March 22, 2005 | New York Sun

Syrian Dissidents Find Their Voice As Lebanon Provides a Megaphone

With Lebanese democrats speaking up and Syria's occupying forces pulling out, it may sound unsurprising that one of Beirut's leading Arabic newspapers ran a searing critique this week of Baathist rule in Damascus, under the headline: “Why Lebanon Is Becoming Larger and Syria Smaller.”

Except the author of this piece is not Lebanese, but Syrian, writing – at serious risk – from Damascus. Signing himself as Hakam al-Baba, this journalist goes on to identify himself as someone who has worked for the past 20 years for a Syrian state newspaper, Tishrin. And like the Lebanese who for the past five weeks have been tearing down posters of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, Mr. al-Baba of Damascus is saying he has had enough.

In biting metaphor and with blunt fury, he describes how, under 42 years of Baathist rule, Syria's media has performed as a tin pot press. Reporters and editors have been required to stage Orwellian stunts in which the cruelties and depravities of the Baath Party are described as glorious deeds, in which “their corruption is turned into achievements, and their profligacy into profits.” Mr. al-Baba reminds his audience of the days before Baathist tyranny, when Syria had hundreds of lively magazines and newspapers instead of a few orchestrated, official ones. He calls for a press in Syria that would be free to “learn and make mistakes, get it right, fail and succeed” and write the truth instead of trumpeting on cue the party line.

And though he is publishing in a Beirut newspaper, An-Nahar, his audience is not only in Lebanon. An-Nahar editors say that while the print edition of their newspaper is banned in Syria, they have reason to believe their Web site is widely read. “It's a bomb in Syrian society,” one Lebanese observer says.

Mr. al-Baba's is no lone voice. In Syria, it is forbidden to criticize the government. The penalties can include time in Syria's notoriously ghastly prisons. But even under Syrian occupation, Lebanon has been freer than Syria itself, where people feel the full brunt of the Baathist regime – ranked by many measures as one of the world's most repressive.

Since the 1990s, An-Nahar, which is Lebanon's leading democratic newspaper, has been publishing dissident voices out of Syria. Lately they are on quite a roll. Last month, An-Nahar published a petition addressed to Mr. Assad and signed by more than 140 Syrian intellectuals, calling on him to withdraw troops from Lebanon. And recent weeks have brought a flood of articles, some from Syrians living in Lebanon, and some, like Mr. al-Baba's, from inside Syria itself.

These articles provide glimpses of seething discontent under the totalitarian regime of Mr. Assad. They also suggest that inside Syria there is a dynamic right now in which the regime is becoming weaker, and the dissidents bolder.

At An-Nahar's offices in Beirut, looking out on the same Martyr's Square where democratic protesters have camped out in tents for the past month, opinion-page editor Jihad El-Zein sits in his shirtsleeves, hustling to get out the next day's paper. He says that for years he has been publishing articles by dissident writers in Damascus, people he describes as “very brave.” He takes them from all schools, he says, Muslim Brotherhood as well as democratic.

Mr. El-Zein notes that these articles became significantly more daring following the overthrow two years ago of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. The neighboring Syrian regime, he says, was “very afraid of a popular upheaval in Syria” and somewhat loosened its grip. Syrian writers seized the chance to express themselves via the Lebanese press, “more and more freely.” These days, seeing the democratic spring in Lebanon, “They dare more and more.”

This past Sunday, Beirut's An-Nahar devoted most of its literary supplement to articles by Syrians, now comparing the repression in their own country to the democratic spring in nearby Lebanon. One of these articles, written by a citizen of Damascus, Abdul Hayy Sayyed, chronicled a recent sit-in staged by Syrian lawyers, and deplored the beatings and humiliations inflicted on them by state-dispatched thugs. Another, by Razzan Zeytouni, discussed how Syria's Baathist regime warps the idea of citizenship.

The same supplement carried a haunting set of vignettes by a young Syrian poet, Maher Sharafeddine, who, back in Syria some years ago, wrote a letter accusing the writers' union of being a puppet organization with its strings pulled by the government. He then fled Syria for the relative safety of Lebanon, though even here he was scared enough of the pervasive Syrian intelligence forces that he hid out at first in a ruined building.

Last week, Mr. Sharafeddine joined the million or so Lebanese who thronged Martyr's Square to demonstrate for sovereignty and freedom. His observations make an interesting counterpoint to the pro-Syrian Hezbollah demonstration staged in Beirut the previous week, at which the crowd waving posters of Syrian dictator Assad included, by many accounts, Syrians bused into Lebanon for the day to swell the numbers.

Mr. Sharafeddine's article ran under the headline, “A Syrian in Martyr's Square.” He wrote not about Lebanon, but about how being a Syrian in a democratic crowd “means to remember.” He remembers, from his time serving in the army, back in Syria, “the Kurdish conscript who tattooed the name of President Hafez el-Assad on his back in the hope that the interrogating office would not hit him there with the whip.”

He remembers childhood evenings in Syria, listening in terrified disbelief, “when elders used to tell stories about 'that guy' whose eyes became white with torture at a local intelligence branch, and 'that guy' who was led from his home naked except for his underwear, and 'that guy' who was led through the streets holding his shoes in his teeth.”

In Beirut this week there was a chance to meet with Mr. Sharafeddine, a robust 27-year-old man with a neat goatee and blue suede shoes. He is first and foremost a poet, not a political commentator, he explained, “But it is our destiny, we Syrians, to write on politics, because our situation is intolerable.” His hope right now is that inside Syria, “The situation is better than before. They are starting to talk.” And he traces the shift back to “when the Americans came to Iraq. This is the beginning of freedom and democracy.”



Lebanon Syria