Tharwa Special File | February 10, 2013
Tharwa played an important role in facilitating the coming of the Syrian Revolution. It did so unobtrusively often by acting as a catalyst meant to generate public interest in a certain topic and to inspire imitation. Tharwa never strove to become a large movement by itself, with its founders deeming the task of establishing a liberal grassroots movement too daunting at this stage. Considering the conservative and pre-modern nature of Syrian society and the ideological predictions of the intellectual and political elite, a popular revolution needed to come first in order to pave the ground for the emergence of a liberal grassroots movement in a generation or two. For Tharwa has always been envisioned as a generations-spanning endeavor.
Tharwa founders had hoped that the Revolution, when it comes, would be a strictly nonviolent phenomenon. But the extremely violent crackdown that the protest movement and its supporting communities faced, and the international confusion that prevailed regarding how best to support the movement, combined to create an atmosphere of frustration, abandonment and despair which allowed for calls to arms to be finally heeded, thus, turning a peaceful pro-democracy protest movement into an armed insurrection.
Despite Tharwa’s early attempts at trying to build bridges of understanding between the country’s myriad communities, and to lobby on behalf of the country’s marginalized segments, especially the Denaturalized Kurds, the divides were simply too deep and the Syrian authorities too unmoved. Furthermore, Tharwa’s inability to function openly, especially after the founders of the Tharwa Project were sent into exile in September 2005, made progress in this matter too limited to undermine the ability of the Assad regime to play on inter-communal mistrust and stoke the sectarian fires when the time for revolution came.
The first calls for a popular grassroots challenge to the regime came in a series of articles that Tharwa Founder Ammar Abdulhamid published in the Daily Star, a Lebanese newspaper. His articles included “Mr. Assad, take down our wall” (May 31, 2005) and “Syrian optimists, now is the time to reconsider” (June 22, 2005).
In the first article, Mr. Abdulhamid warned that lack of reform could pave the way for a failed state in Syria:
Over the years, the regime has become increasingly cut off from reality. Members of the political and military elite do not have what it takes to run a modern state, deal with the modern world, and introduce genuine political, economic and social reforms that the country needs in order to meet its increasing developmental challenges. Indeed, the regime has insisted on monopolizing the decision-making process, exiling Syrians to participatory oblivion.
Considering the current scheme of things, Syria’s leaders are more likely to transform the country, so rich yet in natural and demographic resources, into another failed state – not unlike Sudan, or even Somalia. As such, for the sake of Syria’s future and that of its 17 million people, Syrians must take a bold and united stand in the face of the increasingly authoritarian predilections of the Assad regime.
In the second article, Mr. Abdulhamid called on Syrians to face their fears and become more engaged in the political processes in order to save the country from the grip of the ruling corrupt elite:
For those Syrians who desire to safeguard their country from imminent collapse, the alternative at this stage is to accept the necessity of politics and the imperative of activism. This is crucial at a time when our future is being decided for us, on our behalf and in our name, by a number of external and internal actors, without any real regard for Syrian interests. But this is what silence, reticence and apathy produce in the final analysis. If Syrians want to avoid the same future as Iraq (for that seems to be what’s in the back of their minds these days whenever they attempt to think of what could happen if Syria were to see fundamental change), they have to do exactly what their fears tell them not to do: they have to become politically alive again and tell those in power “enough is enough.” Failing that, the country will surely implode, and the result could be much worse than Iraq.
Mr. Abdulhamid was told to leave the country soon after these articles appeared. He left with his family on September 7, 2005 and went to Washington, D.C. where he and his wife, Tharwa co-founder Khawla Yusuf, set up the Tharwa Foundation to continue their work on democracy promotion. Meanwhile, the Tharwa in-country team went underground and continued its expansion and operations.
On December 31, 2005, Tharwa Founder published his plan for democratic transition in the country titled “Managing Transition: Few Guidelines for a Velvet Revolution in Syria” and subtitled “Towards a Jasmine Revolution in Syria.” This became a blueprint of sorts of many of his and Tharwa’s activities in the coming years.
This situation where the brittleness of the regime seems to be reflecting and feeding the brittleness of the state itself poses many serious challenges to the continued viability of the state. The existing regime has had ample opportunities to mend its ways and introduce the necessary reform packages that the country desperately needs, but, so far, it has failed to do so. This lends more credence to the argument that the regime, the new President included, is in fact part and parcel of the problem rather than the solution, hence the necessity of bringing about its removal, albeit by peaceful means. This is the main challenge ahead, and the following is intended to offer a few brief guidelines that could help crystallize the necessary action plan that needs to be adopted in order to effectively meet this challenge while ensuring the stability of the country, and bringing about the establishment of a state where democratic norms and the rule of law prevail and the basic civil rights of all its citizens are respected.
While the plan for a Jasmine Revolution was distributed in opposition circles in early 2006, it received limited attention by opposition groups. for this, Tharwa was forced to adhere to its plan of working in cooperation with small groups of activists spread throughout the country seeking to raise awareness of certain issues, and inspire imitation by other more established groups.
Below is a list of some of the activities and programs designed by Tharwa for the period between 2006 and 2011 and which seem to have contributed to the making of the Syrian Revolution.
MONITORING THE 2007 PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONS AND THE PRESIDENTIAL REFERENDUM
In April and May of 2007, and with funding from the Middle East Partnership Initiative in U.S. State Department, Tharwa organized a wide campaign to monitor the sham elections for parliament (April) in Syria and the equally farcical presidential referendum (May). The point was to assess whether the call for popular boycott called for by the opposition would be heeded by the people (it was to a large extant), and to further expose Bashar Al-Assad as the corrupt autocrat that he was at a time when so many in the international community still believed in him as a reformer.
In order to accomplish this task, small teams made up of 3-5 members each were formed and operated throughout the country, and a special website was establish to monitor the campaigns and the emerging trends. The website, Syrian Elector, was updated by the team in Washington, D.C. on the basis of the constant stream of reports sent around the clock by in-country activists.
The 99%? Manifesto(March 23, 2007) As part of Tharwa’s preparation for the boycott of the legislative elections and the presidential referendum, the 99%? Manifesto was written in order to mock and challenge the usual way of doing things in the country, namely: ensuring that the President always gets 99% of the vote.
The Syrian Authoritiesand the Legislative Elections 2007: A Preliminary Report (April 11, 2007) Having observed the various developments and procedures related to the ongoing legislative elections in Syria over the last few weeks, it seems rather clear now that the main goal of the Syrian authorities with regard to these elections is to ensure the exclusion from the political process of any truly independent candidates on the scene, ones that might oppose the planned nomination of President Bashar al-Assad to a second 7-year term in office. In other words, the goal is to curtail the potential emergence of a Syrian Ayman Nour, a development that could easily compound the increasing and dilemmas of the Assad regime. For an unruly MP at this stage may not be easily swatted aside as happened with former MPs Riad Seif and Mamoun al-Homsi back in 2001.
The Syrian Authoritiesand the Legislative Elections 2007: A Semi-Final Report (Issuing a report on the Syrian Parliamentary Elections days before they actually take place is meant to underscore their enduring irrelevance. The actual results of the elections are not likely to have any serious impact on the conclusions below)
Monitoring the SyrianLegislative Elections 2007 – Phase II: The Electoral Process at work, April 22& 23 The Syrian authorities seem to have issued secret directives calling for the support of “shadow lists,” that is, groups of independent candidates that delineate certain local balances from the central and local authorities’ perspective and who are loyal or at least beholden to them and who favor the status quo. These lists seemed destined to win in most districts.
The Syrian LegislativeElections 2007, Final Report: Mr. Assad addresses the parliament (May 17, 2007) The staged nature of the legislative elections in Syria was clearly established in our previous two reports on the matter. But, if anyone needed a further clarification as to why the regime felt the need to go to the trouble of staging elections that it could easily bypass, the unanimous approval by the parliament of the nomination of Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, for a second 7-year term in office, tells all. For a semblance of legitimacy is always required even in the most authoritarian of states.
The SyrianPresidential Referendum 2007: Fear, Lies and Deception (May 30, 2007) The Syrian presidential referendum took place in the absence of any approved independent monitors of any kind, domestic, regional and international. Except for voters and security officers no one was allowed access to the polling centers. This seems to be one of the main lessons learned from the legislative elections, where local journalists were granted access, which allowed for our unofficial monitors to gain access to the centers and expose the regime’s various fraudulent practices.
ESTABLISHING THE THARWA INSTITUTE FOR DEMOCRATIC LEADERSHIP (2007)
The other main activity that took place in 2007, shortly after the Tharwa team was done with its elections monitoring duties, was the launch of the Tharwa Institute for Democratic Leadership (TI). The institute was established as a training center for nonviolent activists, young people with leadership potential and citizen journalists. TI was all about empowerment through character building and equipping participants with the right set of tools to help them achieve their goals.
The Institute curriculum with its unique focus on understanding the nature of democratic and autocratic systems, how transitional processes work, and what activists can do to insert themselves into the processes of change taking place in the region, was designed by Tharwa founders in cooperation with Eleana Gordon, from Center for Liberties in the Middle East, and Steve Heydemann, from United States Institute for Peace.
The course launched in 2007 lasted for 6 months and consisted of 2 in-person training workshops held in Istanbul, Turley and weekly readings and online discussions. At the end of the training, participants had to propose then implement a graduation project that also took several months to implement. Indeed, most projects were executed in 2008. Although, participants came from all over the region, Syria remained the main focus of the TI activities. More on TI here.
THARWA 2008: ENTER THE TRAINEES
Syrian and regional participants in TI’s training courses in 2007 implemented a variety of projects that proved critical in revitalizing the situation in their countries. Young Egyptian activists issued a book, “Whereto Egypt?,” that reassessed the achievement of the Kefaya movement underscoring the need for an overhaul of the movement. Yemeni activists produced a documentary on official corruption playing a role in the dislocation of a particular tribe. The proliferation of this kind of injustices played an important role in paving the way for the Yemeni Revolution. Moroccan activists focused on the issue of child labor, so did Syrian activists. Activists from Aleppo in particular went on to produce a major study on the issue, the first of its kind in the country.
But the most ambitious project to emerge out of TI’s 2007 training courses was the project focusing on documenting daily life in the unplanned suburbs emerging on the periphery of major cities throughout Syria, the so-called poverty belt. The project focused in particular on Damascus, with occasional forays into Homs, Aleppo.
The documentation effort relied heavily on YouTube, highlighting its important role as an advocacy tool, and inspiring imitation by other activist networks in Syria and across the region. It is these videos and accompanying written reports that enabled Tharwa Founder, Ammar Abdulhamid, to offer a testimony before the Near East and South Asia Subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on 24 April 2008 arguing that a revolution is brewing in Syria:
Change in Syria is not a matter of “if” anymore, but of when, how and who. Facts and factors influencing and dictating change are already in progress and are, for the most part, the product of internal dynamics rather than external influences. Although this assertion seems to fly in the face of traditional wisdom regarding the stability of the ruling regime in Syria, the facts are clear and plainly visible for all willing to see. The problem has been that most experts and policymakers have always been more concerned with high-end politics to pay any real attention to what is actually taking place on the ground. Issues such as the International Tribunal established to look into the assassination of former PM Rafic al-Hariri, Iran’s growing regional influence, the Assads’ sponsorship of Hamas, Hizbullah and certain elements in the Iraqi insurgency, escalating international pressures against the regime, and the ongoing cat-and-mouse game between the regime and opposition forces continue to dominate the ongoing international debate over Syria’s present and future. The dynamics of daily life, however, shaped more by inflation, unemployment, poverty, imploding infrastructure, and official corruption and mismanagement might actually be rewriting the usual scenarios in this regard. For as that old adage goes: “it’s the economy stupid!” And Syria’s economy is indeed imploding. The lack of government response in this regard, or, to be more specific, the fact that government policies seem to be making matters worse for most Syrians, is forcing people to organize around issues of local concern, and to begin to agitate. Albeit this agitation is not yet anti-regime per se, that is, no one is yet demanding the ouster of the current president, it is indeed anti-establishment in nature, that is, it is clearly aimed against official policies, corruption, mismanagement, neglect, lies, arrogance and impunity. As such, it marks an important departure from the usual docile attitude and an important milestone on the road towards the rise of a popular grassroots movement against the Assad dictatorship, if the situation is properly managed by opposition groups. This phenomenon is still admittedly in its embryonic phase at this stage, and might take years before it produces a real challenge to the regime’s authority on the grounds; it should also be borne in mind here that this phenomenon may not automatically translate into grassroots support for any of the existing opposition movements or coalitions and might just lead, in the absence of active outreach efforts by the opposition, to the emergence of new more popular forms and figures of opposition, albeit the Damascus Declaration seems to be the one movement with the greatest popular appeal. Still, what is clear here is that the phenomenon is real and does merit observation. And, for those interested in ensuring the emergence of a “positive” democratic outcome eventually, it does merit support as well.
In addition to this, Tharwa activists produced many written articles and reportages about all aspects of life in Syria, including the effects of galloping inflation on the quality of life for millions of Syrians, life under the watchful eyes of the security apparatuses and corrupt officials in the different campuses affiliated with the Damascus University and living conditions in the long-neglected northeast provinces.
Sample reports prepared by Tharwa activists
Sample of the raw videos produced by Tharwa activists in 2008
The clips consisted of B-roll with audio interviews with local inhabitants superimposed on it. This method was meant to protect the identity of the people who spoke to the activists and, thus, to protect the identity of the activists themselves. This was 2008 after all, there was no revolution yet, and barrier of fear still loomed formidable. Even the voices were altered.
THARWA 2009: FIRST STEP
By 2009, Tharwa team in Washington, D.C. had enough videos and written reports from Syria to put together a 6-part TV series designed to call for a nonviolent revolution in the country, basing the arguments on the sentiments that the average Syrians themselves were expressing in their daily conversations. The series was titled “First Step,” and its basic argument was a nonviolent revolution in Syria was “possible and necessary,” because the regime has shown it is too oblivious to the plight of the average Syrian and too corrupt and inefficient to undertake the reforms needed to improve the prevailing living conditions in the country.
Each episode of First Step began with a reportage based on the raw videos produced by Tharwa’s in-country activists, then preceded to a panel discussion moderated by Tharwa founder, Ammar Abdulhamid, in cooperation with two young Tharwa activists in exile (Ahed Alhindi and Oula Abdulhamid), and featuring various Syrian and Arab experts. The last episode ended with a direct call for a nonviolent revolution in the country.
First Step episodes began in August 2009 on an opposition satellite network seen in Syria, and were repeated regularly until the eve of the Syrian revolution on March 15, 2011.
The programs can be followed on the links below. The program is available in Arabic only. But the English transcript for Ammar Abdulhamid’s call for a democratic nonviolent revolution can be accessed here.
First Step, Episode 1: Daily Living Conditions in Syria Introductory Reportage, Full Episode Living conditions in Syria have been degrading steadily ever since the rise of Bashar Al-Assad to power in 2000. Chronic ineptitude, endemic corruption and long-lasting neglect are the main culprits. Will the Syrian people remain silent forever?
First Step, Episode 2: The Problem of Unplanned Neighborhoods Introductory Reportage, Full Episode Due to long-standing official neglect of the housing crisis, more than 40% of Syrians are now living in unplanned communities surrounding major cities and towns. Lack of basic services and continuous blackmail of local official color the daily life of the inhabitants.
First Step, Episode 3: The problem of Internal Displacement Introductory Reportage, Full Episode. Poverty, unjust government policies and the occupation of the Golan by Israel in 1967 have combined to create a major refugee problems for Syria, long before the influx of over 1.2 million Iraqis into the country. Syrian authorities deal with the problem the way they do with all other pressing challenges that the country is facing: by ignoring them. Will the Syrians remain quiet?
First Step, Episode 4: Child Labor in Syria Introductory Reportage, Full Episode. Child Labor is a phenomenon that is growing rapidly in Syria. One might say it is virtually exploding, with over 650 million children involved, according to the most conservative estimates. This is close of 8% of the country’s overall population. The Syrian government has yet to acknowledge the existence of the problem, not to mention introduce policies to stem its growth.
First Step, Episode 5: The Kurdish Question in Syria Introductory Reportage, Full Episode. Over 10% of Syria/s inhabitants or close to 2 million people are Kurds, yet the Syrian Constitution imposed by the ruling Baath Party back in 1973 fails to acknowledge their existence, and the Kurds live as second-class citizens at best unable to study or teach in their own language, and are denied access to many government jobs. Over 300,000 Kurds have been stripped of their citizenship following a controversial census that took place in 1961.
First Step, Episode 6: The Sectarian Question in Syria Full Episode, Call for Revolution: Video, English Transcript
Following the closure of the Tharwa Foundation offices in Washington, D.C. due to lack of funding, Tharwa founders and in-country activists focused most of their activities on online campaigning, drawing attention of many of in-country activists to the usefulness of Facebook and Twitter in challenging the authorities and the status quo in the country.
The campaign for freeing the Syrian teenage blogger Tal Al-Mallouhi, and the Father of the Syrian Human Rights Movement, Haitham Al-Maleh, that took place were the two most prominent such endeavors, and even though, they did not succeed in obtaining the freedom of the two symbols, they did force Syrian officials to acknowledge the campaigns and to conduct press conferences trying to justify their decision.
In October 2010, Tharwa Founder even undertook a trip to Europe that included stops in Berlin, The Hague, Brussels, Paris, Copenhagen, Stockholm and Oslo, and meeting with officials and activists in each stop, meant to draw attention to the situation of human rights in the country and the growing potential for a “Jasmine Revolution” in the country.
It took months for Tal’s case to acquire public attention, but in recent weeks the campaign on her behalf went global and Tal, in a development facilitated by flashes of poetic genius that people stumbled upon when they visited her blogs, became a symbol for all Syrians aspiring for closure with regard to the issue of politically motivated arrests and the fate of political detainees, now estimated at several thousands, not to count those who are still missing from the 1980s and 1990s and whose cases Bashar Al-Assad inherited from his father upon his rise to power. Tal has also become a rallying symbol for those believing in peaceful democratic change in the country, popularly referred to as the Jasmine Revolution.
The same year, Tharwa participated as well in a massive Twitter Campaign targeting Vogue Magazine for doing a fawning profile of Asma al-Assad, the Syrian First Lady. The campaign forced the Magazine to issue an apology and to delete the article from their website.
These seemingly harmless activities introduced many Syrian activists inside the country and within the diaspora community to the world of Facebook and Twitter and highlighted their promise as effective tools for networking, communications and advocacy. And the activists did not wait long before taking full advantage of these new experiences and tools. Inspired by developments in Tunisia and Egypt, planning for a revolution in Syria soon began, and following the examples set by their colleagues in Tunisia and Egypt. Tharwa activists in Syria joined their comrades and the new figures emerging all over the country to take part in pushing for a Syrian Revolution. Despite some initial reservations on part of Tharwa founder, Ammar Abdulhamid, regarding the timing and the readiness of Syrian opposition members and activists to rise to the challenge of leadership at this critical juncture in Syrian history, using social media, especially Facebook, in-country activists argued that the right time was now, and the revolutionary movement eventually found its spark in the southern parts of the country, and the Syrian Revolution began at earnest on March 15, 2011. Mr. Abdulhamid was ready to mark this event by launching the Syrian Revolution Digest to spread awareness of the Revolution and its evolution in international circles, fulfilling the promise he made in his call for democratic revolution at the end of Tharwa TV program, First Step.
In his cautionary note regarding the timing of the revolution, Mr. Abdulhamid argued that
If we are to draw inspiration from these events [in Tunisia and Egypt], as we should, let it be the right one: we need to work on charting a clearer vision for the future of our country and adopt effective communications strategies with our people that can enable us to bust the various myths that the regime has spread over the years. So long as minority communities in the country still believe that the Assads are their protectors, rather than the pariahs who amplify and prey on their fears, and so long as many of our young still believe that the Assads are true believers in resistance ideology rather than manipulators of it, we will have minimal chance to incite our people to rise up. More importantly, we should also accept that the real leadership role here is to be played by the grassroots activists scattered throughout the country. They are the ones who will have to decide when the right moment has come for us to have our day of anger.
While, Mr. Abdulhamid was partially wrong about the ability of Syrian activists and opposition members to incite a revolution at this stage, after all, as he himself had testified in Congress in 2008, certain segments of the population had long been ready to embrace such a move. Still, Mr. Abdulhamid’s caution seems well-justified now: failure to develop a clear vision for the future of the country and to agree on right communications strategies with the country’s myriad minority communities had a devastating impact on the course of the revolution, facilitating its transformation into a civil strife.
Still, Tharwa continues to support the revolution in Syria and continues to try to build bridges between the different groups and communities there, no matter how improbable and thankless the task seems at this stage. By working with local activists and rebels on issues of local governance and stabilization, and with international policymakers on ways to identify and support moderate groups, Tharwa hopes to shorten the period of conflict, and enable the launch of the political processes needed to enable the different groups, communities and regions to negotiate a way out of the current crisis and agree a new political and administrative vision for the state.