Inside The Arab Bloggers’ Minds: Europe, Democracy and Religion

Monitoring Facebook and Arab Blogs from March 1st to May 26th 2011

Table of Contents
Young Arabs and the Internet
Main groups in the Arabic language blogosphere
Blogosphere overview 
Does Europe enjoy the trust of the Arab Youth?
Democracy – illusion or reality? .
Turkey – a mediator or a gambler?
What does the media say? 
What do young Arabs really want?

Young Arabs and the Internet

The Middle East and North Africa region (MENA) has the second highest percentage of young people in the world. According to the 2010 World Population Data Sheet, the population in the MENA region is around 384 million people. Over 30 percent are between 15 and 30 years old.

According to the Arab Media Outlook Report 2011, there are 65 million internet users in the MENA region.

In the first quarter of 2011, there were more than 30 million Facebook users. Egypt alone had 7,339,660 Facebook users in mid May 2011, a third more than in December 2010. In 2010, 35 percent of Arabic discussions in social media networks included political terms. This number has increased to 88 percent in 2011.

There are more than 40,000 blogs in Arabic, according to a study from the Berkman Center for Internet and Society in 2010. The ability of the bloggers to move quickly in the internet and to participate simultaneously in different platforms such as Twitter and Facebook poses a challenge for the study of the blogosphere.

Main groups in the Arabic language blogosphere 

Arabic bloggers and Facebook users are mainly young and male. According to Facebook statistics, during the first half of 2011, the highest proportion of female bloggers was found amongst the Egyptian and Tunisian population. Almost half of the bloggers in both countries are women, one of the highest percentages of female bloggers in the entire Arabic blogosphere.

The majority of users in Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Libya are male. The majority of bloggers and Facebook users in the MENA region are between 20 and 35 years old.

The Arabic and English language blogosphere is active in Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Syria, Bahrain, Lebanon, Yemen and Libya.

Moroccan, Tunisian and Algerian bloggers write in a mix of Arabic and French. Almost all bloggers and Facebook users make use of the dialect of their countries of origin.

Blogosphere overview

This paper analyses the Arabic blogosphere by looking at 30 individual and group blogs out of  40,000 from different Arab countries. Even though these 30 blogs do not automatically reflect the views of all young Arab users of social media, they still give a profound insight into a new phenomenon. This paper explores major concerns and questions of the young generation in the Arab World with a special focus on the recent political changes.

Does Europe enjoy the trust of the Arab Youth?

The majority of Facebook users and bloggers in the blogs examined do not differentiate between European and American foreign policy in the Middle East.

Very few bloggers see any difference at all. They often use the word “West” for both, Europe and the US, but also express their ideas and feelings vis-à-vis European politics.

Despite this, Europe is absent in almost all these discussions. Very few bloggers and Facebook users
mentioned Europe at all. When they do, they mainly criticized countries such as France and Britain because of their long support of the autocratic regimes in the Arab World. Germany is totally absent in their discussions.

Bloggers and Facebook users have different opinions regarding their expectations of European countries.

The famous Facebook page: “We are all Khalid Said/ Politician”, points out that European countries can make a valuable contribution to the “democratic transition” in Egypt and other Arab countries. In a video uploaded on April 8th on this page, people in the streets of Cairo were asked about their understanding of democracy and how this could be applied to their country. Most of them did not know which democratic model would be best for Egypt. They did not display an understanding of the notion of the division of power.

Some participants in the discussion consider “Europe” as the best model to apply but failed to distinguish between different European models of democracy.

Others mentioned the possibility of learning from European experience in building political institutions.

The Tunisian blogger Lina Bin Mhenni publishes an influential blog called, “Tunisian girl”, and is also active on Facebook. On May 10th she mentioned the importance of European investments in Tunisia. Bin Mhenni explains that Europe would always be an important economic partner for Tunisia. She believes that through bilateral cooperation, young Tunisians will have access to jobs in Tunisia. This will have an immediate impact on immigration to Europe. But at the same time, she is uneasy about Europe’s previous support for ex-President Ben Ali. She also criticized the careless way in which Europe is handling the continuous political turmoil in Tunisia. Bin Mhenni argues that the revolution did not succeed yet and that the Tunisian police are still brutally attacking civilians and journalists.

Sleem Amamou is a young and active Tunisian blogger who on January 18th became the Minister of
Youth and Sport after the revolution in Tunisia. He resigned from the Ministry on May 23rd to be responsible of the first digital political party, called “Pirate party” in Tunisia. In a one-to-one interview on May 4th Amamou agreed with Bin Mhenni that after the Tunisian Revolution Europe will be an important economic partner especially in the tourism and industry sector.

But, in his opinion, before any new cooperation is agreed upon, Europe must understand that not all
young Tunisians and Arabs are terrorists or sympathize with Bin Laden’s ideology. He explains that young Arabs feel that Europe does not trust them and that Europeans view all Arabs as terrorists Young Tunisians are not sure how Europe will treat them after the revolution. Amamou explains that young Tunisians admire the European way of life. They usually decide to go to Europe instead of going to Saudi Arabia and Yemen. He argues that the EU must do more to understand Tunisian culture and mentality. Mr. Amamou concludes that Europe must understand that young Muslims are against extremists and terrorism. Tunisians are well educated people and open-minded towards
other cultures.

Few of the bloggers or Facebook users give Europe an important role in the recent developments in the Arab World. Mr. Suhail Gossaibi, who is a native from Saudi Arabia but lives permanently in Bahrain, publishes the well known blog: “Suhail Gossaibi Radical Dojo” and rejected during a one-to-one interview on May 10th any help from European leaders. In Gossaibi’s opinion, nobody in the Arab World will ask for Europe’s help after the end of the political turmoil.

He explains: “It’s not sure what is wanted from Europe. Many young Arabs, especially in Bahrain,
are frustrated with the one-sided reporting from the Western Media. The democratic transition is not
really about Europe, it is more about young Arabs”.

There was a heated debate on April 25th on one of the Syrian Facebook pages: “The Syrian Revolution” concerning the role of the West and especially of Europe. Users criticize the silence of European leaders towards the massacres in Syria. Even though the majority of users support on May 15th European sanctions against Assad’s regime, they refuse any political interference or military intervention in Syria.

They believe that any intervention will take the revolution out of their hands. It is crucial for most participants in these blogs that these movements are, and must remain, driven by young Arabs.
Many North African blogs clearly express their anger about the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, and his support for the dictators in North Africa. They were also disturbed by his announcement that France will implement a plan to protect European borders from illegal immigrants. Participants in these discussions said that Sarkozy was responsible for Europe’s lack of success and acceptance in North Africa and especially in the Maghreb.

Libyan bloggers can be clearly distinguished from the respective blogger communities in Egypt and Tunisia.

Almost all Libyan users agree on the importance of Western intervention in their country, to protect civilians and support the revolution. They go as far as asking NATO to kill Gaddafi, arguing that it is their legitimate right to see him dead after the massacre he committed in Libya. Libyan bloggers introduced religious aspects to their fight (“Jihad”), which is not the case with Tunisian, Egyptian and even Syrian users.

Tribes were often mentioned in the discussions as were the respective relationships among these tribes.

On some Libyan Facebook pages, such as “Libya Now” and “R.N.N”, there was an intense debate on
April 22nd on the reasons for Western help and Western intervention. One of the issues they discussed was Libya’s oil. Some participants in the debate stressed the idea that “the West” has a secret agenda in Libya and that Europeans are going after their oil. From their point of view, Europe is taking care only of its own interests. It is argues that European leaders always side with the strongest party, no matter who is behind it. What Europe wants is to secure access to the strategic energy resources in North Africa. Other participants did not mind that “the West” might take advantage of the situation as long as they protect civilians and get rid of Gaddafi.

Lebanese bloggers, such as Asaad Abu Khalil, criticize the relation between Saudi Arabia and the United States of America. On April 13th he started a debate in his blog “The Angry Arab News Service” concerning arms sales to the Saudis and the extent to which this is a legitimate way to promote democracy in the region.

Using articles uploaded from news agencies, such as Reuters, Abu Khalil discussed the price of selling arms to Saudi Arabia. He hints at the idea that these arms were used in Bahrain to suppress Shia protests. He implies that Israel is behind Riyadh’s new hunger for arms and that Israel will benefit from any conflict in the region.

Almost all users differentiate between Europeans (as people) and European leaders. They explained that Europeans are supporting Arabs but their leaders are only serving their own interests. In Al Jazeera talk, a blog by Al Jazeera Television, participants pointed out on May 12th that European leaders’ main concern is about losing control of the Arab countries and their strategic energy resources in the wake of the turmoil.

“The West” supported the “Arab Spring” only after the movements succeeded in Tunisia and Egypt. In the opinion of some users, the West had a hand in the revolutions. European and American security officials, it is said, met with protesters and some bloggers and offered logistical support.

Democracy – illusion or reality?

Despite different opinions concerning the revolutionary movements in the Arab World, almost all users agree that the revolution in their countries is not over yet and that the road to democracy is a long one.

Mohamed Mansour, a blogger and participant in “Al Jazeera Talk”, explains on May 16th that the revolution in Egypt has still not succeeded because the main demand of installing a civilian government has not been achieved yet. In “Maktoub blogs” Ahlam, a Yemeni activist and blogger, concentrates on the difficulties of obtaining democracy in Yemen. Ahlam explains that even if President Ali Abdullah Saleh would give up power, he would still have his followers in the new government. The fact that there are different centers of power in Yemen will create an obstacle to
any democratic process.

There were many questions concerning the situation in the Arab countries after the recent political
changes. Bloggers asked many questions concerning the meaning of democracy, how to achieve it, and what is the price for it. Egyptian bloggers ask what kind of democracy would be suitable for the Egyptian culture.

On March 16th Saudi blogger Ahmed Al Omran asks in his blog “Saudi Jeans” if the ‘fear barrier’ in Saudi Arabia has been broken yet, referring to the unsuccessful protests in Saudi Arabia that were suppressed by the police.

There are three different opinions on how a possible participation of the Muslim -Brotherhood in a new government is seen within the Egyptian blogger community. The first group is against any participation of the Muslim Brotherhood in the upcoming elections. The second group demands a party program of the Muslim Brotherhood before they decide if they want to elect them or not. The third group criticizes the Muslim Brotherhood for their policies, but would be willing to accept their democratic right to run for office.

In Egyptian, Bahraini, Lebanese and Syrian blogs sectarianism in Arab societies was widely discussed.

On April 26th, Khaled Elekhetyar in his “Freelancitizen Blog” refuses sectarianism and religious parties in Syria. He accuses the Syrian regime of pushing for a sectarian conflict by attacking Sunni, Kurdish and Christian civilians in Syria in a bid to weaken the revolution and the protestors.

Mahmoud Salem, who was arrested by the police in February 2011, and who is the author of the “Sand-Monkey”, a famous English language blog, urges the Egyptian society to admit that: “sectarianism has its roots deep in the foundation of the Egyptian society”.

On May 10th Salem explains in his post that the reasons behind the sectarian problems are the ignorance of the “Other” (in this case Muslims or Christians) and the lack of interest in learning from the past and its mistakes. He blames both Christians and Muslims in Egypt for not learning from the past.

There is a big campaign on Facebook to stop sectarian discord in Egypt, Syria and Bahrain. Young Egyptians – both Muslim and Christian - created a page on facebook “Together in front of God” and “We are all Egyptians” to find a common ground to communicate and to protect Egypt from any conflict. On this page, Christian and Muslim bloggers stress the importance of a dialogue between different religious beliefs to solve problems with sectarianism. Users agree that there is a need to further develop the religious discourse in Egypt. They also agree that the sectarian conflict can be traced back to the old regime, which  had an interest in inciting tensions in the population
on this issue.

Other users talked about Arab unity after the political changes. They claim that unity can be achieved
once an authoritarian ruler steps down or is removed from office. In the eyes of the internet users these rulers were the main obstacle to unity among Arabs. A number of social networks users, mainly on Facebook, are supporting the idea of revolutions everywhere in the Arab World. Users open pages on Facebook, such as “We are All for Libya” and “To Support Revolution in Syria”. They post special articles on their blogs to support any new democratic movement in the Middle East. But what is more interesting is the users’ criticism on May 15th of the League of Arab States. The majority considers the Arab League illegitimate because it represents authoritarian regimes and still consists of many dictators from the Arab World.

Turkey – a mediator or a gambler?

In March 2011, many bloggers were talking about Turkey’s soft power and its role as a third party in the management and resolution of regional conflicts.

Dalia Ziada, an Egyptian activist, argues in her blog “that Turkey is not only a top mediator between the East and the West but also between the Arabs themselves.” 

Yet in April 2011, after the political turmoil in Syria started, bloggers began questioning Turkey’s diplomatic interests and its policy in the region.

One example is the Palestinian blogger Salah Alden Hameeda’s criticism of Turkey’s reactions towards the political movements in Libya and Syria. On April 29th he argues that Turkey does not show leadership qualities but comes across as indecisive and contradictory.

Hameeda states “[f]irst, Turkey opposed NATO’s intervention in Libya, and then declared that Qaddafi must step down immediately and leave. The same act was repeated with regard to Syria”. Turkey was very diplomatic with al-Assad’s regime and then told the President to either change the regime’s behaviour towards demonstrators or to step down. The blogger criticizes Turkey for not being clear and firm on foreign policy issues in the region.

Other Facebook pages such as “Syrian Revolution until Freedom” and “Syrian Revolution”, question
Turkey’s real intentions vis-à-vis Syria. They have doubts as to whether Turkey really wants to support Syrian civilians or if Turkey is mostly interested in the outcome of its own elections. They also wonder whether Turkey is not perhaps primarily looking after its economic interests in the region and its relations with the EU and the US.

None of the users in the 30 blogs analyzed mention Turkey’s regime as a good model for any of the Arab countries after the political changes took place in the region. There is a lack of awareness and knowledge about Turkey’s political system and there are also historical and social sensitivities with respect to Turkey as a leading power.

What does the media say?

The established press in some Arab countries such as Asharq Alawsat, al- Hayat and al Ahram and some well-known columnists seem to have positions on Turkey, the EU and Germany that are more considered than those of the bloggers.

The Lebanese Journalist Randa Takieddine argues in her article in al-Hayat Newspaper on May 27th that Europe does not have a clear plan in the Arab world and Europeans misjudged the situation in many Arab countries, especially with respect to the revolutionary movements. She criticizes Europe and its democratic projects in the region, as well as the m,eans by which Europe dealt with Libya in the past and its past rapprochement with Qaddafi regime. She states that for decades Qaddafi bought Europe’s silence with money and oil. She continues: “French president Sarkozy is an example of European policy towards the Arab World.

After his honeymoon with the Syrian regime in 2009, he doesn’t know how to deal with President al Assad now”.

There is criticism of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Foreign Minister Westerwelle because of Germany’s policy towards the MENA region and its unconditional support for Israel. Al-Ahram Newspaper on May 12th published a long article about Westerwelle’s promise to offer economic support to the MENA region. The article argues that the lengthy list of support that Westerwelle announced in his latest visit to Egypt came without any mention of the implementation

The Egyptian Journalist Maamoun Fandy challenges the bloggers directly and asks the young Arabs to leave Facebook and to start facing each other. He writes in one of his articles on March 12th that it is not enough to continue the revolution only by communication through Facebook and blogs. “Young Egyptians should leave the space of social media and start acting in real life. Hiding behind social media is not enough and will not fulfill your demands.” Fandy explains that what is needed after the revolution is much more difficult and dangerous than the revolution itself. He concludes that Egypt needs the new generation now more than the social media needs them.

What do young Arabs really want?

Based on the analysis of 30 blogs, young Arabs with different nationalities seem to share the same dream of a better life, a new start with a good education, access to jobs and encouragement from the state.

What is noticeable is the low self-esteem and lack of self-confidence of young Arabs. This has to do with their frustration at not being able to prove themselves in the absence of a real chance. They complain of a lack of opportunities under the oppressive regimes.

What they really need are not only jobs but respect and trust in their abilities to change their societies
from within.

Bloggers and Facebook users are independent pluralists, well educated, well informed and well connected with one another. But the majority of bloggers do not know much about Europe and the role of the EU. They tend to talk about “Europe” instead of differentiating between the European countries. There is no or little differentiation between different European political systems, forms of government and institutions.

Participants call the EU and the US uniformly “The West”. From their point of view “the West” sees
them basically as terrorists. Strong and misleading stereotypes seem to dominate their image which leads to frustration among the young people in the region.

From studying these blogs it seems that the cultural strength of the Arab World is based mainly on religion and the role of the family. This also seems true for the younger generation. Job opportunities are unquestionably one of the principal demands of young Arabs, but not the only wish for the future. Young Arabs repeatedly asked in these blogs and on Facebook for a better environment where family, religion and work can exist in harmony. Young Muslims refuse extremist Islam and sectarian conflicts but they defend their religion and express their pride and identity as Muslims.


1 Saudi Jeans (Blog): Ahmed Al Omran – Saudi Arabia
2 The Angry Arab News Service (Blog): Asaad Abu Khalil – Lebanon
3 Syria-Revolution until Freedom (Facebook): Syrian bloggers, Anonymous – Syria
4 Syrian Revolution Digest (Blog): Ammar Abdulhamid – Syria
5 Freelancitizen (Blog): Khaled Elekhetyar – Syria
6 The Arabist (Blog): A Website on Arab politics and culture. This blog has been run by freelance Arab journalists for over seven years
7 Maghreb Blog: A forum devoted to current political, economic trends and news of the Maghreb region –North Africa.
8 The Moor Next Door (Blog): Maghreb Affairs, Geopolitics and International Relations.
9 Together in front of God (Facebook): Egyptian bloggers to stop sectarian strife in Egypt.
10 We are all Egyptians (Facebook): Egyptian bloggers.
11 Social Arab Web (2nd Arab Bloggers meeting): mixed Arab nationalities
12 A Tunisian girl (Blog): Lina Bin Mhenni – Tunisia
13 Al Jazeera Talk: belongs to Al Jazeera TV. Users are from different Arab nationalities.
14 Suhail Gossaibi Radical Dojo: Suhail Gossaibi –Bahrain.
15 Woman from Yemen (Blog): Anonymous – Yemen.
13 Fifth of April youth Movement (Facebook): different bloggers, Anonymous – Egypt
16 SandMonkey (Blog): Mahmoud Salem,Egypt, the owner of the Egyptian blog, was arrested by the
Egyptian Army in February 2011 because of his article “Egypt, right now!”
17 We are all Khaled Said (Politician): Wael Ghoneim & other bloggers – Egypt
18 We are all Khaled Said (Public Figure): Wael Ghoneim & other bloggers – Egypt
19 We are all Khaled Said (Culture and society): Wael Ghoneim & other bloggers – Egypt
20 Werkestan Blog: Ahmad Yussri, Hesham Mansour and Nada Montasser – Egypt.
21 Salah Alden Hameeda (Blog): Syria.
22 WE are all for Libya (Facebook): Users from different Arab nationalities – To support Libya.
23 To support Revolution in Syria (Facebook): Users from different Arab nationalities
24 Elaph Talk (Blog): Saudi Arabia and other Arab nationalities.
25 Maktoub (Blog): is a blog that contains different blogs at the same time – Different Arab Nationalities.
26 Aziz Ammami (Blog): His blog was very famous among young Tunisians during “Jasmine Revolution” – Tunis.
27 Culture ET Politique Arabes (French Blog): Anonymous.
28 Healing Iraq (Blog): Created by a blogger named Ziad from Baghdad.
29 Arab Youth- Europe (Facebook): to connect with young Arabs in Europe – Different Arab nationalities.
30 Aramram (Blog): is a blog grouping from Jordan.


World Population Data Sheet by Population Reference Bureau (2010): http://www.prb.org/pdf10/10wpds_eng.pdf

Berkman Center for Internet and Society, Harvard University (2010): Mapping the Arabic Blogosphere www.cyber.law.harvard.edu

Arab Media Outlook Report by Jeffrey Ghannam (2011): http://www.humansecuritygateway.com

Arab Social Media Report by Dubai School of Government January (2011): http://www.dsg.ae
Facebook Statistics (2011): Social Bakers www.socialbakers.com and www.nickburcher.com
Arab Media Influence Report – AMIR 2011 by News
Group International, a Dubai based news management Company: www.newsgroup.ae

Dima Tarhini 
Working Paper
Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik
German Institute for International and Security Affairs
June 2011


Where the “Good Guys” get their motivation from

A Syrian refugee boy stands behind the fence during a protest against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad at Yayladagi refugee camp in Hatay province on the Turkish-Syrian border March 30, 2012
 The conflict in Syria is portrayed  in most media presentations as one of “Two evils and no good guys”. Discussion seems to boil down to choosing the “lesser” of these two evils, even though it all started as a peaceful uprising three years ago. Forms of civil disobedience do persist in and outside Syria. This multifaceted resistance against the Syrian regime appears to be naturally developing, adapting, and changing – on an individual as well as on an organized level. My aim was to question the reasons for the perseverance of the nonviolent movement and Syrian civil activism more broadly. Is peaceful engagement gaining new momentum? What potential has it created? Being the foundation of a civil society in and after an ongoing civil war, the phenomenon deserves attention.

I conducted in-depth but also informal interviews with activists from different backgrounds.[1] We discussed peaceful activism in the Syrian context and reflected on how the events of the past three years have shaped and altered civil resistance. Although not all of these individuals’ motivation and experiences are given credit to in this article, their insights and thoughts shaped my perception of this dynamic movement. I conclude that – intentionally or unconsciously – some of the young Syrians living in exile distance themselves from any form of political engagement and thereby from the events inside Syria. The most urgent task of the activists inside Syria is to provide access to basic humanitarian goods, whereas Syrians living in exile to a greater extent realize their potential in the cultural sphere. The nonviolent movement has become more of an observer to politics than taking part in it; partly haunted by a feeling of being isolated from dissidents and activists inside Syria, partly also not recognized as equal partners for those inside any longer. One side effect is apparently the creation and utilization of a space for civil activism Syrians had no access to in a state silenced by an all-embracing “graveyard peace”.

Shattering the “Peace of the Graveyard”

Until 2011, even activities like launching an independent initiative to clean the street in Syria could have resulted in being arrested. All social and political activism was grouped under government financed “non-governmental” organizations and run by relatives of regime members – the best-known example being the “Syria Trust for Development”, chaired and founded by Asma Al Assad. The message to independent civil society activists being that their efforts are dispensable in light of already existing administrative structures. A period of political opening after the passing of Hafez al-Assad’s presidency to his son Bashar, from 2000 to 2001, known as “Damascus Spring”, turned out as a mere façade for the regime to collect information and to keep control over political activists. Ultimately, more than four decades of Ba’ath party rule had created an environment that is best described with the metaphor of “the peace of a graveyard” – an atmosphere of silence and oppression that had left its marks on the evolving civil movement. One consequence is that civil activists today ensure that they are acting independently of any politician or organization that might try to “pull their strings”. In the beginning, they were looking for any support from outside, but with time they became more aware that external support also might amount to certain “strings attached” that were not in line with their ideas.

In 2011, the onset of the revolutoin set the stage for the ordinary Syrian citizen to become politically active in one way or another. Whereas some preferred the relative safety of their friends’ homes for cautious discussions about the events on the streets, others decided to join the protests – now deliberately exposing themselves to the danger of being detained or killed. Some of the more traditional opposition who had been politically active in the underground for many years benefitted from the newly emerging scope for political freedoms. However, essentially the revolution was carried and advanced by citizens who had not been politically active ever before, citizens who sensed that just now the time had come to engage in more organized forms of civil activism. During this initial phase of civil unrest, there was no obvious division between civil and political activism and the diversity and looseness of first political networks made the movement less susceptible to destruction by the regime. Consequently, the landscape of peaceful protest was as ambiguous as were the judgments of the Syrian people about what might happen next, and although a hitherto blank page was filled with visions about democracy, structures of surveillance and repression worked as an eraser on such early sketches. Whatever society could flourish against such a starting point, as the following observations demonstrate, is nothing like a “textbook-civil society” in terms of institutionalization.

The rise and fall of the first wave of civil activism

The arrest of a group of teenagers in Dara’a – the town that would later be referred to as the cradle of the Syrian uprising – had triggered landslide protests in 2011. However, the rural population was already marginalized by four years of drought and suffered from earlier policies of economic liberalization which had ultimately translated into an ever growing gap between rich and poor. It was therefore rather the marginalized regions of Syria who sparked the uprising – areas such as Deir ez-Zor or Hassakeh rather than Dara'a, a comparatively advantaged stronghold of the Baath party, who found themselves disconnected from the large centres and excluded from the prosperity they themselves had produced as the “breadbaskets of Syria”. Besides, the dissident members of the small cultural circles in the “intellectual centres” of Aleppo and Damascus were rather hesitant in the meantime.

One matter is however evident: in 2011, there were many different, but many feasible reasons all over Syria to upraise. Although the revolution started in different places in reaction to different problem situations and across political and social classes, the common experience of violent repression provided a fertile soil for alliances beyond social, cultural or religious borders at that time. Yet the main visionaries of the peaceful movement visible to the world public today are Syrians stemming from a well-educated middle class. While some of them stress that there is a visible network between all levels of activism, others criticize that there is rarely any connection left between exiled activists and the grass root movement. However, what is visible to the more attentive observer are the voices from places such as Kafranbel or Saraqeb. Both towns belong to the Idlib Governorate, whose inhabitants are not exactly part of what is commonly referred to as “a well-educated middle-class”, but nonetheless attracted international attention with witty posters and banners and writings on walls respectively. In short, the voices of the revolution remain heterogeneous. This should be kept in mind in light of fact that the following remarks focus on a patchwork of young activists who are mostly based abroad and stem from an academic background.

In any case, networks between the different revolutionary groups are only feasible in view of the fact that from the beginning activists had utilized international media platforms such as Youtube or Facebook, thereby creating a unique global setup of peaceful resistance. The movement is highly reliant on these bonds, as today a significant share of it is operated from abroad. This not only includes Syria’s neighbouring countries as Lebanon or Turkey, but also the European Union and the United States. Bisher Alissa, executive coordinator of the Syrian Non Violence Movement (SNVM), living in California, emphasizes that it was his very absence from Syria that enabled him to increase his activism. “It’s not that romantic being a revolutionary in Damascus in 2012. Your mobile phone is dead, your internet is watched, and you can be detained at any moment. This doesn’t allow for a very healthy environment when trying to build up an organization.” Rola*, who works in complementing the memory of the Syrian revolution by documenting peaceful campaigns for Syria Untold, additionally notes that it was important for the activists in 2011 to realize that global media platforms had the power to cover human rights violations committed by the regime. However, the young Syrian demonstrators found themselves excluded from the associated debates. They were confronted with the doubts of the international community as to the validity of the sheer mass of material they had collected. Apparently, the Syrian regime successfully incorporated its own narrative in international media representations – a narrative about jihadist groups striving for influence within Syria, while discrediting the opposition as ‘terrorists’. With the international focus gradually shifting from condemning the Syrian regime, the social and political dimension to the Syrian mobilization was undermined. This widely destroyed the activist’s hopes of being noticed by the international community and left a bitter aftertaste in the mouths of those who were struggling to define a creative space for their own initiatives.

General Failure, Individual Success: The Re-Shaping of the Non-Violent Movement

One side effect being that in 2011, step by step, the situation developed into an armed resistance, as defected soldiers and officers joined forces to establish the Free Syrian Army and Syrian citizens would take up arms to defend themselves. Mustafa Haid, founder of the Syrian NGO Dawlaty, explains how in his opinion the decision to carry weapons is strongly related to the capacity of the human mind. Taking reasonable action might be easy in a normal environment, as he reflects, but facing a civil war and the destruction of one’s home and family, the capacity to cope with losses might diminish. The resorting to use force to protect oneself might appear the only option left. Haid also points out that the nonviolent movement made a mistake when opposing the armed resistance instead of cooperating with armed groups, which further diminished the already limited capacities of the nonviolent activists. Ali, an activist based in a small village in Idlib to the present day, says that, “as much as I believed in peaceful resistance before, eventually I had to carry a weapon after having realized that otherwise the regime will not fall”. Ali is grounding his resistance on his belief in God – the “Islamic Front” has a strong presence in Idlib – yet he rejects the “Islamic State” (IS) for the fact that as foreigners to the Syrian society he deems the IS not capable of defending the interests of the Syrian people. His case illustrates how the realities of Syrians living abroad and of those based inside Syria are drifting apart. The Syrians who mostly live in relatively secure conditions and profit from international funding create an unprecedented domain for civil activism that appears detached from the realities of a civil war.

Two basic entities represent the Syrian nonviolent opposition in terms of institutionalization. On the grass-root level, the “Local Coordination Committees” were initially helpful to connect the peaceful movement throughout the country. However, they stopped working in an efficient way, not least due to the lack of resources, the kidnapping, arrest and assassination of their most important figures, as well as the fact that they were gradually overrun by armed forces. However, alongside with the above-mentioned town of Kafranbel, the city of Daraya marks an exception to this phenomenon. The nonviolent resistance to a certain extent managed to peacefully coexist with the armed movement because the fighters were from the region – they did not allow any outsider in, which granted an organic relationship of armed actors to their environment. On the international level, neither the “National Coalition”[2] and the affiliated “Interim Government”, nor the “National Council” was able to spread its message to the streets and unify the grassroots movement. The National Council had been seen critically by many people already. Accordingly, National Council member Husam Al Katlaby, not active any more to the present day, finds harsh words to describe his experience, stating that the Council’s members were too inflexible in their thinking and completely at odds with each other. The National Coalition, founded in 2012 in Doha, gave the impression of being “the same under a new label”, and its inauguration with US support in Qatar also caused many doubts about how authentically it could represent Syrian interests.

As one side-effect of the high level of violence in Syria and the distrust against the institutionalized opposition, the interviewees see a risk in the fact that many Syrians are starting to (re-)turn to religious affiliation as the main means of identification. The media activist Ayman* suggests that the civil war led to a revelation of reactionary claims out of fear and a search for spiritual guidance. Ayman* is himself an example for how dangerous extremist groups can become, even for long standing civil activism. As an atheist stemming from a Christian/Druze background, today active as a film maker, he indicates to have lost the feeling for what is valuable for his society: “I know that I don’t want an Islamic state. But if you ask me why? … I do want to drink and all that, but is it really the best for society?” Reflecting on his own words and on the “Islamic State’s” increasingly professionalized media appearances, he carves out where the actual danger of the IS lies: “They are showing some flexibility for change – and that is the scary thing.” The writer Khaled El-Ekhetyar remembers an encounter with a secular person in Syria, “who grew himself a beard and went to the prayers with religious armed rebels, while hiding Arak behind a tree in the garden”, for the reason that the armed divisions had the guns he needed to defend his family. Although he sarcastically states that “maybe this is not an example for everybody at that time right now”, it exemplifies the complex fragmentation of the grassroots movement inside Syria beyond religious affiliation.

The impression prevails among Syrians living in exile that due to the high level of violence, the irrelevance of the institutionalized opposition and the rise of sectarian tensions the revolution has failed on the general level. On an individual basis, however, most interviewed persons see themselves as activists who have succeeded in growing up as revolutionaries and now aim at some kind of a cultural revolution.

Resistance against all odds

In late 2014, searching for the revolution – inside and outside Syria – and celebrating its uniqueness, while at the same time being part of the healing of those wounds the regime’s brutal reaction to their legitimate claims caused, is what in the eyes of many activists stands for “resistance against all odds”. 

“I must look out for my revolution. It is still there.” When it comes to the first-mentioned mantra, Mustafa Haid draws on his experience when meeting activists in Syria. For him, the most important task is to travel back to see what is happening on the ground. He asserts that even experienced activists are susceptible to being tricked by media representations: “When I go to visit different villages, I am subjected to the typical bias of where nonviolent activism should be. Sometimes this is totally wrong.” However, considering the extent to which peaceful revolutionary structures were gradually marginalized in the course of the past three years, the often-quoted outcry of some activists that their revolution was “kidnapped”, seems understandable. “Who is a revolution being stolen from? Maybe you are just not good enough to have your own revolution”, is the answer Khaled El-Ekhetyar finds.

Whereas the media is quick to lump together the uprisings in the “Arab World”, Syrian activists usually don’t see themselves as guided by what became known as the “Arab Spring”. The evolving Syrian civil society landscape indeed seems exceptional. Although the scope of peaceful activism within Syria is weakened on a daily basis, the peaceful movement connects activists inside Syria with those operating from abroad. Whereas the former group provides information about the situation on the ground, the latter works to increase the visibility of the non-violent movement on an international level by networking. The Damascene journalist Maurice Aaek stresses that it is especially this increase in capacity that the activists need, although he admits that the civil society based outside suffers from the lack of knowledge about activities on the ground. Sara*, a Syrian journalist who recently left Damascus, claims that there is no such thing as nonviolent activism in Syria any more: “Those who talk about it have obviously not been there for a while. Now it is impossible to do anything”. However, she admits that she has no detailed information about the countryside and other towns and cities, as the scope of the activism inside Syria naturally varies across different regions. Rola* explains where such impressions come from. “We work anonymously; even most of my friends don’t know I am working with Syria Untold.” Although she lives inside Syria, Rola* interviews people mostly via Skype, and when documenting campaigns in some cases the organization does not publish the actual location. Like Mustafa Haid, she underlines that although IS poses a great danger, there are still various forms of civil disobedience even in places where no kind of activism would have been expected. She refers to a campaign in Raqqa that became famous as “Raqqa is being slaughtered silently” as well as to smaller, unorganized protests she herself witnessed. Rola* is sure that relying on such unrelenting initiatives is the most important motivation for Syrian activists. Husam Al Katlaby, program officer at the Syrian Justice and Accountability Center (SJAC), based in the Netherlands, notes that NGOs which document human rights violations are highly dependent on their contacts inside Syria – in the case of the SJAC currently around eight people. Some organizations focus particularly on a global audience. The most prominent example being the above-mentioned Syrian Non Violence Movement, which has received much international attention for its unprecedented effort to produce a remarkable visual map of nonviolent activism in Syria. The main motivation behind this mapping is to reach out to the international media to demonstrate the dimension of the Syrian civil society by visualizing its connections, as Bisher Alissa, executive director of the SNVM, explains. “The map was done to show the world that we exist, and we exist as a big force.” Shadi Azzam, director of NUON, a Syrian NGO located in Beirut that concentrates on peace-building and reconciliation, expresses his understanding that civil society is ideally concerned with every single Syrian citizen, no matter whether he supports or tries to overthrow the regime. Such visions exemplify the extent to which principles like “reconciliation” or “transitional justice” are susceptible to being used as something of a ready-made template for civil resistance, being more of a commonplace than filled with content. Reflecting on his experience with the Day After Project, a project launched in 2012 to support a future democratic transition in Syria, Husam Alkatlaby is however sure that the concrete outcomes of such initiatives will be of great value for transitional processes.

Many Syrians increasingly put emphasis on finding solutions to concrete drawbacks brought about as a consequence of the civil war. Such shortcomings could as well be referred to as “teething problems” of the nonviolent movement. As Mustafa Haid explains: “On one side we are struggling to achieve what we wanted from the beginning. On the other side we are a part of the healing from what happened.” Khaled El-Ekhetyar, for instance, works on launching a webpage for Syrian refugees to access information about their legal status in Lebanon. His goal is to support the refugees assert their rights through knowing their duties. The media activist Ayman* focusses on the shortcomings of the unexperienced peaceful movement by pursuing a research about youth access to multimedia. He aims at arriving at a better understanding as regards the target audience of the creative media initiative Waw al Wasel, which he co-founded. The group applies creative techniques to produce video art with the aim of building alternative media free from ideological influences.

Rola* sometimes struggles with the agenda of certain groups when documenting initiatives for Syria Untold. She gives the example of one campaign whose members claimed that only God could help them, since only Islam will destroy their enemy, Assad. “They felt left behind by those who asked for freedom and dignity at the beginning of the revolution”, Rola* says. The young archaeologist Ahmad* is yet another example. He supports the revolution, even though in his opinion it is the ultimate reason for the suffering Syria is witnessing now: “All of us are working to resolve our revolutionary problems, but who is working for the success of the revolution? Maybe, only the regime is still working – to kill the revolution.” Not considering himself an “activist”, Ahmad* refers to one initiative he is working with, which, as he explains, researches and documents the destruction of Syrian’s ancient sites – committed from both pro- and anti-regime forces. One interesting capability of such campaigns is that they are installed by individuals who do not consider themselves to be “activists”, but still feel the need to engage in some kind of activism with the purpose of contributing to healing the revolution’s wounds. Such initiatives embrace both people who are with as well as people who are against the regime – a first step of reconciliation. This potential scope for cooperation beyond deadlocked political mind-sets complements the bandwidth of peaceful resistance. However, together with his colleagues Ahmad* decided that the name of their small organization should not be published yet. This suggests the sensitivity of cooperation efforts between supporters and opponents of the regime, as well as it unveils one difference between Syrian activists in a more “classical sense”, and the “average” citizen. But although being more careful when it comes to the publishing of details related to their efforts, the way how those individuals are making use of a kind of freedom that was before silenced by a graveyard peace, might be one of the most overlooked feature and potential of the peaceful movement.

Future Visions: A Flourishing Civil Society and a Failing State?

Many activists show a high level of pessimism – responding with a grim outlook to the frequently asked question about Syria’s future. The imperative to continue with the revolution on the one hand and the need to find solutions to the immediate suffering of many Syrians as a consequence of the regime’s answer to their claims on the other hand created a feeling of fighting on two fronts. Those active in the nonviolent movement are however convinced about its sustainability, whereas the impatience to arrive at something like a democratic state disappeared. The chief editor of Syria Untold is sure that in the next – five to twenty-five – years a new generation of civil resistance will emerge as a foundation for a future civil society. But how do the young activists envisage a future Syria? “I think it will stay within the same geographical borders” – Ahmad’s* ironic assessment seems all the more cynical considering the rise of the “Islamic State”. More thoughtfully, however, he shares his opinion about the whereabouts of the Syrian regime in five years. “Some of them, imprisoned. Some of them, in high political positions. Some of them, killed. But maybe, most of them will stay.” Nibal*, an activist working on peacebuilding for NUON, emphasizes the importance of transforming the mentality of the army, which in her opinion can only be achieved by separating the army from the regime. Bisher Alissa finds the answer to such worries in processes of reconciliation: “We have other examples to rely on. Look at Nelson Mandela”.

In the end, the activists’ positions remain imprecise. They design a realm of civil activism that is detached from the civil war – and from politics more generally. However, as indicated above, the most influential potential of civil activism might well be that it creates a cultural sphere which the Syrian civil society has been denied by the Ba’ath regime for four decades. Maybe, a “natural selection process”[3] was necessary to produce a more confident and sustainable resistance movement. “For those who fell on the way, maybe it had to be like that”, Alissa says, “we can’t help but be optimistic and keep on pushing forward with our vision.”


The individual insights remind us that this conflict is neither to be presented as a choice to be made between the lesser of two evils being Assad and the “Islamic State”, nor as a scenario with only armed groups involved. Instead, it prompts us with the multifaceted Syrian mentalities within the realm of peaceful resistance and traces the effects of a three year civil war that brought about the displacement of nine million Syrian people on the psychology of individuals and on an evolving civil society. It appears all the more encouraging that a large number of activists continue to create a panorama of unique peaceful activism. At times expressing the feeling of being fence sitters while the Syrian state is on the verge of failing, those activists are in the position to “practice civil society”. Although for the time being they are restricted to thought experiments as to their impact in a future Syria, the non-violent movement already fulfils a range of functions indispensable for a civil society.

In the Syrian context, it is perceived as a matter of course to be an “activist”. Motivation and future remain unarticulated. In the end, the “Good Guys” refuse to involve themselves in politics. The political becomes an object of observation rather than subject of engagement. Such processes of de-politicization are as unpleasant as they seem inevitable. They provide the activists with a space they were unable to obtain under Assad – as well as apparently unable to find within the political realm after the onset of the revolt in 2011. No matter what happens, we need to keep on going – so the reasoning goes, and as nobody could predict what would happen in Syria, nobody can foresee where this path will lead.

 “They said; because of dictatorship, because of Islam, because of poverty, because of Islamophobia, because of reconciliation, because of globalization, because of ... Mother Theresa … – nothing will change in the Middle East. And because of the reasons mentioned, everything has changed in the Middle East.”[4]


* Name changed.

[1] The article does not address the Istanbul-based “Syrian National Coalition”, but rather illuminates civil society structures, which evolved in parallel to institutionalized forms of political opposition.

[2] The “National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Force” is an alliance of opposition groups formed in November 2012 in Doha. It is not to be confused with the Istanbul-based “National Council” that was founded in August 2011.

[3] Interview Khaled El-Ekhetyar, 25.06.2014, Beirut.

[4] Interview Khaled El-Ekhetyar, 25.06.2014, Beirut.


اللاجئون السوريون في لبنان

Status: Syrian Refugees in Lebanon

حوار أجراه عمر ضاحي  مع خالد الاختيار

صاغه باللغة العربية الفصحى أسامة إسبر

الوضع Status: هل يمكنك أن تقدم لنا لمحة سريعة عن أوضاع اللاجئين السوريين في لبنان وعن التغيرات التي تحدث في أوضاعهم وعن القوانين التي تتعلق باللاجئين في الفترة الأخيرة وخاصة في الأشهر الستة الأخيرة؟

خ: لا أعرف كم يمكن أن توصل هذه اللمحة فكرتي. إن القسم الأكبر من اللاجئين السوريين موجود في لبنان في هذه الفترة، ولقد أحضر اللاجئون مشاكلهم معهم، وبالإضافة إلى هذه المشاكل اضطروا إلى استيراد كل مشاكل لبنان، وهم عملياً يعانون من عبئين بدلاً من عبء واحد، فهناك عبء التأقلم مع البيئة المحلية هنا، وهذه البيئة غريبة على جزء كبير منهم، وهناك المفاجأة والمشاكل التي حدثت في سوريا بعد أن عسكرة الثورة

لقد مر اللاجئون هنا في مراحل كثيرة. كانت المرحلة الأولى هي مرحلة موقف الحكومة اللبنانية التي فوجئت بوجود لاجئين، فقد سموهم زواراً وضيوفاً وغيرها من التعابير المطاطة التي لا تحمّل الحكومة أعباء قانونية أو أخلاقية، ثم استيقظوا فجأة واكتشفوا أن هناك أزمة، وسموها الأزمة السورية، أو أزمة اللاجئين، ثم بدأت أسئلة من نوع: ماذا نفعل؟ وكانت هناك ردات فعل من المجتمع الأهلي واللبناني أهم بكثير من رد فعل الحكومة اللبنانية، لكن وكما يقول المثل: إن يداً واحدة لا تصفّق، خاصة حين تكون هناك سياسة إنكار للمشكلة بسبب الأوضاع السياسية والترتيبات السياسية بين النظامين، نظام لبنان إذا كانت تصح تسميته نظاماً والنظام في سوريا، مما منع الحكومة اللبنانية من أن تتخذ خطوات حقيقية وتعترف بالمشكلة وأسبابها وتعثر لها على حلول من خلال التعاون مع أطراف داخلية وخارجية، و مع اللاجئين أنفسهم. استغرقت هذه المسألة وقتاً طويلاً إلى أن توافقوا على الاعتراف بأن هناك مشكلة أساسية يجب أن نحلها الآن بمعزل عن علاقتنا مع النظام أو في الحد الأدنى، لا نريد أن نزعجهم كثيراً لكن في الوقت نفسه لا نريد أن نكون مرتهنين ١٠٠٪ لرأي النظام السوري حيال موضوع اللاجئين كونه يعتبرهم فارين من العدالة وإرهابيين وأن مجيئهم مؤقت والوضع في سوريا متحسن ويفضل ألا يكون هناك هذه النسبة الكبيرة كي يظهر أن الأمور هي بخير في سوريا. بعد هذا القصة بدأت الحكومة اللبنانية مؤخراً تناشد أطرافاً دولية وبدأت الوزارات تتحرك بصيغ ما وحدود ما كي تحتوي هذه المشكلة لكن هناك دوماً هذه الصيغة وهي أنه لا قدرة للبنان على تحمل هذا العبء، وآخر ما توصلوا إليه الآن هو قرارهم المباشر وغير المباشر بإغلاق الحدود، ووضعت قوانين واتخذت إجراءات للحد من دخول السوريين إلى لبنان وهذا ما شاهدناه مؤخراً في ظل القوانين التي صدرت في الفترة الأخيرة

لكن الأزمة مستمرة وأعتقد أنها تتفاقم، لأنه كما قلنا: إن مشاكل اللاجئين الخاصة شيء والمشاكل التي واجهتهم في لبنان شيء آخر مختلف. الخلاصة التي يمكن الوصول إليها هي أن اللاجئ الفقير السوري هو الآن في عهدة الفقير اللبناني، الذي ربما كان نازحاً في فترة من الفترات أثناء العدوان الإسرائيلي أو في الحروب السابقة التي واجهها لبنان منذ الحرب الأهلية حتى الآن. إن الناس المحتاجين في لبنان هم من يساعدون السوريين المحتاجين وللأسف ليس هناك أحد يساعد الطرفين

الوضع Status: لقد ذكرت مبادرات المجتمع اللبناني المدني والسوري ومن بين هذه المبادرات هو الموقع الذي تشرف أنت عليه “إحقاق”، هل يمكن أن تشرح لنا كيف تكون الموقع وما هي أهدافه

خ: إن الهدف من وراء الموقع هو الحاجة للمساعدة لدليل كهذا أو لإرشادات وتوضيحات أو تسريبات، فأنت تحاول أن توصل المعلومة القانونية كي يعرف اللاجئ السوري حين يأتي إلى هنا ما المطلوب منه كضيف على دولة أجنبية أولاً وكلاجئ بصفة قانونية، وكلاجئ سوري هنا ما هي حقوقي وواجباتي، كي نكسر الصورة النمطية السائدة التي تروج لها الحكومة اللبنانية وهي أن اللاجئ السوري يحب أن يظل هكذا دون صفة قانونية لكن هذا غير صحيح. إن التسوية التي حاولت الحكومة اللبنانية القيام بها العام الماضي وسمحت بموجبها للاجئين السوريين الذين أوضاعهم غير قانونية أن يحاولوا إصلاح أوضاعهم القانونية، كان حجم إقبال اللاجئين في مراكز الأمن اللبناني كبيراً ومهولاً لدرجة أن مراكز الأمن العام لم تقدر على الاستيعاب، أي أن البنية التحتية للأمن العام اللبناني كانت عاجزة عن استيعاب أولئك اللاجئين الذين يريدون تسوية أوضاعهم القانونية وقوننة وجودهم في لبنان على عكس الصورة النمطية المعممة. بالتالي نحن نحاول أن نلعب دور الوسيط، من خلال الوصول إلى المعلومات لدى وزارة الداخلية وعن طريق المنظمات الأخرى ومراقبتنا على الأرض للحاجات التي يمكن أن يطلبها اللاجئون فيما يتعلق بالأوضاع القانونية، نحاول أن نحصل على هذه الأجوبة ونقدمها للناس بشكل مباشر أو عن طريق الموقع “أونلاين

 إن المجتمع الأهلي في سوريا ولبنان متجه نحو الإغاثة والإسعافات الطبية ومواضيع يعتبرونها حساسة ولكن الوضع القانوني وضع مؤسس لكل شيء يمكن أن تبنيه أنت لاحقاً، عملياً أن تستطيع أن تبني مدرسة ولكن استمرار هذه المدرسة وهذه الطبابة وهذه الإغاثة منوط دوماً بوضعك القانوني، لأن هناك من سيقول لك إن وضعك غير قانوني حين يتعلق الأمر بالإغاثة ويطلب منك أن ترتب وضعك القانوني كي تعمل. نحن نحاول ردم هذه الفجوة رغم أن هذا الجهد من المفترض أن تقوم به الدولة. والمشكلة الثانية هو أنه أنت كمنظمة مدنية سورية موجود هنا الآن غير معترف بك، إن القوانين اللبنانية كي تعترف بالجمعيات يجب أن يكون أربع أخماس المؤسسين لبنانيين كي تقدر على أن تفعل هذا، ونادراً ما تُمنح المنظمات السورية ترخيصاً إذا لم يكن هناك بين أعضائها أشخاص مزدوجو الجنسية، أي معهم جنسية لبنانية، وهذا غير متوفر لدى الجميع ولذلك تبقى المسائل محدودة

 ويقتضي الوضع القانوني أن يكون لديك حوار مع الحكومة ولكن هذا للأسف مفقود أيضاً، وهناك منظمات تبذل جهوداً منذ فترة طويلة ولكن كما قلنا بحسب طاقتها، وهذه طاقة محدودة جداً في مكان محدود جداً، وحجم التغيير محدود ولا يوجد تراكم. والمشكلة أن الجميع يعملون في نفس الحقل وفي نفس المكان مما يؤدي إلى مضاعفة الجهود حيث لا ضرورة لمضاعفتها، لذلك حين تعمل في مجال موضوع آخر فإن اللاجئين بحاجة إلى ذلك، إن الأمور نفسها تقوم بها  منظمات مختلفة على نحو مكرر وهذا لا يؤدي إلى تراكم خبرة أو تراكم مطالب لدى الحكومة اللبنانية قد يحدث بعد فترة ضغط من أجلها كي تُنفذ. وأيضاً نحن هنا في المجتمع المدني اللبناني كمنظمات سورية ورثنا الأمراض الموجودة في المجتمع المدني اللبناني، فلبنان أكثر البلدان العربية حباً بتأسيس المنظمات غير الحكومية، فهناك ثلاثة آلاف منظمة غير حكومية لبنانية لكن لا تأثير لها على الأرض، والأمر نفسه فيما يتعلق بالوضع السوري، فهناك الكثير من النوايا الحسنة، وهناك الكثير من الكلام المعسول والمساعدات في أمكنة محددة كما ذكرت لكن هذا كله لا يرقى إلى مستوى عمل جماعي كإنشاء شبكة أو تبادل الخبرات، وللأسف نحن عالقون بوحل العمل المدني اللبناني الذي يعتمد على البيانات، وللأسف هناك غياب للتنسيق ونشتغل كلنا على ردات الفعل. لا نريد أن نغبن حق أحد، فهناك أسماء كبيرة تعمل ولكن أمراضها هي أمراض لبنانية محلية وسنرى إن كنا سنقدر معاً على معالجة المشاكل المطروحة

الوضع Status: شكراً لك. بالطبع المشاكل كبيرة جداً ومعقدة. هناك أسئلة كثير أحب أن أطرحها عليك ونأمل أن يتم هذا في لقاء آخر في المستقبل.

April 5 2015

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Syria “Training” Republic.. workshops on building a civil society in exile

The establishment of the first known civil association in Damascus dates back to 1880, and much water has passed under the bridge since then. The current Syrian authorities, upon taking power around four decades ago, quickly worked to empty Syrian civil society of any meaning and subject it to the long arm of the security bodies, or contain it by establishing affiliated institutions dressed up as civil groups, known as GNGOs. Meanwhile, the activities of more than 80 percent of authorized Syrian organizations and associations are restricted to charitable work (compared to 53 percent in Lebanon).

With the upswing in popular protests beginning in 2011, voluntary civil associations sprang into existence, trying diligently to bridge the gap generated by the government’s blockade of their work and the interruption in basic services. They were active in nursing, sanitation campaigns, relief, and media services. The activists quickly became a preferred target of the oppressive authorities, and were later targeted by the violations of extremists classified as anti-regime. Some estimates put the number of Syrian civil organizations at around 2,000, both inside the country and abroad, but they exhibit low levels of efficiency and expertise; they lack clear administrative organizational structures and also compete for resources.

Moreover, everyone continues to suffer as Syria’s nascent civil society moves from the era of government-imposed weakness to one of militarization, caused by the revolution. It has been a painful jump and the impact of the shock remains visible for everyone to see. This has required “training” activities, represented mainly by the many workshops that are announced, seemingly around the clock. These workshops are trying to compensate for the lack of expertise, develop individual skills and create new, institutionalized structures.

Lebanon is one of the countries that has hosted a large number of such training activities, especially as the UNHCR updates on a monthly basis the numbers of refugees registered with the agency (currently at 832,000), while independent or conflicting numbers, all taken together, put the total number at around 1.5 million people.

However, many questions are being asked today about the efficiency of these training activities and the strategies of the groups organizing them. This came in for particular criticism by Akram, one of the many Syrians who have taken part in a number of training workshops. “About the only benefit we get from the workshops we take part in is networking,” he says. “I meet other Syrians and we have been able to form relationships that later lead us to joint activities that have little to do with the goals of the training session that brought us together.” The 30-something Akram, who finished university studies and found himself in prison for anti-regime activities, doesn’t hide his annoyance with “the lack of any organizing strategy for these training activities.” “The working projects that were suggested turned into individual projects,” he says, concluding: “It seemed like there’s no need for these workshops, since no one is left in Syria.

The activists who do remain there are now unable to move around. Where were all these training activities during the first two years, when there was still room for civil work?” Jean Corse, a Lebanese trainer and the director of the International Center for Organization Development (ICOD), has a different opinion when it comes to the usefulness of training, although he agrees with Akram about the lack of strategy and coordination. “Yes, things are always changing in Syria,” Corse says. “But our response as a civil society organization should take this into account, and we should be dynamic. What we need to do, when we’re talking about transferring skills, is to undertake a contextual analysis upon which we build our  response. Our goal is to develop individual capacities so that these people can carry out this analysis, and not just offer direct assistance. Capacity building is a developmental goal, and not a purely relief-related activity.” As for the lack of coordination among training institutions.

  Corse acknowledges that when he used to work as an international relief coordinator, there was practically “no coordination,” before adding that “the poor coordination applies to other sectors when it comes to the situation in Syria.” “This is one of the problems that we’ve suffered from in other countries as well. There are sessions that are repeated, and no oversight. We’re nowhere near the required level of integration, or where we should be when it comes to reducing the gap between the reality and our objectives. If some parties exploit these sessions, we don’t recognize them, and most of the people we work with know this.” For Akram, another problematic issue lies in the readymade models that some rich countries try to pass off on Syrian trainers. He cites the example of distributing food parcels in some parts of Syria, containing large quantities of rice. It appeared that this was based on a training model taken literally from the international relief efforts after the tsunami of 2005.

Corse disagrees with this, saying, “We don’t want to work according to pre-conceived agendas or programs, whether from the west or the east.” “Even when it comes to benefiting from other lessons, such as the Lebanese case, for example, we should pay attention to the fact that the local context should have the highest priority” he says. “A change in the data requires us to change the nature of the response. We always need experts from the region and the only expert in Syria is the Syrian people. Naturally, Syrians should examine other experiences and form their own opinion. What we’re doing is empowering people from the country with the skills needed to perform the tasks, and not undertake these tasks on their behalf.”

Akram insists that spending an informal evening with friends who are serious about their work can take the place of a training workshop costing thousands of dollars in a Lebanese hotel. However, Corse states firmly that, based on his experience, the trainings do have long-term development dimensions, and that the objectives of institutions committed to this approach aren’t just about trying to bring Syrians to Lebanon. “But since we can’t be present in Syria, our focus is to train Syrian trainers who can carry out these humanitarian missions themselves in their own areas,” he says.

Published in Peace Building - UNDP