Interviewed 7/7/2011 in Qabon, Syria
Aired on National Public Radio in the US, using my alias Hussayn al Haqq
Qabon is a town of around 30,000, 5 km from Damascus. 11 people have died here since the beginning of the protests. To date, the people of this town have protested everyday for the last 44 days.
HH: Tell me about yourself and the organization you represent here in Qabon.
OK: I am the leader of SRCU in Qabon. I’m 29ys old and I come from an average family. My parents are government workers and I am an English literature graduate. I’ve lived here all my life. The revolution started here on the 18th March, just as it did all over Syria. We feel we have a major chance to do something and we can’t let that chance go.
HH: How does the SCRU function on a local level?
OK: We form around Facebook groups. There are 5 people in the administration of our Qabon group. One person sorts videos, another for news, another for technical support and so on. We also have many people working in the organisation of the protests as well – around 150 people throughout the town.
HH: Why did you decide personally to get involved in the opposition?
OK: After 30 years of Hafez al Assad, and 11 years of Bashar, we believe it’s enough. After the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, and the efforts in Libya and Yemen, we saw what we had to do. We were inspired by the protests throughout the region. The events in Dar’aa were part of it, but mostly we saw what people were doing elsewhere in the region. My family is very scared for me, and I know they wish I was doing something else or ignoring the situation. But I can’t – too many people have died for me to give up. I’ve seen people die in front of me – one man bled to death from a gunshot wound to the leg because we couldn’t get him to a hospital. This is an important cause and we won’t give up.
HH: There have been reports of Islamists operating in Syria, working to overthrow the regime. Can you explain why that might be?
OK: The Assad regime is trying to give Europe and the US the impression that an Islamic empire is being built up in Syria, which would be dangerous for Israel. Bashar likes to market himself in Europe as someone who can protect the west from Islamic fundamentalism. But there are no Islamic groups like this in Qabon at all. In the protests you see Muslims, Christians, and many other people with different ethnic backgrounds – it’s not about religion. This is the same all over the country. This government has two arguments – to the people of Syria they say Israelis and foreigners are starting the troubles. And to the west, they say its Islamists – its obviously all just empty excuses. When you see people coming out from the mosques, you can see them shout ‘Allahu Akbar!’ But this is just a rallying cry – it unites people. At the beginning it was also safer to say this than anything too explicit against the government. This is not about religion for us. None of the Imams have spoken out against the regime here – and we don’t need them. People don’t get their legitimacy from the mosques; we get it from each other. Its people power.
HH: You mentioned Facebook before. How important have the Internet, and applications like Skype and Facebook been to your efforts in connecting your different networks?
OK: The Internet is vital. We can’t move around at all in the streets, as the security forces are everywhere. It is very difficult to trust anyone. The “internet allows us contact with all the other coordinators around Syria, like in Hamah and Homs for example.
HH: How do you explain the pro-Bashar demonstrations? Why are people still supporting the President?
OK: I will give you an example. In Damascus University, after students complete their exams, the security forces load them into buses. They then take them to the pro-Bashar demonstrations. Those who don’t go, fail their exams. The regime forces or bribes many people to assist in the pro-regime rallies. It is true that some of their marches are genuine. 5 or 10 % believe in Bashar I’d say. But this is only because their businesses are linked to the regime and need the money to keep going. Its not necessarily because they feel he is the right man for the job, or that he is even a good man.
HH: Would the SRCU ever talk to the government?
OK: We don’t trust this government. There are tanks all over the country killing people. We cannot talk to a government that continues to kill people. Our strategy is to make as many protests as possible, all around Syria, from the country to the cities. And it is working so far. In Qabon for example, we have continued demonstrations everyday for 44 days. (We go that evening to the candle-lit vigil in front of the town’s main mosque. From 10.30pm, the electricity is cut. Nevertheless, 2,000 congregate in the darkness.). In the first month of the revolution, people only demonstrated on the Friday. Now we go out every night. And we reached 20,000 demonstrators here last Friday. That’s half the population of the city – virtually every man in Qabon.
HH: What do you think will happen during Ramadan?
OK: No one can predict what will happen here. This regime is crazy – we don’t expect anything. But Ramadan is the most important month of the year. If people see the government killing people during such a holy time, we will gain much more support. Ramadan is an important time economically also. So the SRCU have also been organizing economic boycotts all around Syria. We boycott certain products from businesses that support the government.
HH: Is there a structured leadership waiting to take over after Bashar?
OK: This is something we are talking about now. Bashar will definitely go. In either 5 or 6 days, or 4 or 5 months. He has to realize he is not wanted. So we have started making plans for a future without him. We want to bring all the right people into Syria to discuss the future and will bring people from all the different sects. We are already talking with people all over the country in order to form an opposition. But no one from the SCRU is going to be a political leader after this. We are organizing protests, and are trying to make them understand what might happen next, but no one from the union wants to work in politics. The average person here, to be honest, has no idea what will happen after a regime change. They hope things will be easier for them but they don’t really know how. So that is our job in the SCRU, to educate people about what might happen, and warn them against violence. Maybe there could be violence; there could be sectarian war. But we are working everyday to make sure these things don’t happen.
HH: Who inspires you?
OK: Omar al Mukhtar in Libya (the anti-colonial revolutionary who was hanged in 1931 by the Italians) – he was a poor person who believed in something and he tried to make it real. No surrender. In Syria, we had Faris al Khoury – who was Christian. (Khoury the famous Syrian Christian Prime Minister of the 40s and 50s.). And Saleh al Ali who was Alawi. The people who inspire me come from many different sects but they all had clear goals.
HH: What does democracy mean for you?
OK: Democracy means that when I see something wrong, I can say something. For me, for my group and for my people also. We want to be able to speak out and say what we feel. I hope that one day we will be able to live in freedom.