‘The Facebook rebellion seems curiously faceless’
Protests in Damascus, Syria, April 2011
At first sight the defection of more than three hundred members of the ruling Baath party in protest at the crackdown would suggest that Syria’s one-party state, in place since 1963, is beginning to unravel. What some people are calling the Facebook Revolution, an unprecedented wave of visible public protest, is led by a generation of media-savvy young people, more aware of the outside world than their parents were, who are demanding an end to the system of repression, corruption, and privilege that has been the hallmark of the authoritarian Arab regimes lying between the Atlas Mountains and the Persian Gulf.
Yet unlike the Muslim Brotherhood’s rebellion in Hama, which shook the government of Bashar al-Assad’s father Hafez in 1982, the Facebook rebellion seems curiously faceless. There are some signs of opposition violence with “plausible reports of security forces being ambushed by unidentified armed groups, as well as of protesters firing back when attacked,” according to the International Crisis Group. But these appear to be small and random incidents. The vast majority of casualties are the consequence of the regime’s brutality. The protests are largely spontaneous. There seem to be no controlling organizations or identifiable leaders, and the opposition’s ideological focus is unclear, beyond slogans calling for an end to corruption and repression.
Optimists see this as an implicit acceptance of democratic values and assumptions. Despite the increasingly desperate efforts of the region’s authoritarian governments to keep their people in the dark about the realities of the outside world by restricting information, the younger generation identifies with its peers in the liberal West and it knows what it is missing in access to material and educational benefits as well as civil and democratic rights. The problem is that while the Facebook generation knows what it doesn’t like, it is far from clear that there are structures in place, or being planned, that could provide the basis for an alternative political system if the regime collapses. Pessimists envisage a scenario encapsulated in the phrase “one man, one vote, one time” leading to a Salafist takeover and a settling of scores against minorities (including Christians) who were protected by the regime or benefited from its pluralist approach. More than 70 percent of the Syrian population are Sunni.
How did Syria come to this pass? While some observers see in recent events a parallel with 1989, with the break-up of the East European–style system introduced by the Baathists in the 1960s, this is no velvet revolution, nor is Syria like Jaruzelski’s Poland. The regime’s violence is not ideological. It is far from being the result of an emotional or philosophical commitment to a party that long ago abandoned its agenda of promoting secular Arab republican values and aspirations. The regime’s ruthless attachment to power lies in a complex web of tribal loyalties and networks of patronage underpinned by a uniquely powerful religious bond.