Tensions have been smoldering for more than 40 years within Syrian society, spanning over the rules of both Hafez and Bashar al-Assad. Creativity was bound and all kinds of human rights violations were committed in the country, and this goes without mentioning poverty, corruption and monopoly of power.
As the Arab Spring broke out, intellectuals—including writers, artists and media professionals—witnessed indescribable controversies, debates and enthusiasm. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak resigned, and intellectuals celebrated freedom and shouted their support to Egypt. We exchanged congratulations over the phone and Facebook, and I personally did not sleep that night.
However, many of those who shouted their support for Egypt and stayed awake until morning to celebrate victory failed to take to the streets at the start of the Syrian uprising. Many figures who were close to the opposition prior to the revolt questioned its objectives. Second- and third-tier figures moved to the forefront.
The uprising in Syria was initiated by educated Syrian young men and women. They started the first protests in Damascus and were the first to be pursued and arrested. Intellectuals are still an important part of the rebellion in Syria and are not getting the media support they deserve, even though they are characterized by awareness, foresight and diversity. This lack of exposure is linked to the agendas of some media outlets. This prevents many classes of the population from joining the uprising, and it delays the fall of the regime.
But the largest swath of intellectuals and artists remained silent. They had several concerns—including the regime’s repression, fear of arrest, murder and displacement. They also shared concerns with minorities, which the regime has been masterfully playing ever since it took power, and feared an Islamist takeover, since protests are starting from mosques. (Some young lay intellectuals, however, started out from mosques with the others, because mosques are the only places where people can gather under the emergency law.)
The regime did its part to stoke intellectuals’ fears. It claimed that the uprising was led by extremist Salafists and armed gangs. It said the rebellion aimed to undermine the Resistance. It said al Qaeda was involved to manipulate the international community’s fears.
In spite of all that, certain names from all over the Syrian religious, sectarian, political and intellectual spectrum still shone, breaking the walls of lies erected by the regime. Despite being arrested, tortured and deported, certain intellectuals called for a country that respects its citizens’ dignity, justice and freedom. Some were beaten, such as political cartoonist Ali Farzat; some were arrested, displaced or chased out, such as Palestinian leftist intellectual Salama Kayla; others were accused of treason and exposed to smear campaigns in the media; and many were fired from their jobs and blacklisted from employment.
Many intellectuals issued declarations such as the Milk Statement, calling for ending the siege on Daraa’s children, and took part in protests, coordination meetings and media events. The landmark event of the intellectuals’ movement was a protest held in July 2011. This demonstration, which started in front of the Al-Hassan Mosque, ended with everyone being arrested. As well as myself, artist May Skaff, writer Yem Mashadi, director Nidal Al-Hassan, media figure Iyad Shraygi were arrested and held in detention for four days. The Friday following our arrest was dubbed the “Friday of Freedom Prisoners.”
In conclusion, despite the regime’s attempt to distort the revolution and its routine recourse to criminal behavior, most Arab intellectuals failed to support the Syrian revolution, though never failed in the past to talk about freedoms and human rights, which are concepts the Syrian uprising is all about.