The youths of the Syrian revolution rose up against the condition of wretchedness and despair that generations of Syrians have been captured in, for fifty years. By taking to the streets daily, the youths of the revolution express a profound consciousness that their wretched life is not a fate; that such condition is a product of a massive mishandling of public affairs; that their lived hardship at the local level is connected to arbitrary policy-making at the national level; that impulsive national policy-making is the result of the lack of participation, transparency, accountability, and an independent judiciary; that the lack of any possibilities to hold government to account is caused by the absence of power rotation; and that all this was legitimated by the successive Syrian constitutions in the past fifty years, which all brought the legislative, executive and judicial powers to coalesce, so that government becomes a tool to contain and silence discontent, and to produce fear, instead of guaranteeing human dignity. The youths of the revolution broke the wall of fear, and said everything in simple words. They questioned the foundation of their loathsome present and its political roots, and, with their dreams, they are now laying the grounds for a different future.
In this article, I attempt to accompany the revolution as it rises up against the prevailing political values, and as it creates and discovers the values that will be constitutive of the new Syria. I write about the values that the Syrian revolution is constituting, as it faces existential challenges. The peaceful revolution is entering the tunnel of regime frenzy and the game of nations. The whine of bullets and the stench of death penetrate to settle in the place. Yet the youths continue to take to the streets. They devise yet more creative forms of mobilization. And they continue to peacefully call for freedom and dignity in Syria. I wish to listen carefully to the sounds and actions of the youths, to get a sense of some of the values that they imagine as constitutive for the new Syria.
As I attempt to identify some of the values that are dreamt up by the youths of the revolution, I shall be selective, in hunting the best of what their voices utter, their pens write and their hands perform. I do so deliberately. From the reality of the revolution I wish to speak about the ideal representations of its youths, not the horror that surrounds it. I wish to talk about aspirations, not delusions; about dreams not nightmares; about moments that offer a glimmer of hope, not actions that lead to despair; about what the youths of the revolution want Syria to leave up to, not what they fear that it may sink down in. I want to walk in step with the youths of the revolution as they break up with their present lived political reality and imagine a new social contract. They are doing this every day, everywhere and in every means of expression.
I make no claim that what I write corresponds to the reality of the Syrian revolution. Indeed the reality is far richer, more complex and often less bright. I shall not put words in the mouths of the youths. But I shall aim to highlight the values that are most characteristic and distinctive of their movement and the most entitled to last. As I try to discern the values dreamt up and forged by the youths in their movement, I admit that this comes through my own personal impressions, which have a clear bias in favor of any movement that liberates the minds and brings hearts together, as opposed to movement that drives to seclusion, closure and division.
The spark that lit the uprising was a slap, thrashed by a policeman on the face of a young man in the Hariqa commercial district in the heart of Damascus in February 2011. Hundreds took to the streets immediately afterwards, chanting ‘The Syrian people will not be humiliated!’ At more or less the same time, the town of Deraa was in uproar over the continuing detention and torture of a group of students after they wrote ‘The people want the fall of the regime!’ on a wall at their school. The authorities humiliated their families as they demanded to know the fate of their children. The people of Deraa took to the streets, chanting, ‘Death before humiliation!’ The first bullet was fired, the first martyr fell and tens of demonstrators were detained and mistreated.
The demonstrations spread and death went with them. Individuals and whole cities were brutalized and abused. The sheer scale of the killing and torture exposed the authorities’ contempt for human dignity. The more the regime apparatus treated people like animals that deserved to be put down, the more Syrians realized that their own dignity would have to be the starting principle for any new social contract. A consciousness of human dignity and the dignity of a human consciousness were the values hymned by the youths of the revolution in word and deed. The revolution’s Local Coordination Committees proclaimed that the “Syrian is honorable.” For the Syrian revolting youths dignity is the starting principle for freedom.
There is no true freedom without human dignity. Dignity is not a value posited by the constitution or the law. It is not created by positive law, but is a moral principle; a pre-constitutional Major Premise, which finds its evidence in the natural right of the human being to exist on this earth. Human dignity precedes the social contract. The constitution comes to proclaim human dignity not to create it. Then the other rights flow. In the Syrian revolution, the consciousness of human dignity is radical, decisive and non-negotiable. The more the regime violates it, the more determined the youths of the revolution become, in making it a fundamental postulate in the constitution of the new Syria. Further values are derived from human dignity: the dignity of birth, the dignity of the body, the dignity of the self, the dignity of life, the dignity of death. A number of rights flow from human dignity and must be protected in the new Syrian constitution, without any exception. These include the right to childhood; the right to the inviolability of the body and self from violence, torture, sexual assault and other inhuman treatment; the right to receive dignified medical treatment; the right to pursue an honorable leaving; the right to a dignified death, burial and funeral. Syrians have never permitted and will never permit the most basic of these rights to be tampered with. Their revolution is thus irreversible and irrevocable.
From the very first day of the revolution the youths were calling for freedom, raising their hands in public squares and chanting ‘Freedom! Freedom!’ They scrawled the word on walls and banners; they uttered it in every language, including Kurdish, they sung and sketched the word “Freedom,” freely. Scarcely a demonstration went by without songs, signs and drawings calling for freedom.
Until the writing of these lines, the youths of the revolution have not yet obtained the desired freedom. They have nevertheless created atmospheres in which they are able to assert every day their freedom of opinion, and expression in all forms. In the time of the revolution, electronic magazines, websites, blogs and pages on social networking sites flourished after a system of selective licensing and an impossibly restrictive regulation have long prevented Syrians from freely publishing any printed material. Such publications write on the revolution and for it. They debate options concerning the fate of the revolution, and open discussions over the major social and political issues. They shunt aside all the arbitrary and constantly shifting lattice of taboos and red lines laid down by the regime over decades. All who work in such publications are guilty in the eyes of the regime. Nevertheless, every week, new magazines pop up, new pens bristle, which are all printed and distributed ever more widely.
The Syrian revolution proves that opinion in its best form is artistic expression. In the squares were demonstration are held, the chants for freedom quickly became songs for freedom. Indeed the most prevalent and longest lasting revolutionary act in Syria today is singing and satiric art. The youths of the revolution smuggle paintbrushes and ink, cardboards and colors. They stitch together sheets and cut up boxes, they bring loudspeakers and lamps, select vantage points to film from, and mount cameras. They work to secure the squares where they gather, young and old coordinating their efforts, and women even more than men. All this is collectively carried out, where singing is mingled with painting, to produce incessantly epic scenes of demonstrations. The revolution has been drawing its protests, and has blended drawing with music and theatre.
With their obstinate determination to publish and to express themselves, the youths of the revolution entrench the principle of freedom of opinion and expression, in its best form, as a constitutive value for the new Syria. They will accept nothing less than this principle becoming the bedrock of any legal system in the new Syria. Having tasted it, having extracted it with their blood, they will not accept less than the principle of freedom of opinion and expression becoming incapable of being subject to the restriction of the law. The law must simply guarantee the full exercise of such right. They will not allow that the publication of magazines and periodicals, the formation of groups and associations, and the emergence of initiatives and works of art and literature be dependent on the prior consent or permission of the authorities. They will not allow that publications and works could be subject to any censorship or subsequent control.
The constitution and the law must guarantee the freedom of opinion and expression, including the freedom to deride politics and politicians. This requires that the law must intervene to ensure that one citizen’s exercise of his or such freedoms do not interfere in the free expression or personal rights of another. An independent, transparent, just and legitimate judiciary will play a vital role in restraining abuses of these rights and in countering infringement on the personal freedoms of others.
For the youths, the revolution started, as they asserted their freedom to access information and disseminate it without censorship. The young man or woman of the revolution was once an ordinary person, who struggled with his and her wretched life in silence. With the revolution this young man or woman became a revolutionary, longing for free and dignified citizenship, and a journalist. Revolutionary-citizen, citizen-journalist, journalist-revolutionary: these are the identities in the time of the revolution. This citizen-revolutionary-journalist has perforated despotism, and broken through the barriers of discipline and censorship to publish information and news. He or she proclaimed that no authority shall have any power to prevent the free flow of information, no matter how brutal it becomes.
Journalism has merged with its subject until the two have become inseparable. The citizen-journalist-revolutionary suffers and reports on his suffering at the same time. His house is shelled, his family killed; awash with pain he tucks his camera under his arm and goes out to record what is happening for the rest of the world to see. The images, reports and information put out by the revolution outnumber those broadcasted by the traditional media outlets. The footage they produce does not show ordinary life taking place in ordinary cities, but momentous events in the Syrian history. In every image there is a scene, with profound symbolism. Regardless of the source or the brutality of what they contain, these images say something important. They bear witness to the reality of the revolution. They are also historical documents. Every hour, hundreds of images and reports from Syria’s towns are uploaded to the Internet. Every town has its own channel on YouTube, its own archive of pictures, its own network of revolutionary correspondents. This vast stock of reportage has broken the state’s monopoly on information, as well as that of the global news network. The news networks created by the revolution became sources of information with a reasonable degree of credibility.
In all they do the youths of the revolution are laying the ground for a Syrian society in which information and the access to it is free from censorship or state interference. They will not allow the constitution to state that access to information and its dissemination shall be free, subject to the restrictions of the law. They will not allow such formulation, because whatever the constitution will give in its text, it will be immediately taken away by the law’s procedural labyrinth. They will accept no less than a constitution that openly guarantees the unrestricted free access to information and its dissemination. The youths of the revolution will not permit less than the law guaranteeing the exercise of this freedom, without restriction.
The formation of news networks and journalistic bodies will no longer be conditional on the consent of the authorities. There will be no Ministry of Information in the new Syria. Who informs who? Everyone knows his or her news; everyone has access to information, and has the right to disseminate it without censorship. There is no information-as-propaganda in the new Syria, but only journalism that is exercised freely. The law would intervene to prevent restrictions on the freedom to have access to and disseminate information, and to prevent any infringement upon the other personal rights and freedoms guaranteed by the constitution. The authorities do not have the right to discipline or control the exercise of such freedom.
From the start of the revolution the consciousness of a common fate among Syrian cities was paramount. The demonstrations of Deraa could have remained confined to Hauran (which is the Darra wider region). Yet hundreds of Syrian cities, towns and neighborhoods quickly revolted in solidarity with Deraa. Scenes of demonstration reaffirming the sense of a shared destiny that bound the Syrian cities and towns in the face of the regime’s killing machine, repeat themselves incessantly. Hardly a single demonstration took place without the gathered protestors singing in support of other cities towns and neighborhoods, near or far. Cities remember one another, assuage their shared grief and tirelessly pledge their solidarity.
From the start of the revolution, the youths chanted ‘One, one, one! The Syrian people is one!’ In response, the regime shrieked about civil discord. Not a day went by that wasn’t packed with moments of pure symbolism, affirming the unity of the Syria people in its sectarian, communitarian and ethnic diversity. Hands were raised to the sky and the people shouted: ‘One hand! One hand!’ Scenes have repeated of youths from different cities, towns and neighborhoods making visits to other towns to demonstrate their solidarity; and hosts sheering in welcome to show the shared feeling of the common fate among the various components of Syrian society. The youths came to the squares to affirm their diversity, and to insist that their demands for freedom and dignity are shared by all. The aesthetic worldview of the Syrian revolution is constructed by the pens, ideas and initiatives of tens of Syrian writers, artists and intellectuals who are descendants of the diverse communities of Syria. The sap of the spoken, sketched, sung, written and dreamed revolution gushes from the diverse limbs of Syrian society, to create a unique fragrance of meaning.
The Syrian revolution is shaped by the assertion of diversity and the consciousness of the common that permeates such diversity. As it unfolds, the Syrian revolution draws the lineaments of a citizenship that is rich in its plurality, and unshakeable in its unity. It is a citizenship that does not conceal diversity, but does not let it become predominant in public life. It is a citizenship that seeks to know diversity, but does not allow diversity to become a source of political factionalism. It recognizes dissimilarity but does not allow proselytizing and preference. It recognizes difference but is not tired of communication. It embraces diversity and does not marginalize. It feeds on tolerance, and does not incite rancor. It encourages reconciliation, and does not provoke discord. It is a citizenship that is contemporary and creative. It is asked for and dreamed of by the youths of the revolution, despite the many attempts to submerge them in the darkness of ‘fatal identities.’ It is a citizenship that is rich by a plurality that feeds legislation with the best content, without bias, imposition or dismissal. It is a citizenship that gives every citizen, regardless of his religious, sectarian or ethnic affiliation, an equal chance to be elected to public office, and even to the office of the President of the Republic. This citizenship is no fantasy. It is flaunted every day by the young men and women of the revolution and it deserves to be the central component of public life in new Syria.
The Public Place
The demands of the youths for freedom, dignity and citizenship cannot be understood without the context in which all these is shaped namely, the implacable will to persevere with peaceful protests, and the costly pursuit to reclaim the public place.
The revolution began - and continues - as demonstrations and rallies. The more the regime tried to hem in and silence these demonstrations, the more deep-seated they became and the wider they spread. The youths of the revolution will not surrender their right to free and peaceful assembly and demonstration, a right for which they have paid with their lives. The most glorious gift a new Syrian constitution could give would be to honor the memories of the thousands of martyrs who have fallen in the public squares of Syria by enshrining the citizen’s inalienable right to freely and peacefully assemble and demonstrate without the need of any permission from the authorities. The right to demonstrate is one of the basic rights of citizenship. It ought to be exercised as part of the citizen’s right to exercise direct oversight over government.
As these lines are written, however, the youths of the revolution are yet to occupy Syria’s major public squares of the big cities. Nevertheless the youths flock in their modest neighborhoods and create their squares in the backstreets. They gather in coordinate movements, and they sing their determination to reach the major public squares.
Public squares in major cities were and still are used as places to pack crowds and produce scenes of the cult of the personality. In the time of the revolution, the meaning of the public squares is felt differently. They are seen as places where the authorities must be summoned into the presence of the citizen, after the citizen has long been dragged there to display allegiance to the authorities.
The public place allows the coming together of all components of society. It gives society an opportunity to know its own plurality. It is an opportunity for individuals to express their opinions freely, and to debate and discuss peacefully. It is the place where opinion exists and acquires a meaning. No opinion is meaningful without a sphere in which it is expressed. The public place is more than a physical site. It is for the youths of the revolution a state of mind that now structures their mobilization, and a new form of thinking that they have come to train themselves to adopt. The youths of the revolution assert that they are entitled to care about, and express their views on, public affairs. They understand this can only happen where the diversity of opinion is fully recognized. They create initiatives to call on the silent citizens to join without fear debates, discussions and deliberations about politics and public affairs, in a manner that does away with the stagnation that marked Syrian public life for decades. The revolution has imposed on Syrians the reality of the public sphere, in the wider sense. It has challenged them to fearlessly voice their views on major issues after living for so long in the “kingdom of silence.”
With their movement, the Syrian youths of the revolution have demonstrated their attachment to the values of freedom, dignity and citizenship, which all become meaningful in the public sphere. The revolution has given young people the opportunity to discover the meaning of these rights, to shape them with their mobilization and make of them an intellectual and moral frame of reference, through which they have been able to criticze their reality and imagine a new future. With every day that passes, tens are killed or imprisoned, whole cities are assaulted, just because these young men and women gather together to call for these rights. Each day, more and more Syrians become conscious of these rights and their desire for them grows stronger. These rights are no longer distant dreams or empty words. They have been taken up by the youths of the revolution. They have drunk deep of their essential meaning and given them life in their movement. Every youth who demonstrates today is an embodiment of freedom, dignity and citizenship. He carries within him a burning desire to implant these values in the constitution and the public life of the new Syria.
Translated from the Arabic by Robin Moger.
Abdulhay Sayed is a practicing lawyer and a lecturer in law in Damascus. He graduated in law from the University of Damascus and Harvard University and holds a DES and Ph.D. from Geneva University. He has authored numerous scholarly writings on international law in English and French, as well as law and society studies on Syria. His latest published article is “The State of Exception and its Resistance: A Socio-Legal Perspective in Syrian Society” in the edited volume “The State of Exception and its Resistance in the Arab World” (2010).