- By Nate Wright
On the top floor of a towering apartment block in Cairo, half a dozen Syrian activists are hunched over their laptops. Each man organized demonstrations in his home town before escaping the Assad regime’s intelligence agents in the last few months. Now, armed with a list of trusted contacts that stretches across the borders from southwest Syria to Lebanon and Jordan, they have become a key link in the supply chain of an opposition movement that is struggling to outmaneuver a brutal crackdown. Donations collected from Syrians and well-wishers in Cairo are used to purchase cell phones, satellite communications equipment, medicine, and money, which is smuggled to friends and family members on the inside. In turn, protesters send out video evidence of attacks, which the men in Cairo catalogue, upload to YouTube, and forward to media outlets.
The men work with close contacts in their own villages and neighborhoods, independently of organizing committees or opposition bodies. Abdel Youssef fled from Ad Dumayr, a city northeast of Damascus. Syrian authorities went door to door there searching for military defectors on Wednesday night and he spent the day following their movements through eyewitness accounts. As he tells the story of how he fled, a Skype window flashes up on his screen. A woman he knows tells him that security forces attempting to arrest a man have captured his daughter instead. "Now I’m looking out the window," the message reads. "She is being beaten up by the security forces because she is saying ‘Allahu Akhbar’." Abdel Youssef passes on information like this to a contact in the Free Syrian Army, who he says use this information to block roads and set up ambushes in an attempt to protect demonstrations.
"In our area, the Free Syrian Army is very well organized," says Abdel Youssef, who acts as a communications hub for demonstrators in his city. He knows the location of the seven government roadblocks in Ad Dumayr. In one video, a friend holds up a pad of paper with the names and birth dates of those killed so that family members can claim the bodies.
He forwards his information to Omar Idlibi, a spokesman for the Syrian National Council, as well as international media outlets. But he works independently. Like the other activists in this safe house, six men in their 20s and 30s when I visited, Abdel Youssef only coordinates with his city. Abdel Rahman, from Damascus, works with his neighborhood and Omar, from Yabroodi, is in touch with his friends. All three gave only their first names to protect family members still in the country. Wary of people they don’t know and unimpressed with the politicians talking shop in Turkey, they work around the clock on the regional logistics of localized resistance. "I know about Damascus. Others know about other places," said Abdel Rahman. "When we come together we know about everywhere in Syria."
Turkey remains the political center for the opposition in exile, but Cairo is emerging as a vital logistical hub for the supply of dissidents within Syria and the dissemination of videos emerging from the country. They have come to Cairo for many reasons. As Foreign Policy reported in November, Assad’s allies are hunting Syrians in Lebanon. In Istanbul, activists say the Turkish intelligence wants to sign off on any political activities. "Because I am Syrian, the Turkish government wanted to know everything I did," said Abdel Rahman, who flew to Istanbul before coming to Cairo. He pointed to the men with him in the safe house: "We couldn’t do this in Turkey."
Syrian intelligence operatives are keeping a low profile here, but activists are not taking any chances. In November, the wife of Syrian television presenter, Thaer al-Nashef, was kidnapped in Cairo. He received text messages threatening to slit her throat and throw her in the Nile. She was later dumped, bruised but alive, in the street. When Syrian MP Emad Ghalioun arrived in Cairo, Akram Abdel Dayam took four cars to pick him up and drove through back streets to see if he was being followed. "Syrian intelligence is here, but it’s not as extreme," said Rami Jarrah, a Syrian activist who spoke to journalists under the pseudonym Alexander Page before he fled to Cairo.
The promise of safety, cheap prices, and a supportive local population that cheered on Syria’s revolution after ousting their own president in February, make Cairo an attractive destination for opposition members able to reach the country. With no land borders, activists are flying in and getting visas at the airport. Those who escaped without passports, like military defectors, are forced to go to elsewhere and most head to Turkey, according to Jarrah.
The Syrian National Council has noticed. Lina Tibi, a press officer working with the Council in Cairo, hopes to have a media center up and running in the city next week. Burhan Ghalioun, who heads the Council, flew in on Friday to meet with Secretary General of the Arab League, Nabil al-Araby, a day before the League meets to discuss the results of its monitoring mission in Syria. "We are here in Cairo because the Arab League is here," said Walid al-Bunni, the Syrian National Council’s director of foreign affairs.
While Syria’s opposition struggles to form a united front, most of the coordination with activists inside the country is happening through small, ad-hoc command and control centers like the safe house where Abdel Rahman, Abdel Youssef, and Omar live and work. Toby Cadman, a British lawyer engaged by the Syrian Emergency Task Force, has been working with activists to document crimes committed in Syria. He hopes to build a case to bring to the International Criminal Court. "The activists in Cairo have been extremely influential in this process,"he said. "A lot of what I obtain comes directly or indirectly from Cairo."
Jarrah, who is not connected to the activists in the safe house, says weapon smuggling into Syria has already begun. But Omar insists his group is holding off on supplying arms, for now. "As soon as the Free Syrian Army was created, it began communicating with the local coordinating communities," he said. "The Syrian National Council does nothing. It is all the local councils." Abdel Youssef, Abdel Rahman, and Omar agreed that their patience was wearing thin. "If no one from the outside helps, if the Arab League keeps giving [Assad] time, then we will arm ourselves," said Abdel Rahman. They say that March 15th, a year from the first major demonstrations in Daraa, is their deadline. "There will be a war if he has not stepped down by the anniversary of the revolution."