Activists in Syria’s capital are using covert methods to show their opposition to Bashar al-Assad’s continuing rule.
New methods of creative civil disobedience are flourishing in Syria’s capital [Calendar of Freedom]These days, it is not extraordinary in Damascus for flyers calling for freedom to be blown on the breeze, or for garbage bins to bear banners calling for the collapse of the ruling administration.
This is the work of youths in the city in the belief that, with creativity, they could cause the government of President Bashar al-Assad to falter – along with its security apparatus. Apparently inspired by MK Gandhi, scholar Gene Sharp and other progenitors of non-violent civil disobedience, they formed a movement named “The Calendar of Freedom” and planned and executed pioneering forms of civil disobedience.
“We do the regime a big favour when we move in a direction they expect, when we protest in a typical way and we show up from a predictable location”
– Mouhannad, Calendar of Freedom Movement
These Damascus dissidents began their work as mass protests broke out in March, but only recently has the movement become more organised, with membership swelling from the tens to the hundreds.
“The media always asks: ‘Where is Damascus in the uprising?’” Mouhannad, a member of the movement, told Al Jazeera. ”This is an unfair question. Just because there are no large-scale street protests in Damascus, that does not mean that the city is dead. Our methods are different from the rest of the cities because this is the capital. It’s tightly controlled by security forces and shabiha [pro-government militia].”
Small protests have taken place in the heart of Damascus, but have failed to take hold – as they have in the suburbs and in other restive cities. Hundreds of plainclothes police roam the capital’s districts, ready to disperse and arrest gathering crowds. Meanwhile, the army has effectively locked down the peripheries to prevent the daily anti-government protests in the suburbs spilling into the centre of town.
Anti-government youth have had to find other ways to express their dissent. To avoid the crackdown, they have attempted to be one step ahead of government’s forces – and to constantly surprise them.
“We do the regime a big favour when we move in a direction they expect, when we protest in a typical way and we show up from a predictable location,” said 26-year-old Mouhannad. “The security forces will be able to catch us easily and still boast [of their] strength, intelligence and brutality. Therefore, the surprise factor is important for us.”
Fountains of ‘blood’
One of the movement’s first schemes was adding red dye to the waters of the city’s seven major fountains, making them flow scarlet, symbolising the blood of the estimated 4,000 people killed by security forces across the country.
One fountain sat directly in front of one of the headquarters of one of the most feared intelligence services.
“Imagine that: With all their perceived might, all their heavy weapons they use to kill protesters, the government forces stood helpless and confused in front of merely coloured water,” said Salma, a 24-year-old activist.
Activists dyed seven fountains red [Calendar of Freedom]“The main aim of this action was to raise the morale of the freedom seekers, to crush the morale of the government forces and distort the prestige of the security apparatus.”
Another time, activists aimed a strong laser light, bought from a party supplies store, at the presidential palace. They posted a video showing what appears to be a laser light beaming from one hill to another, where the palace is located. Activists claimed that armed guards frantically fired into the air, confused about the source or the nature of the laser.
“The message we wanted to deliver here is that neither Bashar nor his forces scare us. We wanted to show him that the Syrian people do not respect him,” Salma said.
The youth of the movement surprised Damascus residents once again when they stuffed cassette players and speakers in black garbage bags and threw them into trash bins in crowded streets and universities. Minutes later, a well-known anti-Assad song would blare from the bin. Its singer, Ibrahim al-Qashoush, was killed and his throat cut – allegedly by security forces – after he chanted the song in a protest in the central city of Hama.
Syrian state television broadcast pictures of the speakers – alongside grenades and ammunition – claiming the materials were seized from “terrorists”.
“This shows you that our simple, peaceful methods are as dangerous for this insecure regime as weapons. This gives us more motivation to carry on,” Mouhannad said.
Small acts of sabotage
Activists have also gone street to street, changing signs by affixing stickers bearing the names of people killed by security forces in the city. They have covered neighbourhoods including Barzeh, Mashrou’ Dummar, al-Midan, Rukn el-Deen, al-Salhiyeh, Daraya, al-Qadam, al-Qaboun and Zamalka.
The sign on a street in Barzeh area, for example, was changed to: “Eid Abdel Kayem Allou Street. Died at the age of 40. Married with four children, the youngest of whom was born 40 days after his death.”
“Creative ideas could only be fought back with ideas, something that this decaying unimaginative regime lack”
– Salma, Calendar of Freedom Movement
The Damascus dissidents’ campaign has extended to other ideas and small acts of sabotage, including glueing the door locks at a government building, releasing “freedom balloons” into the sky, spraying walls with anti-government graffiti, and calling on residents to collectively switch off their lights at a certain hour.
Salma said that the movement’s power lies in its simplicity, encouraging those who are still hesitant to join the ranks of the Syrian uprising.
“Our campaign was particularly effective in universities,” Salma said. “We had called on students to wear black clothing on certain days as a gesture of support for the Syrian revolution against Assad. The response was amazing. Students loved the fact that they could express dissent for this ruthless regime with the least risk of getting arrested.”
The youths also focused on awareness campaigns. Using home printers, they printed and distributed newsletters discussing the uprising. They created educational videos on non-violence and interviewed Erica Chenoweth, a professor and a co-author of a book on non-violent civil disobedience.
To avoid being arrested, the youth group said that they carefully study the security risks of each activity before embarking on it. Many of the members do not even know each other. They communicate and make logistical arrangements anonymously through Facebook.
Salma said the movement was planning more projects that aim at “driving the government crazy”.
“Creative ideas could only be fought back with ideas, something that this decaying unimaginative regime lack,” she concluded. “This is why we know that we will eventually win this battle.”
Follow Basma Atassi on Twitter: @Basma_