Posts Tagged ‘Ramadan’

The opposition in Damascus will have been waiting for a day like this. They needed it. For almost 5 months, the rest of the country has been taking to the streets, shouting, chanting and dying. But the capital remained frustratingly quiet.

But the first Friday of Ramadan has brought change. It’s hard to gauge the exact number at this point but reports from al Jazeera, Twitter, and first hand accounts suggest that the scale and ‘spread’ of last night’s protests were greater than anything seen before in Damascus. And the death toll keeps rising.

From the information that I have been able to gather so far the largest demonstrations were in the Midan area, just south of the Old City. Accordingly, Midan is also generating the most reports of dead and injured protestors. A YouTube video supposedly shows plainclothes police officers firing on protestors.

The other flashes of protest have occurred in a loop around central Damascus, a circle of dissent. There are unverified reports of protests in Al-Qadam, al-Hajar al-Aswad, Kafar Souseh, Harasta, Zamalikah, Maamouniyeh, Doumah and Rukn al-Deen, amongst others.

There have been no sequels to Tuesday night’s protests in Abu Roumaneh, Roudah and Salihiyiah but the fact that the opposition hit the area at all this week is quite a feat. Security is tight and, as mentioned in the last post, the area is staunchly pro-regime. But there is no doubt that the opposition activists and organisers will be eyeing the area up. If they can manage a repeat – angry protestors marching through the streets of the commercial and political heart of Damascus – it will be a major blow to the regime’s confidence.

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With the arrival of Ramadan, Syrians held their breath. Both regime supporters and opposition activists expected the first day of the holy month to be an eventful one. With reports of over 100 killed in Hama on Sunday, few people believed that Monday would be quiet.

The government attack on Hama which began on Sunday continued into the following day, bringing the death toll there to 150. When the tank shelling finally stopped in the evening, the cities residents came back onto the streets once again to demand the downfall of the regime. There are also reports of fresh attacks on Deir az-Zour and Alboukemal in the east of the country. Footage shows an endless line of military flat-bed trucks carrying tanks towards Deir az-Zour.

However, despite rumours floating around the activist circles in Damascus, the capital saw few protests. Optimistic opposition supporters whispered of an unprecedented demonstration on Umawiyeen roundabout. Unsurprisingly, it failed to materialise.

Speaking to several young Syrians who are usually out on the streets on Fridays, ‘shouting for freedom’, it quickly became clear that most, if not all of them, would be at home on the first night of Ramadan. I can’t blame them for preferring a leisurely Iftar meal with the family followed by a night of sheesha and TV rather than being chased around the streets of Damascus by regime goons.

The suffocating security presence was also a defining factor. Large numbers of shabeehah, positioned on key intersections in groups of up to 100, did a very good job of deterring open opposition. While initially the term shabeehah was used for plainclothes thugs, the definition has since been widened. The men I saw on Monday night wielding truncheons, wooden sticks and electric cables are a cross between a militia and an irregular police force. Most wear some sort of uniform, work alongside regular police officers and are rumoured to be paid by Rami Makhlouf, Assad’s cousin and one of the most powerful businessmen in Syria.

But despite the intimidating presence of the shabeehah, street life continued in Damascus. As to be expected on the first night of Ramadan, the city was far quieter than usual, but men, women and children still strolled through the streets, ignoring the occasional arbitrary arrest of suspected demonstrators.

While the oft-repeated phrase ‘every day will be like a Friday’ might have been an exaggeration, the coming week, and this weekend in particular, will be a better indication of what Ramadan will bring to Syria.

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There’s a lot of speculation as to what will happen once Ramadan starts on either 1st or 2nd July. No one doubts that the violence will escalate but to what degree and for how long is open to speculation.

Business in the Middle East slows down considerably as Ramadan lethargy sets in and one would expect that it would have a similar effect on an uprising. No one wants to shout for the downfall of the regime when you haven’t had a drop to drink since 4 in the morning. The problem with that argument, as a recent article in the National explained, is that “Ramadan will be like a month of Fridays. Every night people will leave the mosques and protest”.

One young Syrian that I spoke to predicted that Fridays alone will continue to be the big protest day but that gatherings will be on a scale greater than seen before as more people attend prayers during the month of Ramadan.

Whatever happens, there’s a good chance that August will be the defining month in the Syrian uprising.

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