There is a story making the rounds among Lebanese Facebook users about a Syrian democracy activist who was stopped at a Syrian Army checkpoint the other day. He reportedly had a laptop and a thumb drive on the seat next to him. The Syrian soldier examined them and then asked the driver: “Do you have a Facebook?” “No,” the man said, so the soldier let him pass.
You have to feel sorry for that Syrian soldier looking for a Facebook on the front seat, but it’s that kind of regime. Syria really doesn’t know what’s hit it — how the tightest police state in the region could lose control over its population, armed only with cellphone cameras and, yes, access to Facebook and YouTube.
You can see how it happened from just one example: Several Syrian dissidents have banded together and from scratch created SNN — Shaam News Network — a Web site that is posting the cellphone pictures and Twitter feeds coming in from protests all over Syria. Many global TV networks, all of which are banned from Syria, are now picking up SNN’s hourly footage. My bet is that SNN cost no more than a few thousand dollars to start, and it’s become the go-to site for video from the Syrian uprising. Just like that — a regime that controlled all the news now can’t anymore.
I don’t see how Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, can last — not because of Facebook, which his regime would love to confiscate, if it could only find the darn thing — but because of something hiding in plain sight: Many, many Syrian people have lost their fear. On Friday alone, the regime killed at least 26 more of its people in protests across the country.
This is a fight to the death now — and it’s the biggest show on earth, for one very simple reason: Libya implodes, Tunisia implodes, Egypt implodes, Yemen implodes, Bahrain implodes — Syria explodes. The emergence of democracy in all these other Arab countries would change their governments and have long-term regional implications. But democracy or breakdown in Syria would change the whole Middle East overnight.
A collapse or democratization of the Syrian regime would have huge ramifications for Lebanon, a country Syria has controlled since the mid-1970s; for Israel, which has counted on Syria to keep the peace on the Golan Heights since 1967; for Iran, since Syria is Iran’s main platform for exporting revolution into the Arab world; for the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah, which gets rockets from Iran via Syria; for Turkey, which abuts Syria and shares many of its ethnic communities, particularly Kurds, Alawites and Sunnis; for Iraq, which suffered from Syria serving as a conduit for jihadist suicide bombers; and for Hamas, whose leader sits in Damascus.
Because Syria is such a keystone nation, there is a tendency among its neighbors to hope that the Assad regime could be weakened — and therefore moderated — but not broken. Few dare trust the Syrian people to build a stable social order out of the ashes of the Assad dictatorship. Those fears may be appropriate, but none of us get a vote. Only the Syrians do, and they are voting with their feet and with their lives for the opportunity to live as citizens, with equal rights and obligations, not pawns of a mafia regime.
More than in any other Arab country today, the democracy protestors in Syria know that when they walk out the door to peacefully demand freedom they are facing a regime that has no hesitancy about gunning them down. Lebanese have been surprised by their sheer bravery.
“We have an obligation of solidarity with people in distress who are fighting for their freedom and their dignity with nonviolent means,” said Michel Hajji Georgiou, a writer at Beirut’s L’Orient Le Jour newspaper and one of the drivers of the Cedar Revolution here in 2005. “There can be no stable democracy in Lebanon if there is no democracy in Syria.”
Of course, the million-dollar question hanging over the Syrian rebellion, and all the Arab rebellions, is: Can the people really come together and write a social contract to live together as equal citizens — not as rival sects — once the iron fist of the regimes is removed?
The answer is not clear, but when you see so many people peacefully defying these regimes, like Syria’s, it tells you that something very deep wants to rise to the surface. It tells you that while no Arabs are really citizens today with full rights and obligations, said Hanin Ghaddar, editor of NOWlebanon.com, a Web site tracking the revolutions, “they want to be” and that’s what these uprisings are largely about.
Ghaddar added that she recently returned from New York City, where she ran into rival demonstrations in Central Park between people who insisted that horse-drawn carriages there were just fine and animal-rights activists who argued that these street carriages endangered horses: “I thought, ‘Oh, my God! I just want to live in a country where you have the luxury to worry about animal rights,’ ” not human rights. “We are still so far from that luxury.”