How a battle over a Facebook page became a war for the soul of the Syrian revolution.
BY AMAL HANANO | APRIL 18, 2012
A woman stands in the middle of a busy Damascus street. Yellow cabs honk and weave around her. Her red dress, splattered with white paint, flows in the wind along with a red fabric banner held up above her head like a translucent shield. A group of people gathers on the sidewalk to observe as she turns side to side, for all to see. As we watch them watching her through our computer screens, we hear a new sound — not a familiar chant of the revolution, but loud claps of extended applause. When she faces the camera, we finally read her words: “Stop the killing. We want to build a country for all Syrians.”
Dali’s action, while brave, would have been easy to disregard as a fleeting incident if it hadn’t happened again, a few days later, in front of the Palace of Justice. And again a few days after that, when more people occupied Dali’s place and even more onlookers clapped from the sidewalk.
Activists like Dali, who had a strong presence at the beginning of the uprising, are trying to rewind Syria’s clock to the early months of the revolution, when the message of selmiyeh — peaceful — dominated the streets. During the past two weeks, despite the regime’s relentless violence, Syria protested like it was 2011 again.
During the 10-day lull between the announcement of U.N. and Arab League special envoy Kofi Annan’s six-point plan for a ceasefire and its implementation on April 10, violence sharply escalated in Syria — as it usually does before every international ultimatum directed at President Bashar al-Assad. But since then, while shelling and government attacks have continued in certain flashpoints, the daily death toll has decreased significantly. Within opposition circles, another sentiment was brewing even before the ceasefire: a realization that it’s time to reclaim the revolution in order to reclaim the country.
For months, the civic and social activism of these peaceful protesters have been rendered obsolete next to the physical heroics of the Free Syrian Army’s (FSA) military operations against the regime’s brutality. Peaceful protests in city squares not only seemed impossible, but utterly useless against tanks, shells, and snipers. As armed resistance took its place within the revolution, the nonviolent activists slowly became passive pacifists. In recent days, however, that has changed.
This sea shift has been evident in the change in tenor of the names for the Friday protests. Every week, anti-Assad activists take to the Syrian Revolution 2011 Facebook page where, every Wednesday, they vote on the name of the upcoming day of protest. With more than 444,000 “likes,” the page is one of the most popular online hubs of the revolution. In fact, people use the number of common “friends” they have with the page as a badge of honor: If you are pro-revolution and only a few out of your hundreds of friends have “liked” the page, it means you need to find new friends.
On April 6 — Good Friday — the chosen (and very awkward) name for the weekly day of uprising was rooted in Islamic history: It was the Friday of “He who has equipped a fighter has himself fought.”
The name was intended as a call for Arab countries such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia to fulfill their religious duty and arm Syria’s opposition. In stark contrast, last year on Good Friday, the Friday was named just that: al-Jumaa al-Azimeh, to express the unity of the Syrian people above divisive sectarianism. This time around, many asked: Why couldn’t the same name have been repeated again this year? But the long-winded name had won — by Facebook’s version of democracy.
Last week, before the Facebook polling closed for the name of the April 13 protests — the day after the U.N. ceasefire deadline, the day in which solidarity was key — one name was in the lead: the Friday of the Armies of Islam. Yet another divisive (and completely off message) choice. This time, however, peaceful activists were ready to take action and fight back in a battle for the Friday name.
On Wednesday, April 11, media activists on Facebook and Twitter began a campaign to “rock the vote” for Friday’s name. They advocated the secular, inclusive choice, “A Revolution for all Syrians.” It was an intense campaign. Usually around 8,000 votes are cast each week, but last week there were more than 30,000. It was as much a battle between Islamic sentiment and secular inclusiveness as it was a struggle between those dedicated to solely an armed resistance, and those who still valued the power of nonviolent activism.
The gap between the two names slowly narrowed, and eventually the message of unity won by almost 2,000 votes. This small but significant victory unleashed palpable excitement among Syria’s online activists: There was a sense that they had been heard and gained control of the revolution’s message, at least for the moment. It was a needed boost of energy to a group of worn-out activists and, more importantly, it proved that a revolution within the revolution was not only possible but necessary.
Syrians’ practice of naming the Fridays of the revolution was inspired by their Yemeni counterparts, who did the same thing during their revolution. The first Fridays were named by the Revolution page’s administrators, and reflected the popular aspects and crucial demands of the revolution: Friday of Dignity, Friday of the Martyrs, Friday of Freedom for Detainees, etc. The names grew to have such influence on the street that the various opposition groups decided everyone should have a say in naming each Friday. In an exercise of online democracy, a voting system was established on Facebook with a weekly suggestion of seven potential names — two nominated from the Revolution page, two from the Local Coordination Committees within the country, two from the Revolutionary Councils inside Syria, and one from the what is called the “red rose” group representing pacifists and secular individuals.
Some weeks, the names referred to current events, while others seemed to be random and at odds with the principles of the revolution. Fridays that request some sort of intervention have become common: There has been a No-Fly Zone Friday, for example, and Buffer-Zone Friday, a reference to the idea of setting up a safe zone for anti-regime Syrians along the Turkish border. Some Fridays seek to legitimize certain opposition factions — for example, “The Syrian National Council represents me Friday” and “The Free Syrian Army protects me Friday.” In fact, the Free Syrian Army was dedicated three separate Fridays of support.
The Friday names both stem from the street and in turn influence it. Especially for the politically charged names, the process seems to work in a cycle of forced legitimization: the Revolution page suggests the names, people on Facebook vote, the name is raised on banners held up by the people, who in turn give legitimacy to the name that was given to them. The name becomes a part of the revolution’s timeline — each week, it appears in media reports and video clips as the guiding principle behind the protests.
In the last two weeks, the need for active voices of nonviolent resistance was apparent in efforts both inside and outside Syria. One instance of Syrians being inspired by the world outside their borders was a flash-mob protest in the Sham City Center Mall in Damascus, which emulated flash-mob protests that have been popular for months with university students across American and Canadian cities, though of course without the same level of danger.
Another example of youth activism occurred in the early morning hours of April 12, the first day of the Annan ceasefire, when a large group of University of Aleppo students created a human SOS formation on campus grounds. Armed regime thugs soon arrived, locking the gates to trap the students. Some were beaten and arrested in the aftermath.
Recently, the launch of the Zero Hour Internet campaign — a manifesto calling for mass protests to occupy the squares and streets across Syria — created a positive, revolutionary buzz. Video clips supporting Zero Hour came from prominent activists inside Syria as well as supporters outside. While many are skeptical whether this hour will ever come to fruition, the strong, unified reception it has garnered from activists, opposition military forces, and politicians has underscored the urgent need for this message.
These events have emerged in tandem with the U.N. ceasefire and the beginning of yet another monitoring mission, with the first five of an advance team of 30 monitors arriving in Damascus on Sunday. The creative, nonviolent resistance tactics counter the regime’s escalation of violence toward the Syrian people, despite the agreed-upon ceasefire. The FSA, for the most part, has held the truce while the regime pounded areas in Homs, Zabadani, Idleb, Douma, Taftanaz and rural Aleppo with rockets and shells. Bullets from security forces and snipers continued to target civilians protesting in many areas of the country, including the cities of Aleppo and Deraa. Despite these gross violations by the regime, the opposition continues to restrain the armed resistance and call for peaceful civilian protests.
Rima Dali’s last Facebook status before being detained was inspired by a Martin Luther King quote: “The means we use to achieve our goals must be as pure as our goals.” Her message has since become a Facebook page, and inspired a renewed campaign of nonviolence. One of Dali’s friends, activist and harpist Safana Baqleh, was detained while attempting to protect her from security forces. She is still missing. On Monday, a group of activists protested in front of the Ministry of Interior once more. Their signs focused on the injustice Syrian citizens face every day at the hands of the police: “If you must arrest me, arrest me gently”; “If you want to arrest me, let my family know where I am”; and Rima’s direct question about her detained friend Safana, “Where is the harpist?”
Using means as pure as our goals is one of the most difficult — but also the most important — principles of the Syrian revolution. To follow it in the face of increased brutality, the opposition must fine-tune and recalibrate its actions and message as the revolution moves forward. The difference between the Revolution Facebook page and Rima’s red scarf is the difference between forcing a message and being the message. It is a lesson that the Revolution page, despite its popularity, must embody if it wishes to remain relevant.
In the beginning, no one thought Syria faced an endless list of Fridays ahead, but now, 57 Fridays in, it may be time to rethink the practice of naming the weekly day of revolt. The concept, once powerful and unifying, has grown tired and divisive. The Friday with a perfect name, “A Revolution for all Syrians,” marked a rare moment of rewinding the past and perhaps capturing a glimpse of what may have been if we had not grown passive. It’s a moment worth holding on to for a while.
Let every Friday be a day dedicated to the Syrian’s people fight for freedom and dignity. And let each one be called, simply, Friday.