BEIRUT (Reuters) – Organizing a popular revolution is no easy task in a police state like Syria, where “mukhabarat” intelligence men lurk in cafes and outside apartment blocks while their colleagues monitor internet chatrooms.
But despite their fearsome reputation, President Bashar al-Assad’s security agencies have still failed to quell five weeks of unrest inspired by protest movements flaring across the Arab world from Tunisia and Egypt to Libya, Yemen and Bahrain.
While thousands of Syrians in some cities have mobilized to demand greater freedom after 48 years of authoritarian Baath Party rule, protests came later to Damascus, with the authorities determined to prevent the emergence of any protest camp on the model of Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
The government has severely restricted foreign media.
“You feel the atmosphere is electrified,” said a 24-year-old university student, who goes by the pseudonym of Nour. “Security forces are always around you,” she told Reuters from Damascus.
She describes men in trademark black leather jackets hovering at cafes where she and her friends meet, or hanging around in old white Peugeot cars parked near thoroughfares.
After living under repressive Baath Party rule since 1963, Syrians know when they are being watched.
“The Syrian citizen can smell the mukhabarat a mile away. A young child can detect them,” said Nour, who lives in a Damascus suburb and who joined a pro-democracy protest at the Interior Ministry last month.
“He drops money, picks it up, drops it again, picks it up again, how many times is he going to drop money?” she said, describing how a secret policeman attempts to escape notice.
Keeping out of sight of the mukhabarat is vital for protest organizers hoping to overwhelm security forces with sheer numbers of peaceful demonstrators.
An activist and journalist who uses the name Hayam Jamil said young activists meet in homes during the week, rather than risk detection by going online to organize protests.
“The meetings usually take place in the homes of single people. Organizing committees talk to people, give them slogans, write banners and tell people where to meet and when.”
BARRIER OF FEAR
On Friday, tens of thousands of Syrians took to the streets, including in several Damascus suburbs. While the barrier of fear has crumbled, Damascenes still look over their shoulders.
Nour said that, like many Syrians, a shopkeeper acquaintance gets news of protests from Arab satellite channels, which the authorities say misrepresent the turmoil shaking Syria.
“But as soon as someone strange or who looks like mukhabarat appears, he immediately switches to Syrian television or (Hezbollah’s) al-Manar television,” she said.
Jamil uses code when discussing the protests in public. A friend asked her recently if more Syrians would join in. Just then, Jamil noticed some men walking next to them.
“Half of them are on fire. The other half won’t stay in the fridge,” she said, referring to those who had not yet protested.
The authorities have also launched a campaign to discredit the pro-democracy movement, with posters on billboards saying “The only road for reform is through Bashar.”
Many shops and cars in Damascus display flags and pictures of the youthful president, although residents say these shows of loyalty have dwindled as bloody crackdowns on protesters intensify. Rights groups say more than 220 have been killed.
The upheaval has changed the atmosphere in other ways too. Nour said her fellow students were speaking their minds more boldly. “Lectures are turning into discussions,” she said.
A professor talking about the “conspiracy” facing Syria had expected those who disagreed with him to stay quiet out of fear and those who agreed to speak out in support, she said.
“Instead he was surprised that out of 20 students, 16 were completely against him and only four supported him.”
Activists believe Assad’s grip on power is weakening.
“(The regime) doesn’t even have a one percent chance,” said Jamil, who distributes videos and disseminate information about the protests to her 3,000 Facebook ‘friends’.
“The regime has fallen morally, it is only a question of time before it falls practically.”