Syrian Uprising Expands Despite Absence Of Leaders

In a photo provided to AFP by a third party, Syrians demonstrate after Friday prayers in the central city of Hama on July 22. Syrian security forces killed at least eight civilians as more than 1.2 million protesters swarmed cities to protest against President Bashar al-Assad's rule, activists said. i i

In a photo provided to AFP by a third party, Syrians demonstrate after Friday prayers in the central city of Hama on July 22. Syrian security forces killed at least eight civilians as more than 1.2 million protesters swarmed cities to protest against President Bashar al-Assad's rule, activists said. -/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption -/AFP/Getty Images
In a photo provided to AFP by a third party, Syrians demonstrate after Friday prayers in the central city of Hama on July 22. Syrian security forces killed at least eight civilians as more than 1.2 million protesters swarmed cities to protest against President Bashar al-Assad's rule, activists said.

In a photo provided to AFP by a third party, Syrians demonstrate after Friday prayers in the central city of Hama on July 22. Syrian security forces killed at least eight civilians as more than 1.2 million protesters swarmed cities to protest against President Bashar al-Assad's rule, activists said.

-/AFP/Getty Images

Syria's uprising has been called the YouTube Revolution. The protest videos from cities across the country are a guide to how the movement works.

The banners and the slogans are remarkably similar, from the city of Dera'a in the south, to Hama on the central plain, to the eastern desert town of Deir Ezzor. Even in the capital of Damascus, the chants are the same: "It's time for President Bashar al-Assad to go."

Yet there are no leaders directing the chants at these rallies. There is no national leadership, even behind the scenes, says Rami Nakhle, a spokesman for the Local Coordination Committees, the LCC, the most well known of the groups opposing the regime.

"Actually, we are doing our best not really to have leaders, because the classic leadership concept is really not working with this uprising," said Nakhle, who is operating from Beirut in neighboring Lebanon.

The reasons are practical. The Syrian regime has targeted anyone who is seen as an organizer of the protests.

"If we name them, we are really putting them in grave danger," said Nakhle.

But there is something even stronger at work, said Nakhle. This Syrian generation has grown up under an authoritarian system and distrusts any kind of leadership.

"If some leader or some person starts to behave as a leader, the crowd will knock him down," he said. "Everybody really feels anger towards leadership and authority on them."

The result is an uprising that appears improvised, locally based, and driven by young activists who are backed by large numbers of angry citizens.

"We don't need anyone. It's our freedom and we have to fight for it. We are not afraid," said Mohammed Ali, an activist in Damascus who connects with other activists through Facebook.

Another Damascus-based activist, Amer Sadeq, uses an assumed name, and communicates in code on Internet sites. "You cannot trust anybody," he said. "If you trust anybody and he makes a mistake, then you are detained, that means almost certain possibility that you will be tortured."

While the groups in different cities are in touch through Internet chat sites, they can take a week to decide on the Friday slogan and tend to coordinate little else. They agree on ousting the Assad regime, but so far, there is no grand structure or strategy beyond keeping up the pressure on the street.

"It is a strategy," says Rami Nakhle, "making it look to (President) Bashar al Assad that every day is worse than that day before and to keep pushing until something cracks."

But as the international community distances itself from the Assad regime, one question has become more urgent: Who is the opposition and can get their act together?

"I think the international community wants a list, a list of 20 people whom they can check their background, and then they can talk with," said Wissam Tarif, head of a Syrian human rights monitoring group. "Well, there is no list and there will not be a list."

Political organizing is new for Syria, especially under an autocratic system that prohibits any meetings not sanctioned by regime.

"There is an internal process, a process that is taking place in the street, which we will have to wait to see what happens there," he said. "No one can control that. The real show is taking place on the ground with the protesters. And they will decide. No one else."

Still, some activists feel they need a transition plan that answers the crucial question: What next?

At a meeting in Beirut, Nakhle, one of the founders of the LCC, opens his laptop and explains a complex chart that he's been working on for weeks. Every city has what he calls a central committee. There is an LCC parliament, and a list of "advisers." For the first time, the grassroots movement is reaching out to Syria's older generation of dissidents for help to map out a transition plan should the Assad regime fall.

It may look great on the screen, but Nakhle admits that less than half of it is actually in place.

"Today we are ... playing with politics, we need to be more mature," he said.

But the Syrian government is not playing at repression. And the protest movement may need to mature quickly in a country where the violence is growing greater by the day.

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