Inside (and outside) the revolution

Etudiant en journalisme à Cambridge et spécialiste du Moyen-Orient, Thomas McGee a passé six mois dans la ville d’Alep, en Syrie, au plus fort du mouvement populaire. Ses observations, pour le site Aspenia de l’Institut Aspen Italie, sont plus nuancées que les articles de la presse internationale, écrits le plus souvent par des journalistes qui n’ont pas eu le droit de se rendre dans le pays. Entre les partisans de la révolution et les défenseurs du régime, une grande partie de la population hésite et se situe dans l’entre-deux.

Being on the inside of a highly media-covered event can be a profoundly strange experience ; no less when international journalists are few on the ground. This is how I witnessed the six-month unfolding of Syria’s revolutions from the vantage point of its second city, Aleppo. With little mobilization on the streets, an article in the Los Angeles Times describes how, “the people of Aleppo appear to be going about their lives as if the revolt were in another country”. This proximity, yet distance was felt again as I had to turn to correspondents in Beirut and Cairo – unable to operate within the country – to keep me up-to-date on happenings elsewhere in Syria.

With international broadcasters accused of conspiracy against the Assad regime, the Syrian state media’s attempts to whitewash the public became increasingly transparent and desperate. At the same time, the bilingual observer may note a curious contrast in the presentation and selection of material between both the BBC and Al-Jazeera’s Arabic channels and their respective world and international counterparts. This difference is obvious even from the visual aspects of Al-Jazeera’s delivery of news on Syria. For, while the international program is broadcast from a non-descript studio, the Arabic version’s daily Syria bulletin is set against a backdrop montage of iconic revolutionary moments from past months – including a man with arms out-stretched in the shape of a victory sign and an emotive shot from the funeral march for Hamza Ali al-Khateeb, one of the first and youngest martyrs of the revolution. Whether such differences are an indication of calculated bias towards different audiences, or merely the work of independent (and parallel) production teams is open to debate.

Nonetheless, as events developed, I came to feel a certain disconnect between the news reports and those stories I was hearing first hand from friends and colleagues around the country. The salient difference was not so much in the facts narrated – although error and inaccuracy would be natural in view of the press’ shrinking operating space and its consequent inability to properly check facts on the ground. Rather, the difference was one of attitude : that the complexity of views I was hearing within the country was rarely conveyed by the media sound bites of eye witnesses and local commentators.

While the political struggle since March has played out between two distinct camps – pro-democracy revolutionaries and government defenders –, it does not necessarily follow that public opinion should subscribe so neatly to the same binary structure. In fact, attitudes are far more nuanced, with many finding their own position somewhere in the middle. Often rhetoric is borrowed from both poles – condemning government brutality towards its own people, yet apprehensive of the revolutionary process and post-revolutionary future. Many of those I spoke to were consciously ambivalent about the protest movement. “I support the ideological basis of the revolution,” explains Sami, a university student, “but that doesn’t stop me from worrying about where it is taking us.”

As such, the anti-government protest slogan “The Syrian people is [sic] one” may be an effective rhetorical device for mobilizing the opposition, but it is far from descriptively accurate. In fact, in challenging a regime, which claims authority by the subordination of every citizen into a singular national ideology, it appears that popular protest is forced to reproduce, albeit in subversion, that regime’s logic of absolute unity. Indeed, the regime’s popularity has long been contrived around the construct of al-sha‘ab al-suri (the Syrian people) – a collective noun that functions grammatically as a singular entity. Perhaps appropriately it is the same sha’ab who now “want(s ?) to topple the regime” as per the standard cry of anti-government demonstrators.

Yet beneath the linguistically forged unity of a homogenously thinking and acting people, lies a plurality of public opinion. Even in Aleppo, where the “silent majority” has been dismissed as conservative and politically uninterested, many are no longer squarely with the regime. Those who once declared full allegiance to the government, and are possibly still nominal supporters, find themselves tuning to Orient-TV – the overtly partisan opposition channel – in order to hear the daily death count. One local business owner from the Christian community commented, “I can no longer trust the words of the President when what he says is so far from what we all now know is the reality. Months ago, I would speak about ‘those who have died’, now I speak about ‘those who have been killed’.” As I enquire about the significance of the presidential photograph that hangs on his office wall, he says, “my support is no longer through love for the President or his government, but through lack of a viable alternative.” He explains that for many in Aleppo, political affiliation is context-based. For example, he suggests, “you might say one thing in front of your father and another thing in front of your mother. This does not mean that you are lying to your parents, but that there are conventions of expression.”

This social aspect of political engagement is explored well by Syrian-American writer Amal Hanano (pseudonym) in her series of articles composed over the summer. She is one of few commentators who has effectively articulated, and furthermore informed, my experience of the Syrian revolution. Her accounts resonate with many of my own conversations with Syrians during this period. Further, she reveals something of the identity of the Aleppian “silence” – a process that becomes a very personal interrogation of her own Aleppian self.

However, in trying to come to terms with membership of a people that has participated little in the national uprising, Hanano is critical of her hometown’s inaction, which she explains in terms of shameful cowardice, lack of empathy and a failure to act on one’s convictions. She, therefore, instinctually reads silence as the non-fulfillment of revolutionary will, or in her words “the opposite of having a conscience.”

Yet daily conversations have shown me that those sitting on the Aleppo fence do not constitute a homogenous group, nor is their attitude static. Many have been just as outraged as Hanano by the regime’s aggression ; their attitude is only tempered by the fact that they do not share her optimistic – or perhaps idealized – prognosis of life “with nothing to fear, nothing to doubt.” Noura, young mother of three, says, “I would like to see the changes the revolutionaries talk about, but I have to think about the costs. How many people will die, and for what result ?” She continues, “I fear that the government is a lot stronger than the protesters first thought. Overcoming the current stalemate could be very destructive.”

“Of course no revolution is without its casualties,” adds her husband Khalid, an iron manufacturer and trader. “Can the revolution be an end in itself ? This, for me is the important question. Sometimes, I think it can. Other days, I am less hopeful and think our citizens are dying and nothing is coming in return.” Khalid also worries about whether the opposition is strong enough to fulfill the revolutionary project, even if Assad were to be defeated.

“There is also the complication of sectarian tension,” he says. I suggest to him the possibility that sectarianism is simply a card played by the regime to re-assert its power as “protector of the fabric of Syrian society.” To this, he responds, “Yes, we suffer from the specter of sectarianism, but I fear that the government has not only been exaggerating the specter, but through its clampdowns on civil opposition, they are empowering the sectarian forces and making their threat increasingly real.” He explains that he has full faith in the judgment of his fellow Syrians – demonstrated by their peaceful protests and calls against sectarian division – but that “the regime seems determined not to back down without bringing everything down with it.” He feels that irrespective of their will, Syrians will be left a single choice : “to be free or to be safe.” He looks back at his family before concluding, “our silence can never be painless.”