to be an indiscriminate backlash, The Independent’s Bel True writes: “… according to rights groups and people I’ve interviewed, among those haphazardly rounded up are children who were out buying school uniform, tourists holidaying in Cairo, human rights lawyers going to court to represent clients, confused bystanders, young men popping out for evening strolls, visiting foreign students and street vendors. All are now swallowed up in Egypt’s notoriously opaque justice system”.

The protests have for the moment been contained, but with a third of Egypt’s population below the poverty line (and that’s a government figure – it’s very likely much higher), about one-third of the total under age 14 and sixty percent under 30, one can’t help feeling a hint of déjà vu. It is hard to keep one hundred million people down with just a strong arm up your sleeve.

Meeting with al Sisi in New York, US President Donald Trump praised him for restoring order to Egypt. At this year’s G7 summit in Biarritz, Trump had referred to the Egyptian president  as his “favourite dictator”, a comment that was met with stunned silence from American and Egyptian officials. Boris Johnson has likewise found a friend in Al Sisi. Tru quotes a British-Egyptian filmmaker: “There is a misconception that Sisi is a partner in stability which allows governments, particularly in Europe, to turn a blind eye to his behaviour: as long he keeps buying weapons and submarines and power stations”.

The Voice of Freedom

In our relatively comfortable, free and democratic countries, it is difficult to put ourselves in the position of people desperate and passionate enough to risk life and limb and to face the terrible consequences of potentially heroic failure. We can but sense, vicariously, the ache and the urge behind Lord Byron’s passionate couplet:

Yet, Freedom! thy banner, torn, but flying,
Streams like the thunder-storm against the wind.

The courage of the of the Egyptian protesters – for brave they are indeed For having experienced six years of brutal and vengeful military regime, they are fully aware of the consequences of their actions – reminded me of an exhilarating song and video created by a young Egyptian and his friends, celebrating the demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square that precipitated the fall of practically president-for-life Hosni Mubarak eight years ago last February. Sawt Al Huriya (The Voice of Freedom)), went viral on YouTube after its release on 11 February 2011, the day before Mubarak’s departure.

Bur first, let us revisit those heady days and the doleful years that followed.

Remembering Tahrir Square

The self-immolation in December 20111 of young Tunisian Muhammed Bouazizi was the catalyst for the pent-up popular outrage that led to the heady days of January and February 2011, with the green of the Arab Spring fresh sprung from the soil of the economic and political bankruptcy of the Arab Middle East.

The fall of longtime dictators Zine el Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, was precipitated by the yearning of their oppressed and impoverished people, and particularly the young, for freedom, justice, dignity and employment, and an end to endemic corruption, nepotism and brutality; for a society in which there were jobs and a decent living, where you could save up enough money to get married, where you didn’t have to bribe corrupt officials for everything from traffic fines to court decisions to business permits to jobs, where you could be arbitrarily arrested and/or beaten up or worse for speaking out against the government, the system, or just…speaking out.

Egypt had only known a handful of military rulers until Mubarak was ousted in February 2011, following weeks of protests centred around Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

When elections were held a year later, Mohammed Morsi, standing for the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, emerged as president. After decades of repression of the Muslim Brotherhood under Egypt’s military rulers, Morsi promised a moderate agenda that would deliver an “Egyptian renaissance with an Islamic foundation”.

A year later, he was gone, replaced by Abd al Fatah al Sisi, his own defense minister, who threw him in jail and cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood, putting hundreds of its members in front of courts that sentenced them to death in mass trials. 

His year in office was turbulent, however, as Egypt’s competing forces struggled over the direction the country should go in. Opponents had accused him of trying to impose an Islamist agenda on the country and mass protests began on the anniversary of his election. After more than a week of spreading protests and violence and talks with Sisi in which Morsi reportedly was prepared to make concessions to the opposition, the army announced it had removed Morsi and taken control on 3rd July 2013.

Morsi’s supporters had gathered in Cairo’s Rabaa Square before he was toppled, and there they remained, demanding he be reinstated. On 13th August, the army moved in, clearing the square by force. More than a thousand people are believed to have been killed in the worst massacre of peaceful demonstrators since China’s Tienanmen Square in 1999.

Whereas Hosni Mubarak died in pampered confinement, Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s only elected president, was held in solitary confinement for six years, and died in June 2019 after collapsing in a courtroom, the place where his face has been seen most often, behind metal bars, since he was removed from power. See: Nowhere Man – the lonesome death of Mohamed Morsi 

Morsi’s fall led to a military regime more brutal and corrupt than any that preceded it, and with full support from the US and it’s European allies, and of the Egyptian elites, has consolidated the rise and rise of the new pharoah. Al Sisi and other US supporterd and armed Arab autocrats have transformed an already volatile Middle East into a powder keg. 

Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s only elected president died  in June 2019 after collapsing in a courtroom, the place where his face has been seen most often, behind metal bars, since he was removed from power in 2013

The Arab Spring failed because its youthful vanguard were not prepared for the next stage. In reality, it only occurred in Tunisia and in Egypt. Like the Occupy movement in the west, it lacked coherent leadership and purpose, and in the end, unity against the forces of the establishment that were mobilized against them. But the young, inexperienced idealists were no match for the experienced activists of the Muslim brotherhood, the apparatchiks of the established political parties, and the cadres of the mukhabarat, the military, and the “deep state” that were able to hijack and subvert the revolution.

The Arab Spring was effectively over once the Tunisian and Egyptian dictators had departed and the counterrevolution had already begun – in Egypt particularly with the electoral success and later putsch of the Ikhwan, and finally the “tamarrud” or “rising” of the fearful and conservative middle classes that ushered in military rule.

 The great unravelling

The Tunisian and Egyptian risings were followed rapidly by the outbreak of insurrections in Bahrain, Syria, Libya, and Yemen. These were more sectarian and tribal based, with less reliance on social media, and while media chose to consider them as part of the Arab Spring, in reality, they were not.

This was transformed into a long, hard and bloody winter., and eight years on, the wars of the Arab Dissolution have dragged the world into its vortex. Great Power politics and proxy wars are taxing intellectual and actual imaginations.

And they led to the virtual destruction and disintegration of these countries, the ongoing dismantling of Iraq, and an expanding arc of violence, bloodshed and repression from Morocco to Pakistan, extending southwards across Africa into Mali, Nigeria, Somalia and the Sudans, and their unfortunate neighbours.

Tunisia alone has held on to some of the gains of its “Spring”, but there it is often a case of two steps forward one step back. Nevertheless, the country is holding ostensibly free and fair elections as I write. Elsewhere, the misnamed Arab Spring entered into a cycle of protest and repression little different from earlier unrest, and also, as in the past, foreign intervention. And the story has still a long way to run…

Civil war and economic desperation propelled millions of refugees across the Mediterranean and the Aegean into Europe, threatening the unity and stability of the European Union. Islamic fundamentalism filled the vacuum created by crumbling dictatorships and vanishing borders, unleashing atavistic, uncompromising and vicious Jihadis against their own people and coreligionists, and onto the streets of cities as far apart as Paris, Istanbul, Beirut, Djakarta, and Mogadishu. In Syria particularly, but also in Iraq, Libya and Yemen, outsiders intervened to further complicate the chaos, rendering an early end to these wars a forlorn hope.

All is, as Kent lamented in King Lear, “cheerless, dark and deadly”.

See also in In That Howling Infinite, A Middle East Miscellany

 The voice of freedom

Against this a back-drop of the revolution despoiled, hijacked, and betrayed, I share the song created by Seed Mostafa Fahmy and his friends and the video they shot in Tahrir Square during the demonstrations. “In every street in my country, the voice of Freedom is calling!”

Sawt al Hurriya

I  went (to go protest), vowing not to turn back.
I wrote, in my blood, on every street.
We raised our voices, until those who had not heard us could.
We broke down all barriers.

Our weapon was our dreams.
And we could see tomorrow clearly.
We have been waiting for so long.
Searching, and never finding our place.

In every street in my country,
The voice of freedom is calling.

We raised our heads high into the sky.
And hunger no longer mattered to us.
Most important are our rights,
And that with our blood we write our history.

If you are one of us,
Stop your chattering,
Stop telling us to leave and abandon our dream.
Stop saying the word, “I”.

In every street in my country,
The voice of freedom is calling.

Brown Egyptian hands
Are outstretched amidst the roars (of the crowd)
Breaking barriers.

Our innovative youth
Have turned autumn into spring.

They have achieved the miraculous.
They have resurrected the dead,
Saying: “Kill me,
But my death will not resurrect YOUR country.
I am writing, with my blood,
A new life for my nation.
Is this my blood, or is it spring?
In color, they are both green.”

I do not know whether I smile from happiness,
Or from my sadnesses.
In every street in my country,

The voice of freedom is calling.

(Translated by Egyptian Seed Mariam Bazeed.)

Sout al-Hurriya
صوت الحرية

Nezelt We qolt ana mesh rage3
نزلت وقلت انا مش راجع
I went out and said I would not return

we katabt bedamy fe kol share3
وكتبت بدمي في كل شارع
And I wrote on each street with my blood

Sama3na elli makansh same3
سمعنا اللي ما كمش سامع
We heard what was not heard

we etkasaret kol el mawane3
واتكسرت كل الموانع
And all the barriers were broken

sela7na kan a7lamna
سلحنا كان احلامنا
Our weapon was our dreams

we bokra wade7 odamna
وبكره واضح قدمنا
And tomorrow was clear ahead of us

men zaman benestana
من زمان بنستني
We’ve been waiting a long time

bendawar mesh la2een makkanna
بندور مش لاقيين مكانا
Seeking but not finding our place

fe kol share3 fe beladi
في كل شارع في بلادي
In every street of my country

sout el houriya beynadi
صوت الحريه بينادي
the voice of freedom is calling
……………….
rafa3na rasna fe elsama
رفعنا رسنا في السما
We lifted our heads high (in the sky)

we elgo3 maba2ash beyhemna
والجوع مبقاش بيهمنا
And hunger no longer bothered us

aham 7aga 7a2ena
اهم حاجه حقنا
What’s most important are our rights

wenekteb tarekhna be damena
ونكتب تاريخنا بدمنا
And to write our history with our blood

law kont wa7ed mnena
لو كنت واحد مننا
If you were really one of us

balash terghi we t2ol lena
بلاش ترغي وتقولنا
don’t blather and telling us

nemshy we neseeb &elmna
نمشي ونسيب حلمنا
To leave and abandon our dream

we batal te2ol kelmt ana
وبطل تقول كلمه انا
And stop saying the word “I”

fe kol share3 fe beladi
في كل شارع في بلادي
In every street of my country

Sout El-7ouria beynadi
صوت الحريه بينادي
the sound of freedom is calling
……………..
spoken poetry at 2:14:
ايادي مصريه سمره
Dark Egyptian arms
ليها في التمييز
knows how to characterize (against discrimination)
ممدوده وسط الذئير
reached out through the roar
بتكسر البراويز
breaking the frams
طلع الشباب البديع
the creative youth came out
قلبوا خريفها ربيع
turned it’s fall into spring
وحققوا المعجزه
and achieved the miracle
صحوا القتيل من القتل
awakinging the murdered from death
اقتلني , اقتلني
kill me , kill me
قتلي ما هايقيم دولتك تاني
killing me is not going to build up you regime again
بكتب بدمي حياه تانيه لوطاني
I am writing with my blood another life for my country
دمي ده ولا الربيع
is this my blood or the spring
اللي اتنين بلون اخضر
both seem green
وببتسم من سعادتي ولا أحزاني
am i smiling from my happiness or my sadness
في كل شارع في بلادي
In every street of my country
صوت الحريه بينادي
the sound of freedom is calling
في كل شارع في بلادي
In every street of my country
صوت الحريه بينادي
the sound of freedom is calling

Lebanon’s WhatApp intifada

We know more or less what constitutes Lebanon, but we don’t know how it works. If we had to send into space a country capable of containing the world, Lebanon would fit the bill. If we had to send one that did not contain what is needed to make a real country, Lebanon would also be the answer.   Lebanese author Dominique Eddé

The sparks which that lit the fire of the current protests in Lebanon were an increase in the price of using the WhatApp messaging, which many Lebanese preferred to the high rates charged by private telcos, and destructive wildfires on the iconic Chouf mountains which could not be tamed because the authorities had grounded the firefighting helicopters for want of routine maintenance. But the root of Lebanon’s autumn of discontent go much deeper.

Almost thirty years of stagnation characterized by high unemployment, particularly among the youth, increasing inequality, limited opportunities, rampant corruption, meagre infrastructural reform, and decaying administrative, social, and educational institutions, are bringing young and old from across Lebanon’s many confessional fault lines and clan and party loyalties (often the same thing) onto the streets of major major towns all over this tiny but divided country. They accuse the government being preoccupied with enriching its members and their supporters and neglecting the needs of ordinary Lebanese. See longtime Beirut resident Robert Fisk’s article in The Independent: I don’t blame the Lebanese rioters setting Beirut alight – they are hungry, poor and furious; and Beiruti journalist Samah Hadid’s piece: The protests in Lebanon have bridged social divides – now everyone is fighting against the corrupt elite.

There are many left-wing social media tropes that are blinkered by an obsession with theories of US, Saudi and Israeli conspiracy, accusing them of manipulating the Lebanese street to bring down the Hariri government. They are letting Lebanon’s corrupt and dysfunctional sectarian political establishment off the hook.

Other media are talking excitedly about this being Lebanon’s version of the 2011 Arab Spring – as illustrated by our featured image and the lass sporting the word thawra or ’revolution’’ on her tee shirt – a sure way of drawing the invidious “evil eye’ to the the Lebanese’ peaceful (so far) and convivial (again, so far) intifada, for we all know how the Arab Spring ended. And none have yet allocated this putative revolution a colour like those that popped up from Kiev to Kazakhstan in the early years of this century (the ‘Cedar Revolution’, anyone?). Which is probably wise, because we all should have learned by now to avoid the trap of false analogies.

The party atmosphere and the images of unity among Lebanese of all classes, clans and confessions can be deceptive. Three decades since the end of a brutal civil war, which left over 120,000 propel dead, and tens of thousands “disappeared”, and almost eighty years since the National Pact of 1943 laid the foundations for Lebanon’s shaky and perennially challenged multi-faith political dispensation, divisions run deep. Not only traditional clan and sectarian lines, and the inequitable distribution of power and wealth, but also, the deliberately indeterminate status of upwards of 170,000 Palestinians (the refugees of the 1948 war and their descendants), and upwards of 1.5 million increasingly unwelcome Syrian refugees.

There are many amongst the party faithful and their never quite disarmed militias who at a signal from above, could let lose the dogs of violence with infiltrated provocateurs or strategically placed snipers – we’ve seen this before, in Sarajevo and Kyiv, in Tahrir Square, and in Syria in 2011 when demonstrations had yet to morph into violence and civil war. This it is already happening in Iraq, where security forces and lone wolves affiliated with Iranian interests are alleged to have fired on protesters.

The Lebanese National Army and police force have been ordered to disperse the protesters, but as yet, are merely holding the line. Many on the streets are no doubt anxious about the role the powerful Shia Hezbollah will chose to play in the coming days. Its reclusive but undisputed leader Hasan Nasrallah has declared that the status quo should stand, that the government should hold firm because it would taken too long to form a new one, thus delaying the reforms that the demonstrators are demanding. Hezbollah, with thirteen seats in the parliament and three cabinet posts, is the most powerful political and military and an army stronger than the national army, and whilst bankrolled by Iran, is itself part of the establishment that the protesters and one of the parties that many protesters are demonstrating against – as part of the problem and not of the solution.

Calling for a non-confessional government of technocrats appointed on the basis of experience and not patronage and clan connections, the protesters paint Hezbollah with the same brush as the the Christian Phalange, the Shia Amal, and other self serving confessional parties – quite apart from its constant provocation of what many see as needless confrontation with Israel (and its western backers), and its deep involvement in the Syrian civil war.  Whilst there is no doubt a traditional prejudice towards the country’s Shia minority, many Lebanese resent Hezbollah for exposing their country to potential destruction at the hands of Israel, and for dragging it into the conflict in Syria, a country and a regime for which for which they retain bad memories and harbour little affection.

Meanwhile, there have been indications that Hezbollah’s hitherto uncritical mass following in the south is fraying somewhat as economic hardship bites, tarnishing even Hezbollah’s credentials as a provider of social and educational services. But there are now reports from Beirut of Hezbollah supporters attacking protesters. Dressed in black and wielding batons, they are chanting that their boss is not like the others, whilst he has declared that the protests are being fomented by his enemies (it’s all about him!) and that it could reignite the fifteen year long civil war that ended in 1990. There is also talk of supporters of Hsiang part Amal and of Hezbollah coming to break up the demonstrations. Ominously, they are being called ‘shabiya’, Arabic for ‘ghosts’, and also the name of the murderous Alawi militias unleashed by the regime in Syria. 

There is also talk of supporters of Hsiang part Amal and of Hezbollah coming to break up the demonstrations. Ominously, they are being called ‘shabiya’, Arabic for ‘ghosts’, and also the name of the murderous Alawi militias unleashed by the regime in Syria. 

As I watch from afar, I am reminded of the words of celebrated Lebanon’s national poet Khalil Gibran: “Pity the nation that raises not its voice save when it walks in a funeral, boasts not except among its ruins, and will rebel not save when its neck is laid between the sword and the block”.

 © Paul Hemphill 2019.  All rights reserved


For more on the Lebanese civil war, and the full text of Gibran’s poem, see In That Howling Infinites Pity the Nation

For other posts about the Middle East, see: A Middle East Miscellany

Afterword:  Lebanon’s  huge smallness

In a fascinating article in the New York Review of Books, The Compatibility of Opposites, Lebanese author and novelist Dominique Eddé  writes one of the most profound and insightful descriptions of her homeland, that you could ever read  – a portrait of what I would describe as Lebanon’s  huge smallness (after Walt Whitman’s  “I am small, I contain multitudes”):

“Every Lebanese invents a personal Lebanon for a country that does not exist”.
A Lebanese author writes … Lebanon is both the center of the world and a dead end. The broken little village of a planet that is sick. Chaotic, polluted, and corrupt beyond belief, this is a country where beauty and human warmth constantly find ways to break through” …All extremes and all clumped together. It is like a magician’s trick handkerchief: you simply unfold one end and it will stretch ad infinitum. Individual memories are rich and compelling while the collective memory is nowhere to be found, impossible to recount”.

She continues: “It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that in Lebanon, everything can be explained and nothing can be understood. All the decisions made for this country are made behind its back, and all that happens here epitomizes the rest of the world: the mix of populations, the vulnerability of borders, political lying at its worst, building the present by destroying the past, an utter lack of perspective … “With a total population of 4 to 5 million, Lebanon is home to 1.5 million refugees. Between a quarter and a third of the population is foreign: Palestinians displaced by the wars of 1948 and 1967, Syrians and Palestinians fleeing repression and the war in Syria that began in 2011, Iraqis displaced by the two Gulf wars. Lebanon’s degree of absorption and hospitality is almost proportional to its degree of intolerance. Ambivalence is everywhere, in everything”.

Postscript – the autumn of our discontent 

Last Sunday, a million people marched in London, demanding a second people’s vote on Brexit. In Britain and in Australia environmental protesters are disrupting city centres and enraging commuters. The “law and order brigade” in parliaments, press and social media have called down fire and brimstone upon climate activists’ heads, one television host going so far as suggesting that they should be used as speed bumps.

But in far-away places around the globe, popular protests are far from peaceful.

In Lebanon, Iraq, Ecuador and Chile, people of all ages, genders and political affiliations are on the streets. There are many common themes, including demands for education and employment, and an end to the incompetence, self-interest and corruption of ruling elites. Bolivians are on th streets protesting the ruction of its president. In Spain, Catalans protest jail sentences handed down to their separatist parliamentary leaders. And in Hong Kong, there is no let up to months of demonstrations against China’s relentless chipping away at the city’s tenuous autonomy. Young Indonesians have been on the streets of Jakarta protesting new laws that undermine civil rights and endemic corruption amongst elites, and in Indonesian-occupied Papua, calls for independence have been met with predictable brutality.
In most of these each these outbreaks of popular outrage and protest, the authorities are responding with heavy handed police tactics, tear gas, rubber bullets, water cannon, and mass arrests, and in some instances, deadly live fire.
See The Washington Post’s  The Common Factor Uniting Protesters … ; an Patrick Cockburn’s insightful analysis of the changing nature of the Middle East’s many ethnic and sectarian conflicts: Mass protests against corruption and deprivation are replacing an era of sectarian civil wars. 

The Children of the Revolution

I finally broke into the prison,
I found my place in the chain.
Even damnation is poisoned with rainbows,
all the brave young men
they’re waiting now to see a signal
which some killer will be lighting for pay.
Into this furnace I ask you now to venture,
you whom I cannot betray.
Leonard Cohen, The Old Revolution

The Syrian civil war broke lose in March 2011, two months after the events in Tahrir Square, and one month after the fall of Mubarak.

Amidst the tumult and media hype of the Arab Spring, it was as if the distant drums had suddenly hit the volume switch. In the dusty border town  of Dara’a, just north of Jordan, local kids wrote on a wall: “The people want the regime to fall”. The words had been repeated from Tunisia to Egypt, from Yemen to Bahrain. It was the cry of the revolution. The local governor decided to come down hard. The young people, all under 17, were thrown in jail. The punishment stunned the town, and suddenly, Syria, progressive, diverse, proud, beautiful, but authoritarian Syria greeted the misnamed Arab Spring.

The young men’s families and friends weren’t having any of it. It is said that in broad daylight, dozens of young men pelted a poster of a smiling President Bashar Assad; a statue of the Bashar’s  late father and predecessor Hafiz Assad was demolished; and official buildings, including the HQ of ruling Ba’ath Party’ and the governor’s office, were destroyed. “There is no fear, there is no fear, after today there is no fear!” hundreds of men chanted in shaky mobile-phone footage.

Over that weekend, security forces opened fire on marchers. This was the regime’s well tried negotiating technique. But Assad responded immediately, sending a high-ranking delegation to deliver his condolences to the families of the dead. The governor was sacked, and the boys released.

So far, so “I mentioned the war but I think I got away with it” But the die had been cast. The demonstrators made demands the regime was unwilling or unable to meet. And the rest is tragedy.

I am not about to retell the story of the Syrian revolution. It is still being written, and as yet, there is no ending. Only more blood. As I write, well over three hundred thousand souls have perished (soon, it will overtake the butchers bill of the Spanish and American Civil Wars), and tens of thousands have disappeared into prisons and oubliez. Millions have been displaced within the country; millions have sought shelter in neighbouring countries; and at least eight hundred thousand have taken to the roads of Central Europe.

But I will quixotically hark back to just before events reached the fork in the road, to when there was an outside chance that Syria could avoid the chaos and carnage that was besetting other children of an Arab Spring that was turning into a bitter winter.

Back to the days before The Fall when pundits were asking whether Bashar would be Hammersmith Man, reflecting his former career as a successful ophthalmologist in London, and his glamorous, cosmopolitan, former merchant banker wife, or Hama Man, recalling his father’s crackdown on an Islamist rising in Hama in 1982, in which uncounted tens of thousand are believed to have perished. We discovered very soon whom he was destined to become.

To the days before The Fall, before the revolution became weaponized and islamized, and demonstrators danced together in the streets, earning the intifada the short lived sobriquet ‘the Dabke Revolution’, named for the circle folk dance popular throughout the Middle East and the Balkans.

image

The days before the slaughters began. First by the forces of regime, led by Bashar’s brutal brother Maher and his notorious Fourth Armoured Division. Then by the thuggish Alawi militia – the Shabiha, or “ghosts” or “shadows”, a double-edged meaning alluding to their underworld origin and methods, and also to the fact that they literally turned people into ghosts. And then, in reciprocal ferocity, by opposition militias that grew and proliferated, fought and died, divided, and divided again, and embraced a jihadi creed, sowing the dragon’s teeth that evolved into Jabhat an Nusra and Da’esh.

The days before it became too dangerous to gather on the streets, when men, women and children would parade in public places, waving the flag of the old Syria, the one that flew before the Assad clan seized power in 1966. Canny camera men could take media-friendly shots of photogenic little girls in face makeup looking sad, vulnerable and defiant. When the picture that is the featured image of this blog was first published in Al Jazeera in early 2011, I was both enchanted and inspired. I immediately started using it, with acknowledgements, in my publications and postings. When more and more of these images appeared, I used them too. But I was becoming a tad suspicious. The lasses looked too clean, too cute, and indeed, many actually looked alike. The photographers’ daughters, perhaps, or those of friends. Were they for-real or where they posed? I guess I will never find out.

Needlessly to say, as the rebellion morphed into harrowing civil war, such images disappeared, and in their place, we saw destruction and carnage, and the broken bodies of little girls and boys slain by bomb and bullet, hardship and hunger. Now, as families were forced to abandon their homes and make their way to the borders, and thence, into Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, and finally, into Europe, we see children staggering on dusty roads, carried piggy back by exhausted fathers, pushed in strollers, scorched by the sun, soaked by the rain, and frozen by the snow. And we see little Aylan on his golden beach, a Kurdish toddler now a symbol of all the drowned babies of the Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea.

Photogenic children no more. Just victims, survivors, lost souls.

I fought in the old revolution
on the side of the ghost and the King.
Of course I was very young
and I thought that we were winning;
I can’t pretend I still feel very much like singing
as they carry the bodies away.
Into this furnace I ask you now to venture…
you whom I cannot betray.

See also, Bombs and Babies

Children of the Revolution

On a personal note, we were last in Syria in March 2009, and whilst visiting the famed Roman amphitheater at Bosra, just northeast of Dera’a, we had the pleasure of the company of a crowd of Syrian school children. They treated us like visiting celebrities and sang us a song of welcome. It is saddening to look at these pictures now, and wonder where these children are now.

Bosra Bosra 2

 

Bosra