Arab Spring: Time from protests beginning to the president resigning or being killed
Egypt: 17 days
Tunisia: 28 days
Libya: 8 months
Yemen: 9.5 months
Syria: 22 months and counting
There’s a little variation there, but one of these things is, far and away, not like the others. Plenty of analysts have addressed this issue from a political perspective (e.g. see pieces by Landis, Hof, and Haddad, among many others), but the long and short of it is that the Syrian regime does not feel that the rebels pose a valid enough threat to force President al-Assad to step down. There are a myriad of factors involved in that, but from a politico-cultural perspective, I would say a decent bit of that is that the rebels do not really have a popular mandate any more than the government does. With the media that we receive outside of Syria, it is easy to assume that the uprising is a massively popular one, but the long duration of the conflict implies that we are seeing only a very limited part of the story.
My guess is that many, if not most, Syrians are in fact bystanders. And their non-involvement reflects years of similar non-involvement in overtly political affairs, meaning that as it always has, standing by supports the status quo of Asad’s rule. But why? In part, because they’re afraid.
In the mid-2000’s, I spent a little over a year living in Damascus conducting ethnographic fieldwork for my PhD. I was studying political identities and nationalism. It really had nothing to do with being against the Syrian regime, because people not only did not resist the regime, many were complicit in it. They used wasta’ (“connections”) to get things done, they paid bribes, they worked the system.* And yet, people always got nervous the moment the word politics came up. It’s not that they were nervous about me—once they were certain we were in a secure location, they would talk their hearts out. They were worried about the eyes and ears of the regime, always watching, always listening. From the Syrian perspective, even if I had turned out to be CIA, they were certain that the one thing I was not was the mukhabaraat, the secret police.
Syrians were afraid of the mukhabaraat. Behind closed doors, they would whisper to me that under Hafez al-Asad, 19% of the population worked for the mukhabaraat. I’m not sure how that came to be such a universally accepted number, and the idea of one in five people being secret police seemed a little much to me, but they assured me it was so. Someone was always watching. They admitted, though, that many were not full-time employees, but everyday people who would report on each other, sometimes for the money, sometimes to get on the government’s good side, and sometimes out of sheer spite:
“It used to be illegal to have satellites for your television, but everyone had one. We just covered them up during the day and uncovered them at night. But in our neighbourhood, there was one man who got caught with his. He was fined and it was taken away. He was angry that he was the only one without one, so he went and reported all his neighbours for having satellites to the mukhabaraat. Everyone lost their satellite and had to pay a fine and he felt better.”
And a fine was nothing. When the real mukhabaraat caught you doing something, you would be jailed or even disappeared. Everyone knew someone who had been scooped up and never heard from again. The fear was very real.
The paranoia wasn’t as bad under Bashar al-Asad, but people still felt there was a strong government presence out there, waiting, watching, listening. Syrians insisted that the government read every email and listened to every phone conversation in the country. In fact, a Kurdish woman told me it was illegal to speak on the phone in Kurdish because the mukhabaraat didn’t have enough people who spoke Kurdish to monitor effectively.
The secret police were terrifying, but at the same time not. In fact, I had the pleasure of meeting some not-so-secret police while touring around the countryside. They showed up at the Syrian man’s house where I was staying and introduced themselves. The next morning, they insisted on taking us out for breakfast at the best restaurant in the city and then paid for us to wash our car. One eagerly jumped up and down as he came up with suggestions for all the best local tourist sites and played tour guide at each. They then called ahead to the next town we went to so the guys there could meet us on the road and do the same.
Sure, from the system’s perspective, it was an excellent way to keep an eye on us, make sure we weren’t doing anything spy-like, and protect us if necessary (we were not far from where the lines of fighters and supplies were said to be sneaking into Iraq at the time). But on a personal level, these men were genuinely excited to play host. It probably wasn’t something they got to do very often and was a lot more fun than listening in to phone calls or reading emails or arresting people.
Fast forward to 2012. In the wake of current events, I decided to do a little follow-up research to see what people are thinking now. I reached out to my Syrian friends and asked if they’d be willing to fill out a short questionnaire—not on the uprising or the regime, but on their concerns about rising sectarianism. Having had plenty of public conversations about it while in Syria, I figured it was an innocuous enough topic. Of the dozens of people I asked, only three were willing to respond—and two of those have been living outside Syria for a few years now.
Only three. That is a lot of fear, in spite of the regime losing some of its grip. It’s hard to say who they’re afraid of, whether it’s still the regime’s agents, or whether it might be various rebel groups (and/or their international backers). Regardless of who inspires it, it is an old, ingrained fear. But one that people know how to handle—the best way to avoid getting yourself disappeared is to assume someone is always watching and so sit quietly on the sidelines and do nothing. So there are undoubtedly a lot of people not fighting; they are just hunkering down and hoping no one notices them until it all blows over. They don’t want to get involved and, more importantly, they don’t want to be seen.
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