From mosque to university
The Syrian revolution was criticised by several secularists because it was launched only from mosques. But as events developed and evolved universities and students became the heart of the revolution, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus
Since the first weeks of the Syrian revolution, anti-regime protests started mainly in the country's cities and were launched exclusively from mosques. Demonstrators gathered inside and outside mosques and began their marches demanding change and reform. Security forces confronted these protests with excessive force and killed hundreds of civilians. As violence acts perpetrated by the regime escalated, the goals of the protests evolved into a sweeping revolution demanding the ouster of the regime and all its symbols.
The Syrian political leadership capitalised on the fact that demonstrations launched from mosques alone and accused protesters of being Salafis and religious extremists. It claimed that the protests were disturbances did not reflect the will of the Syrian people at large, but a religious movement of a singular ideology in substance and essence. Official media accused demonstrators of following fanatic and extremist religious leaders.
Some secularists believed this supposition in the beginning, and resented and doubted the nature of the revolution and its ideology. They criticised the fact that demonstrations always started at mosques, studied the phenomenon and tried to dissect it. This, however, is not a feature that is exclusive to the Syrian revolution and many academics have already illustrated clearly the role mosques have played in the revolutions that took place in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen. Nevertheless, the Syrian regime criticised the Syrian revolution especially because it started at mosques not universities, schools or workers' unions, political institutions or parties, like any all-out national revolution would.
Since French occupation and until the end of the last century, Syrian student movements sponsored extraordinary activities against occupiers and tyrannical regimes. This role evolved in the first half of the 20th Century until the Baath Party came to power and the student movement was crushed. In fact, it was this student movement which triggered the revolt against military rule in 1954 before the Syrian army announced a coup against the regime from Aleppo. The movement also played a key role in confronting the Baghdad Alliance in the 1950s and demanded unification between Syria and Egypt.
The student movement fell silent, however, once the Baath Party came to power because students were banned from joining political parties -- including ones in alliance with the regime. It ignored immunity of university campus which meant security agencies could arrest students inside lecture halls - it irreversibly compromised the intellectual, moral and educational role of universities by converting these institutions of higher learning into security institutions which the totalitarian regime used as a tool to stifle freedoms and indoctrinate Syria's youth through a curriculum that praised the values of tyranny and its symbols.
This strategy was typified by the Syrian leadership's granting the National Union of Syrian Students (NUSS), an organisation affiliated to the ruling Baath Party, absolute powers over universities, making it more powerful than the Ministry of Higher Education. It is for these reasons, perhaps, that university students were late in joining the revolution.
Neither were mosques far from the reach of the regime. Security agencies dominated all activities there: appointing scholars and mosque leaders, granting them privileges and bonuses, monitoring their sermons and lessons, but still these remained the only venues where people could gather. The authorities over the past decades arrested political opponents and civil society activists, and banned gatherings in any public place (according to law no more than four people can gather at a public site without permission). Mosques became the only place where Syrians could gather without security agencies blocking them, as the regime could not ban the congregation from going to prayer.
For the first eight months of the revolution, university students did not participate in the revolution while Damascus University pioneered opposition to the regime. There were some timid strikes in the first weeks of the revolution but they were suppressed and security forces raided the university campus en masse. Students reported that security forces and their militias would jump out of the doors and windows of buses to suppress the students who chanted for freedom, using truncheons, electric batons and chains to separate protesters. Armed men climbed on to the roofs of colleges to arrest protesting students.
As the regime's use of violence escalated further, using heavy artillery to shell cities, the majority of university students broke their silence and became the heart of the revolution. Students at the universities of Homs, Damascus and Deraa, as well as several colleges in other governorates, burst into protest against the regime. Every night, students came out from university dormitories to demonstrate against the regime and security forces, while militias used force to disperse them. Just as in the past, there was no respect or protection for the university campus.
In May, Aleppo University was the scene of the most violent confrontations. Five students were killed in university dormitories, with one of their number thrown from his dormitory window on the fourth floor. Under directions from security powers, the university decided to shut down the university and its housing complex, only allowing exams and graduating projects to be held on campus. Since then, near daily protests have swept Aleppo -- the governorate which the regime believed, along with the capital Damascus, was the most loyal to the government and unlikely to join the revolution.
Movements at universities have drawn up a series of targets until their goal of overthrowing the regime is accomplished, namely "liberating Syrian universities from thugs" which refers to the militias of the security agencies, regime and Baath Party.
Students formed the Free Syrian Students Union (FSSU) to counter NUSS which is supervised by the Baath Party and is dominated by security agencies. The unofficial FSSU formed branches at various Syrian universities that coordinate strikes and sit- ins.
Private universities owned by partners of the regime and key businessmen and attended by the children of the wealthy: Yarmouk Private University and Kalamoon University, are also revolting against the regime. Students at these universities organised many protests on campus demanding freedom and in solidarity with cities in revolt. University corridors are plastered with slogans and flyers demanding the overthrow of the regime, and these students were also subjected to a crackdown by security forces and in some instances were forced to lie on the ground and chant in praises of the president.
The FSSU condemned the positions of university presidents who did not issue any official statements protesting or denouncing trespassing by security forces on campus, and demanded that an investigation should be launched to find out who had carried out beatings on campus. They also demanded the dismantling of NUSS, saying: "it has become a tool of suppression and organised regime terrorism of students". They further urged private and public university faculty to resign their posts in protest of injustice and tyranny against the Syrian people.
It was not expected that students who each pay more than $7,000 in fees would join the revolution which some describe as the revolution of the disenfranchised and poor. In several statements, these students asserted that they are "part of the student body of private universities that were established by the corrupt Syrian regime" where they are treated "as clients, not students". They add that they "were forced to enroll in these universities after admission rates were raised at public universities", and that they pay "astronomical fees while all the administration and university owners care about is hosting extravagant graduation parties, and taking money from students every which way." They assert that their revolution is "for the sake of their future".
Syrian universities have largely joined the revolution and the voices of Damascus University students can be sometimes heard at the presidential palace only hundreds of metres away. Aleppo University suspended classes out of fear of the youth revolution, while bullets have outnumbered books at Homs University. Meanwhile, not one week passes without students at Deraa and Deir Al-Zur universities going out in protest.
The Syrian opposition insists that the revolution is not a religious one, orchestrated by the country's mosques, but one that is undertaken and planned by the youth -- at the forefront of which are university students. They believe that the participation of educational, religious and political institutions in the journey in search of freedom and dignity is a good sign. They add that scientific institutions and universities have today started generating bands of revolutionaries who have sworn that they will not continue their education before they complete their revolution. "No education without freedom" declared a banner at one demonstration.