The Arab Spring Let the People Shout, Not Whisper

I was a teenage protester, then a prisoner, now a refugee. We won’t go back to silence.

A demonstration in Tunis in December 2010
People shout slogans during a demonstration in Tunis, Tunisia, on Dec. 27, 2010. Fethi Belaid/AFP via Getty Images

I was in fifth grade when the school’s officials ordered all the teachers at my school to end the day early and take us to march the streets of Damascus singing songs of admiration about the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. I arrived home from the daylong rally, excited to tell my father—a successful army officer—my realization: Our president had big ears like a monkey. He didn’t laugh with me. Rather, my father slapped my face and taught me a lesson I will never forget. He said: “The walls, windows, doors—all you see, smell, or feel around you, everything and everywhere—have ears. They can hear your words when you talk about the president, his friends, or politics. They can even hear your whispers.” I was 10 years old when I was first introduced to dictatorship.

Ten years later, when I was 15 years old, on Dec. 17, 2010, the thrones started to shake. The Arab world woke up to the news that a 26-year-old Tunisian man had burned himself to death after authorities banned him from trading vegetables in the city—his only source of income. His name, Mohamed Bouazizi, would be remembered as one of the martyrs of what would soon become a new Middle Eastern revolution.

At a time when most people believed that it was impossible for the Arab dictators to fall, Tunisian street merchants and their supporters gathered in demonstrations and forced President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali to flee the country. The Tunisian people defeated their dictator, who had been ruling Tunisia for over 23 years, after 28 days of demonstrations—and with minimal bloodshed. What casualties there were came largely as a result of police brutality. The Tunisian people rose up and called for freedom, sparking a new phase in world history, the Arab Spring. Shortly after the Tunisian movement began, the people of Libya, Egypt, and Yemen also rose up.

My family watched the Egyptian revolution on TV as millions of people marched for freedom. I remember my father whispering to me: “Could we see these great demonstrations in Syria as well?” He was excited but afraid to say it out loud. The walls could still hear whispers.

Eventually the Arab Spring did reach Syria. It started after 15 young children were arrested after writing on a wall “your turn is coming, doctor,” which was interpreted as an anti-Assad message. The children were taken by intelligence officers and endured torture: They were beaten, and their fingernails were ripped off. Among the children was Hamza al-Khatib, a 13-year-old boy who died under torture, slaughtered by Syrian prison guards. Within days, the reaction of their families and the people of their city created a storm that soon reached my hometown, Baniyas, and sparked our own revolution.

My father drove me to the demonstrations himself. Although he still only whispered, I understood that by driving me to the protests he was telling me that now was the time to take a step forward, because any step back would mean death. We were scared, but there was joy in the souls of everyone who joined the demonstrations. I remember my excitement. I felt I could jump and touch the sky when we yelled “Oh, freedom!”

Little did I know that in just a couple of years I would be in prison, while my father and brothers would be murdered in the same living room that was once filled with our excitement as we watched the demonstrations across Syria on our TV screens. Like more than 500,000 other Syrians, my family members would become victims of the Assad regime and the subsequent wars. A massacre took place in my hometown, Baniyas, and my village, Bayda, where the regime wanted to commit an act of ethnic cleansing of the Sunni people in the Alawite-majority area.

In every conflict there must be winners, losers, and victims. The Arab Spring, whether you consider it successful or not, has taught the people of the Middle East the difference between dictatorship and leadership. It has freed the minds of the people, at least, by showing them the beauty of calling for freedom after years of tyranny. It has also shown the West that the Middle East is open to democracy and change, and proved to the Arab regimes that violent suppression is not a solution, only a desperate delaying action.

The Tunisian, Libyan, Egyptian, and Yemeni people managed to get rid of their presidents, but they were not successful in toppling their regimes. Now, after 10 years of suffering and loss, people are facing the same struggles they faced before. In Tunisia, the motherland of the Arab Spring, the democratic presidential election of 2014 was a source of hope, but it soon became apparent that much of the same systematic corruption remained. Egypt has removed two presidents since the revolution began, only to end up with a new dictator: Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

Today in Syria, 11.5 percent of the population has been killed or injured since March 2011, and more than 12 million—more than half the population—are internally or externally displaced. Nearly 100,000 Syrians have disappeared in that period, mostly at the hands of the Syrian regime, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights.

The Assad regime, with the help of Russian and Iranian allies, has managed to retake most of the parts of Syria that were liberated by opposition forces, leaving more than 4 million people—a majority of them children—gathered in the small city of Idlib, the opposition’s last stronghold, fighting for their daily survival.

The opposition groups have had to survive by relying on sponsorship from other countries, such as Turkey and Qatar, which have their own ideas of what Syria should look like and have shaped the way these groups operate—leading them to turn on each other instead of focusing on the real enemy. In 2014, the Islamic State established itself in Syria and soon became the biggest danger that the Syrian revolution faced. The militant group did not hesitate to spend its resources killing opposition forces. It has turned the focus of Western countries from the brutalities of the Assad regime to the brutalities of terrorist groups. This has resulted in a lack of hope and trust in the Syrian opposition groups, and all that is left today is the hope people had when they went to the first demonstrations in early 2011.

As millions of young Arabs have grown up during the Arab Spring learning how corrupt their governments are, and how dangerous the security services that protect them are in turn, they had the chance to engage with people they disagree with, to find common ground. They have shaped a new idea of what the future should look like. They will keep fighting until they gain freedom, for the sake of those who died, fled, or were tortured under the regime’s control.

Millions of refugees have fled their countries to seek safety in Europe. Today, tens of thousands of them are studying at universities, and thousands are advocating for freedom and democracy, speaking for equality, dignity, and human rights. They managed to create new successes that contribute to the future of the region, shaped by their lives in Europe.

I wanted to attend the first demonstration to prove myself to my father. Changing how my father perceived me was my first revolution, but after 10 years I have ended up somewhere bigger. Like the estimated 215,000 other Syrians who have been detained, I saw what the regime was like in its darkest places. When I made it to Europe I was given my first taste of democracy. I experienced freedom. I could talk without having to whisper. If, like in Egypt, the Syrian revolution had ended in less than a month, we would not have learned so much about freedom, democracy, and human rights. Ten years of unrest will make Syrians the most capable people in the Middle East at rebuilding their country in the future. We will not make the same mistakes of other countries that have rid themselves of their dictators but are still trapped in corrupt systems.

We have been tortured, killed, and forced to flee our homes. But we are not broken. We have not lost our hope and will for change. Even if we had the chance to go back in time, to the time prior to our revolution, to the time prior to the killing and torturing of our families, loved ones, and hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians, we would still choose to break our cage of fear that has locked us for over 40 years. We would still choose to chant under our skies for democracy. The revolution we started was the first step on our long walk to freedom.

Omar Alshogre is the director of detainee affairs at the Syrian Emergency Task Force and a Syrian public speaker, currently studying at Georgetown University.

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