Al-Ahram Weekly Online   7 - 13 July 2011
Issue No. 1055
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

New voices for change

Since the demonstrations began in Syria nearly four months ago, new opposition groups have emerged to lead the anti-government protests, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

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Supporters of President Al-Assad in Aleppo carry a banner which reads, "Yes to the development and modernisation of our courageous army"

The current protests in Syria began in mid- March in the southern city of Daraa after a small demonstration by city youths spread to towns and cities throughout the country, surprising observers at the speed with which protesters gathered to call for the overthrow of the regime.

The swift growth of the protest movement was all the more surprising in that opposition to the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad had long been strictly frowned upon and the country's few opposition parties had barely played any role at the beginning of the crisis, owing to years of repression by the Syrian intelligence agencies, leaving the country's jails full of opposition activists.

As a result, groups of young people have led the largely peaceful protests, these being composed of people from different social and other backgrounds and taking place at various geographical locations.

As with other protest movements in other Arab countries, Internet social networks and other forms of communications technology have played a leading role in the protests, helping to publicise human rights and other violations by the Syrian security forces and document the killing of demonstrators on video clips that can then be uploaded to the web.

The young people leading the demonstrations have followed the demonstrations in the field and given protesters advice on how to reduce the risk of being shot by the security forces. They have also invented innovative ways of protesting and mobilising public opinion, helping to enlarge and spread the uprising.

While these groups differ in ideology and affiliation, they all agree on the primary goal of overthrowing the Syrian regime, with one prominent group being the 17 April Youth Movement for Democratic Change in Syria, which brings together young people from various regions of the country, all of whom have closely followed the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.

Syria should have its own revolution, these young people say, voicing their rejection of sectarianism and foreign intervention and their support for change and an end to tyranny and corruption.

Another group involved in the protests is the Youth of the Syrian Revolution Opposed to Bashar Al-Assad, which calls for the overthrow of a regime it says has shed the blood of thousands of Syrians.

The group has also demanded freedom, democracy and civic pluralism, and it has some 250,000 people registered on its Facebook page, which has become a virtual news agency of the uprising.

Syrian Kurdish youth have also actively protested against the regime, joining a group called Norouz whose aim is freedom and the ousting of the present regime. Local coordination committees formed of small groups across the country have coordinated protests and planned demonstrations on the local level.

The committees have played a double role, ideologically by disseminating the idea of revolution and maintaining media coverage, and practically by monitoring the protests, organising demonstrations and expanding their scope and size.

The committees have formulated a common political position, created a media office, and earned the respect of the international and Arab media.

All these groups have worked independently of the existing political parties, whose members are nevertheless active in the media and politics, since these have been slow to work out a response to the crisis or put forward proposals for solving it.

At the beginning of June, the local committees issued a first action plan intended to help end the crisis, stating that dialogue with the regime was impossible unless it took steps such as ending the violence against the protesters and the state of siege imposed on Syrian towns, releasing protesters who had been detained and other political detainees, and ending the obstruction of the demonstrations and the media campaigns against them.

The committees' action plan also put forward a formula for national dialogue that included a comprehensive discussion to include representatives of all the country's political forces, as well as a clear agenda and timeline.

In mid-June, a new form of opposition bloc was formed after fractures in the ranks of the Syrian military led to soldiers refusing to shoot at the demonstrators and joining the protests. Officers leading the dissident soldiers formed a free officers movement and issued a statement asserting the view that the regime was incapable of bringing about reform and criticising the continuing bloodshed.

The movement called for the election of a transitional national council to save the country from chaos and help to guide it towards democracy. It also called on the UN to establish a buffer zone to protect unarmed civilians and impose a no-fly zone over the country where one was needed.

Meanwhile, committees of civil society activists in Syria have relaunched their activities after a three-year hiatus following the arrest of many leading members. The committees have declared that the Syrian authorities should meet the popular demands and that continuing with the present security solution to the crisis will only lead to catastrophe.

At the end of last week, a group of opposition figures called for a national salvation conference, proposing a plan to end the crisis on the basis of the removal of the regime.

This group called for there to be an interim phase "led by a national unity government and based on a new constitution," which would then hold fresh parliamentary and presidential elections according to a specific timeline.

Among those calling for this solution are lawyer Haitham Al-Maleh, Montaha Sultan, Basha Al-Attrach, scholar Gawdat Said, economist Aref Daleela, human rights activist Radwan Ziyada, and others.

In the wake of such civil society initiatives, Syria's opposition parties have demonstrated that they have matured politically, trying over recent weeks to unite their ranks and take concerted action.

On 30 June, the country's democratic opposition parties, which include 20 Arab and Kurdish parties, announced a joint plan of action by forming a National Coordination Association for the Forces of Change in Syria and announcing a roadmap out of the crisis.

The Association's leadership was elected, which includes 19 members and such names as Hassan Abdel-Azim as overall coordinator, Hussein Gawdat as his deputy, Borhan Ghalyoun as overseas representative, and Aref Daleela, Michel Kilo, Fayez Sara, Hazem Al-Nahhar, Abdel-Aziz Al-Khayyer, and others.

The parties confirmed their openness to all national Syrian forces, promising that young people will have a third of the executive seats in the Association and confirming the local coordination committees' involvement with the Association platform.

Dialogue with the authorities could only take place if guarantees were given to end the violence, the parties said, as well as to halt the media campaign against the uprising, release all political detainees, and form a committee to prosecute those responsible for the killings.

The Association called for an end to the country's emergency rule, this time not just on paper, and the repeal of article 8 of the country's constitution, which gives the ruling Syrian Baath Party leadership of state and society.

It also called for a general national conference to be held, in order to draft a plan for political and constitutional change, and a transitional government to take control of the country that would also draft a new constitution for a civic state that guaranteed political pluralism, equal rights, the peaceful rotation of power, a curtailing of the powers of the president, the independence of the judiciary, and the separation of powers.

A new political parties law should be issued, the Association said, as well as a new law governing regulation of the media. The country's security agencies should be reorganised with a view to prosecuting those who had carried out human rights violations.

Finding a just solution to the Kurdish issue, guaranteeing the liberties of ethnic groups and freeing professional unions from the control of the authorities should also be priorities, the Association said.

"Our group welcomes any alliance or national opposition party working for democratic change in Syria," coordinator Abdel-Azim told Al-Ahram Weekly. "We are keen for the Association to include all the democratic opposition in Syria, and we call for the Syrian opposition to unite on the basic goal of replacing the current regime with one that is democratic, pluralist and open to the rotation of power."

Hazem al-Nahhar, a member of the Association's executive committee and of the political bureau of the Arab Revolutionary Workers' Party, told the Weekly that the Syrian opposition parties had "decided on eight criteria that must be fully implemented on the ground before dialogue with the authorities can be launched."

The parties "are moving according to the timeline of the revolution, and they are oblivious to the timeline of the government while it continues to choose a military security option," he said.

Observers believe that the Association also has the support of the Arab and Kurdish opposition national democratic parties, and that it is therefore qualified to act as the interlocutor on behalf of the opposition as a whole with the regime.

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