They are still a minority, but every day more Syrians are stepping out of the house and into the streets, breaking the barrier of silence that has gripped them for decades. Many are young men, propelled as the young often are by adrenaline and bravado.
But in a deeper sense, they are ordinary people who say they feel linked for the first time to a wider world, one in which democracy movements in Tunisia and Egypt led to the departure of autocratic leaders, showing them that such things are possible.
It is a world in which they no longer feel alone. For decades one of the Middle East’s most isolated societies, Syria has in recent years allowed its people access to the Internet and satellite television. Now, technology is playing a crucial role in their democracy movement, as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Skype help them evade government detection as they communicate with one another and disseminate information.
Being in touch with so many fellow Syrians inside and outside the country has galvanized them in a way that eluded their parents’ generation.
“I knew well about the arrests in the past years, but I couldn’t go to the streets by myself,” said Bahaa, 25, an art student in the city of As Suwayda who joined protests last week for the first time since they started. After seeing YouTube footage of earlier demonstrations, he and his friends decided it was time to do more than just watch from the sidelines. “I was so happy,” he said, speaking via Skype like others in Syria interviewed for this story, “because for the first time I was demanding my freedom.”
In countries caught up in the Arab Spring, single events have become catalysts for revolution. In Tunisia it was the self-immolation of a distraught fruit-seller, in Egypt the beating death of a young man arrested in an Internet cafe, pictures of whose disfigured corpse went viral. In Syria, it was the arrest and torture of teenagers for writing anti-regime graffiti in the town of Daraa. Each time, the people involved became symbols of a society’s pent-up frustration.
“They’re like Rosa Parks,” said Rami Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. “Individuals who, at moments of rage and anger and refusal to be dehumanized any longer, they stood up. And they spoke for the millions of others.”
But for Syrians, whose population includes Sunnis, Shiites, Christians, Kurds and Druze, the thirst for revolution has been slower to take root, in part because of an appreciation for what the regime has given them: security in a region where sectarian violence has plagued their neighbors.