This article was originally published in November 2011 in the Vibe
The Arab Spring was out in full force in London on the last weekend of November. The flags of Arab nations waved outside of embassies; angry Syrians, Egyptians and Bahrainis shouting in solidarity with their brethren back home. I went down on Saturday to stand in the cold with some of these demonstrators and to see how their own little wars in this affluent corner of London reflected the wider struggles in the Middle East.
First stop was the Egyptians. Just south of the Americans’ imposing behemoth on Grosvenor Square, the Egyptian embassy is tucked away down a small road, housed in an unassuming white building. Even from only a block away, the protest sounded quiet. The narrow streets contained the noise, preventing the sound of guttural Arabic slogans from escaping the tightly confined protest area. But it made it all the more impressive once you had reached the fenced-in group of demonstrators.
Young Egyptians took it in turns to lead chants denouncing the military junta in Cairo, demanding an end to the violent crackdown on peaceful protesters in Tahrir Square. The crowd was a passionate and vocal one. A diverse mix of Egyptians, British-born Egyptians and just about everyone else (including a few Occupy London protesters), they huddled together to wave their banners.
A pleasant lady from the media-relations team, dressed in purple coat and day-glo yellow, happily explained the protest. Although the gathering aimed to influence the opinions of the diplomats working inside the embassy, they also hoped to raise awareness with “the average man on the street”. After all, “with all the events going on in the Middle East, it can be hard to keep track of everything. We’re here to make sure that people don’t forget or lose interest”.
But most of all, the demonstration was about solidarity. A few wore gas masks, in solidarity with those dodging tear-gas canisters in Cairo. Others had eye-patches, after it emerged that the security forces were deliberately aiming rubber bullets and canisters at demonstrators heads, thereby causing a high number of eye injuries. These ghoulish figures stood stoically amid the noisy crowd, drawing the attention of the small number of press photographers.
Perhaps the most compelling figure however was a short, stocky woman wrapped in the Egyptian flag. She had found her way to the megaphone and held it aloft, stomping the ground and throwing her head back as she shouted. Her charisma was immediate and the crowd pressed all around her, echoing her chants.
Outside the Syrian embassy, things were just as passionate but the immediate impression was more wedding party than political demonstration. Having passed an angry Bahraini protest outside the Saudi mission, I arrived to find men dancing in circles to the rhythm of a drum, the rasping beat encouraging even the oldest of participants to join in. A half ring of smiling women and toddlers stood at the side, clapping in time. Guys dressed in typical Syrian fashion – pointy leather shoes and eighties-collared shirts – jostled for access to the megaphone, rousing the rabble to keep moving.
But behind the festive atmosphere, the motivation of this weekly protest was brutally clear: “The people want the execution of Assad”. They called for Syrians to stand up to the President, taunting the apathetic residents of Aleppo who have yet to join the uprising. And of course, they demanded some form of international assistance. What exactly that might consist of, no one could answer. When commenting on the impending Arab League sanctions, Ali, an organiser with Ba’ath party heritage, said, “They should have done something long ago. We have no hope of help from the Arabs. Instead, we are more hopeful of Turkey doing something”.
As with the opposition inside Syria, the official position was that there can be no dialogue with a murderer. But the point has led to rifts within the protestors’ camp. Leaders from a Kurdish opposition group had recently attended a meeting in Paris with Rif’at al-Assad, uncle of the President. Having directed the 1982 massacre of between 10,000-20,000 Syrians in the town of Hama, meeting with him was seen as an insult by many.
Exacerbating the rift, the Kurdish opposition in London has become increasingly vocal about Kurdish succession from Syria. The proposal would see the country lose a large part of its northeastern territory. Unsurprisingly, the Arab Syrians here in London weren’t too happy about the idea. And so this week, for the first time since demonstrations began outside the embassy in February, the Kurds and Arabs were separated by a line of metal barriers, Syrian flags on one side, Kurdish on the other. Several scuffles broke out between the two camps, fists flying across the barrier, and the police were forced to intervene, eventually carting one Arab Syrian off to a waiting van.
But a fistfight on a Saturday afternoon is the least of the dangers facing these demonstrators. In cases well documented by the media, as well as Amnesty International, protesters have been threatened and intimidated by people working for the regime. Family members still in Syria are often taken hostage to ensure compliance.
Yet every Saturday, since the so-called Arab Spring kicked off a year ago, men, women and children have been clamoring to make their voices heard in these white-stuccoed corners of London. Their aims are often vague and the organization is haphazard but the passion is real. They are driven by anger at ruthless despots as well as loyalty for a home they left behind. And, unfortunately, they’ll probably be a feature of SW1 for a while to come.