A woman stands in the middle of a busy Damascusstreet. Yellow cabs honk and weave around her. Her red dress, splattered withwhite paint, flows in the wind along with a red fabric banner held up above herhead like a translucent shield. A group of people gathers on the sidewalk toobserve as she turns side to side, for all to see. As we watch them watchingher through our computer screens, we hear a new sound — not a familiar chantof the revolution, but loud claps of extended applause. When she faces thecamera, we finally read her words: “Stop the killing. We want to build acountry for all Syrians.”
Her name isRima Dali, and she stood in protest alone, armed with a red scarf and apowerful message, in front of the Syrian Parliament on April 8. She would bedetained for two days for her dissent.
Dali’saction, while brave, would have been easy to disregard as a fleeting incidentif it hadn’t happenedagain, afew days later, in front of the Palace of Justice. And again a few days afterthat, when more people occupiedDali’s placeand even more onlookers clapped from the sidewalk.
Activistslike Dali, who had a strong presence at the beginning of the uprising, aretrying to rewind Syria’s clock to the early months of the revolution, when themessage of selmiyeh — peaceful — dominated the streets. During the past twoweeks, despite the regime’s relentless violence, Syria protested like it was2011 again.
During the10-day lull between the announcement of U.N. and Arab League special envoy KofiAnnan’s six-point plan for a ceasefire and its implementation on April 10,violence sharply escalated in Syria — as it usually does before everyinternational ultimatum directed at President Bashar al-Assad. But since then,while shelling and government attacks have continued in certain flashpoints,the daily death toll has decreased significantly. Within opposition circles,another sentiment was brewing even before the ceasefire: a realization thatit’s time to reclaim the revolution in order to reclaim the country.
For months,the civic and social activism of these peaceful protesters have been renderedobsolete next to the physical heroics of the Free Syrian Army’s (FSA) militaryoperations against the regime’s brutality. Peaceful protests in city squares notonly seemed impossible, but utterly useless against tanks, shells, and snipers.As armed resistance took its place within the revolution, the nonviolentactivists slowly became passive pacifists. In recent days, however, that haschanged.
This seashift has been evident in the change in tenor of the names for the Fridayprotests. Every week, anti-Assad activists take to the SyrianRevolution 2011 Facebookpage where, every Wednesday, they vote on the name of the upcoming day ofprotest. With more than 444,000 “likes,” the page is one of the most popularonline hubs of the revolution. In fact, people use the number of common”friends” they have with the page as a badge of honor: If you arepro-revolution and only a few out of your hundreds of friends have “liked” thepage, it means you need to find new friends.
On April 6– Good Friday — the chosen (and very awkward) name for the weekly day ofuprising was rooted in Islamic history: It was the Friday of “He who hasequipped a fighter has himself fought.”
The name wasintended as a call for Arab countries such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia to fulfilltheir religious duty and arm Syria’s opposition. In stark contrast, last yearon Good Friday, the Friday was named just that: al-Jumaa al-Azimeh, to expressthe unity of the Syrian people above divisive sectarianism. This time around,many asked: Why couldn’t the same name have been repeated again this year? Butthe long-winded name had won — by Facebook’s version of democracy.
Last week,before the Facebook polling closed for the name of the April 13 protests — theday after the U.N. ceasefire deadline, the day in which solidarity was key –one name was in the lead: the Friday of the Armies of Islam. Yet anotherdivisive (and completely off message) choice. This time, however, peacefulactivists were ready to take action and fight back in a battle for the Fridayname.
OnWednesday, April 11, media activists on Facebook and Twitter began a campaignto “rock the vote” for Friday’s name. They advocated the secular, inclusivechoice, “A Revolution for all Syrians.” It was an intense campaign. Usuallyaround 8,000 votes are cast each week, but last week there were more than30,000. It was as much a battle between Islamic sentiment and secularinclusiveness as it was a struggle between those dedicated to solely an armedresistance, and those who still valued the power of nonviolent activism.
The gapbetween the two names slowly narrowed, and eventually the message of unity wonby almost 2,000 votes. This small but significant victory unleashed palpableexcitement among Syria’s online activists: There was a sense that they had beenheard and gained control of the revolution’s message, at least for the moment.It was a needed boost of energy to a group of worn-out activists and, moreimportantly, it proved that a revolution within the revolution was not onlypossible but necessary.
Syrians’practice of naming the Fridays of the revolution was inspired by their Yemenicounterparts, who did the same thing during their revolution. The first Fridayswere named by the Revolution page’s administrators, and reflected the popularaspects and crucial demands of the revolution: Friday of Dignity, Friday of theMartyrs, Friday of Freedom for Detainees, etc. The names grew to have suchinfluence on the street that the various opposition groups decided everyoneshould have a say in naming each Friday. In an exercise of online democracy, avoting system was established on Facebook with a weekly suggestion of sevenpotential names — two nominated from the Revolution page, two from the LocalCoordination Committees within the country, two from the Revolutionary Councilsinside Syria, and one from the what is called the “red rose” group representingpacifists and secular individuals.
Some weeks,the names referred to current events, while others seemed to be random and atodds with the principles of the revolution. Fridays that request some sort ofintervention have become common: There has been a No-Fly Zone Friday, forexample, and Buffer-Zone Friday, a reference to the idea of setting upa safe zonefor anti-regime Syrians along the Turkish border. Some Fridays seek tolegitimize certain opposition factions — for example, “The Syrian NationalCouncil represents me Friday” and “The Free Syrian Army protects me Friday.” Infact, the Free Syrian Army was dedicated three separate Fridays of support.
The Fridaynames both stem from the street and in turn influence it. Especially for thepolitically charged names, the process seems to work in a cycle of forcedlegitimization: the Revolution page suggests the names, people on Facebookvote, the name is raised on banners held up by the people, who in turn givelegitimacy to the name that was given to them. The name becomes a part of therevolution’s timeline — each week, it appears in media reports and video clipsas the guiding principle behind the protests.
In the lasttwo weeks, the need for active voices of nonviolent resistance was apparent inefforts both inside and outside Syria. One instance of Syrians being inspiredby the world outside their borders was a flash-mob protest in the Sham City Center Mall inDamascus, which emulated flash-mob protests that have been popular formonths with university students across American and Canadian cities, though ofcourse without the same level of danger.
Anotherexample of youth activism occurred in the early morning hours of April 12, thefirst day of the Annan ceasefire, when a large group of University of Aleppostudents created a human SOSformation oncampus grounds. Armed regime thugs soon arrived, locking the gates to trap thestudents. Some were beaten and arrested in the aftermath.
Recently,the launch of the Zero Hour Internet campaign — a manifestocalling for mass protests to occupy the squares and streets across Syria –created a positive, revolutionary buzz. Video clips supporting Zero Hour camefrom prominent activists inside Syria as well as supporters outside. While many are skepticalwhether this hour will ever come to fruition, the strong, unified reception ithas garnered from activists, opposition military forces, and politicians hasunderscored the urgent need for this message.
These eventshave emerged in tandem with the U.N. ceasefire and the beginning of yet anothermonitoring mission, with the first five of an advance team of 30 monitorsarriving in Damascus on Sunday. The creative, nonviolent resistance tacticscounter the regime’s escalation of violence toward the Syrian people, despitethe agreed-upon ceasefire. The FSA, for the most part, has held the truce whilethe regime pounded areas in Homs, Zabadani, Idleb, Douma, Taftanaz and ruralAleppo with rockets and shells. Bullets from security forces and sniperscontinued to target civilians protesting in many areas of the country,including the cities of Aleppo and Deraa. Despite these gross violations by theregime, the opposition continues to restrain the armed resistance and call forpeaceful civilian protests.
Rima Dali’slast Facebook status before being detained was inspired by a Martin Luther Kingquote: “The means we use to achieve our goals must be as pure as our goals.”Her message has since become a Facebook page, and inspired a renewed campaignof nonviolence. One of Dali’s friends, activist and harpist Safana Baqleh, was detained while attemptingto protect her from security forces. She is still missing. On Monday, a group of activists protested in front of theMinistry of Interior once more. Their signs focused on the injustice Syriancitizens face every day at the hands of the police: “If you must arrest me,arrest me gently”; “If you want to arrest me, let my family know where I am”; andRima’s direct question about her detained friend Safana, “Where is theharpist?”
Using means as pure as ourgoals is one of the most difficult — but also the most important — principlesof the Syrian revolution. To follow it in the face of increased brutality, theopposition must fine-tune and recalibrate its actions and message as therevolution moves forward. The difference between the Revolution Facebook pageand Rima’s red scarf is the difference between forcing amessage and being the message. It is a lesson that the Revolution page, despiteits popularity, must embody if it wishes to remain relevant.
In thebeginning, no one thought Syria faced an endless list of Fridays ahead, butnow, 57 Fridays in, it may be time to rethink the practice of namingthe weekly day of revolt. The concept, once powerful and unifying, has growntired and divisive. The Friday with a perfect name, “A Revolution for allSyrians,” marked a rare moment of rewinding the past and perhaps capturing aglimpse of what may have been if we had not grown passive. It’s a moment worthholding on to for a while.
Let everyFriday be a day dedicated to the Syrian’s people fight for freedom and dignity.And let each one be called, simply, Friday.