Middle East
3:03 am
Wed November 2, 2011

With Protests, Syrians Are Learning Politics

Originally published on Wed November 2, 2011 6:38 am

Government opponents in Syria have not been able to dislodge President Bashar Assad, but they are doing something the country has rarely if ever seen: they are organizing by themselves, outside of government control.

The massive street protests, demanding the end of Assad's regime, have defined the revolt over the past eight months.

But other things are happening as well, far from public view. In one quiet office in Damascus, Ashraf Hamza, 28, is leading a group of men at a session on community organizing.

"We are creating a new experience in Syria, a new example," he said. "It's not existed in Syrian society."

In workshops across the country, Hamza and his team of around 400 volunteers are teaching political skills that even include things like running a political campaign.

"Our work is long-term work," he said. "It's a process that changes the community itself, the society itself."

One goal, he says, is built on the hope that young people will be able to run for positions in parliament. There is no prospect of a free election now. But Hamza's work assumes that Syria is changing.

Learning Independent Thinking

Syria has never had real elections in Hamza's lifetime, but this past summer he and his partners completed a four-month on-line course from Harvard University on leadership and community organizing.

Hamza said perhaps the most important lesson he learned was the need for independent thinking.

"We are outside the box already, because we are trying, we are setting a new example," he said. "We are doing something that my parents, my friends, are not used to."

Hamza and his team started work a few weeks before Syria's protest movement began, says Hani Tarabeshi. He mentors Hamza's group, and also teaches entrepreneurship at a private university in Damascus.

"They are agitated, and they've had it with being complacent and reactive," Tarabeshi said. "They want to be proactive. They want to carry their future in their hands. They don't want to be dictated to."

That idea has been a driving force for so many young people in the uprisings across the region this year. Ashraf Hamza, the political organizer, counts those leading Syria's protest movement among his friends.

Some of them say he should join the protesters in the street. But others, he says, "believe the same thing I believe, that each one of us has a different role to do."

Shared Goals

Hamza says he shares many of the goals of the anti-government movement where a civil society is taking shape.

Activist Shakeeb Jabri has taken part in on-line meetings to organize tasks in towns where protests have been taking place.

"They do interviews with the families of the dead, to get the facts straight, they do damage reporting, damage analysis and reporting, they participate in activities to clean up the streets," he said.

A spontaneous movement eight months ago is now developing some structure.

"And they are learning fast. We've never had the sense of duty, we've never had the sense of responsibility, we've never had the sense of democracy before in Syria," said Jabri.

So far, this movement has failed to produce shared political goals, or a unifying leadership. An older generation of regime opponents says that because after 40 years of rule by Assad and his father, Hafez Assad, Syrians have to learn how politics work.

Ashraf Hamza takes his lessons from the problems faced by the youth of Egypt. They toppled an autocrat, but have so far failed to transform themselves into a coherent political movement.

"I'm sure they know something (about politics), but they can't apply it, or their goal was not to think about politics after their success," he said. It's a lesson he says he doesn't want to see repeated in Syria.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Syria is a country that has changed in ways many see as irreversible. Amid the protests and the bloody government crackdowns over the past eight months, a new political landscape is emerging. Probably the biggest change is that Syrians are organizing outside government control, as NPR's Deborah Amos reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in foreign language)

GROUP: (Singing in foreign language)

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of these videos, images that've come to define Syria's uprising - chanting crowds demanding an end to an autocratic regime. But this is also part of Syria's revolt.

ASHRAF HAMZA: (Foreign language spoken)

AMOS: A quiet office in Damascus, where a group of guys strategize about community organizing and leadership. 28-year-old Ashraf Hamza leads the meeting.

HAMZA: We are creating a new experience in Syria, a new example. It's not existed in Syrian society.

AMOS: The example Hamza is talking about, Syrians becoming politically active citizens - and that is very new. Hamza and his team, around 400 volunteers in all, teach political skills - organizing, defining goals, even how to run a political campaign - in workshops across the country.

HAMZA: Our work is a long-term work; it's a process that change the community itself or society itself.

AMOS: One goal, he says, is built on hope - that young people will take their places in parliament. There is no way to run in a free election now. But Hamza's work assumes that Syria is changing. And where did he learn the necessary skills - from Harvard University. In June, he and his partners completed a four-month online course in leadership and community organizing.

What did you learn from Harvard?

HAMZA: Uh, that learning matters.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

AMOS: Independent thinking matters, too - thinking outside the box, he says.

HAMZA: We are outside the box already...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HAMZA: ...because we are trying. We are setting a new example. We are doing something that my parents, my friends are not used to. So, I think we are out of the box.

AMOS: Hamza and his team started work a few weeks before Syria's protest movement began, spurred by the same discontent, says Hani Tarabeshi. He mentors the group. He also teaches entrepreneurship at a private university in Damascus.

HANI TARABESHI: They are agitated and they've had it with being complacent and reactive. They want to be proactive. They want to carry their future in their hands. They don't want to be dictated upon.

AMOS: That may be the single idea that drives so many young people in the uprisings across the region. Ashraf Hamza, the political organizer, counts those leading Syria's protest movement among his friends.

Do they say you need to come on the street with us; this is the way to do it?

HAMZA: Some of them, yes; some of them, no. Some of them believe the same thing I do believe, that each one of us has a role - different role to do.

AMOS: His role is different, but Hamza says he shares many of the goals of the anti-government movement, where a civil society is taking shape. Activist Shakeeb Jabri has taken part in online meetings to organize tasks and duties in protest towns.

SHAKEEB JABRI: They do interviews with the families of the dead to get the facts straight. They do damage reporting, damage analysis and reporting. They participate in activities to clean up the streets.

AMOS: A spontaneous movement eight months ago now has a structure beyond the demonstrations, he says.

JABRI: And they are learning this quick. We've never had the sense of duty. We've never had the sense of responsibility. We've never had the sense of democracy before in Syria.

AMOS: So far, this movement has failed to produce shared political goals or a unifying leadership. An older generation of regime opponents say that's because after 40 years of oppression, Syrians have to learn how politics works. Ashraf Hamza takes his lessons from the problems faced by the youth of Egypt. They toppled an autocrat but have so far failed to transform themselves into a coherent political movement.

HAMZA: I'm not sure if they don't know anything about politics. I'm sure they know something but they can't apply it. Or their goal was not to think about politics after their success.

AMOS: Do you think that was a mistake?

HAMZA: I think that was a lesson.

AMOS: It's a lesson that he doesn't want to repeat; preparing for the day after Syria's revolution whenever that may come.

Deborah Amos, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.