Tuesday afternoon in Damascus, “Ahmad”—a prominent Syrian activist who requested a pseudonym for fear of reprisal from his country’s authoritarian regime—sat in a café, waiting for his phone to ring.
A Tuesday protest had been scheduled by an anonymous Facebook page with more than 40,000 fans. But Ahmad and other well-connected Syrian activists had no idea who was behind the call, or whether the page’s administrators or the bulk of its supporters were even based inside the country. And with Syria’s infamous Muhabarat—or secret police—instilling as much fear as ever among the local population, it seemed unlikely that anyone would turn out to agitate for political and civil rights (which are abysmal in Syria, according to the U.S.-based advocacy group Freedom House). After all, during a similar call last month, no one took to the streets.
At about 1 p.m., however, Ahmad received a call from a friend, who advised him to head to Damascus’s historic Hamidia Street. He arrived to see about 200 people, mostly young men, gathering in a throng. According to Ahmad and a YouTube video of the scene, protesters shouted “Allah, Syria, freedom and peaceful”—along with “Where are you, Syrian people?”
The group marched to nearby Harika Square. Shortly thereafter, Ahmad and others said, busloads of secret police arrived, where they beat protesters and quickly dispersed the demonstration. “In a few seconds it happened,” Ahmad said. “They got out of the bus, and they started beating everyone. They started pushing people and dispersing them. In a few minutes the whole thing was over.”
Though the demonstration was small and short-lived, it gave some Syrians hope that things were beginning to change. “It’s the first in decades,” said another prominent activist. “We never could walk in streets and shout for freedom.”
“In Syria it’s a big deal,” added a well-known Syrian cyberactivist who goes by the pseudonym Malath Aumran. “It never happens in this way. People organized the protest, and went to the street. No one in Syria raises his voice to say, ‘We are against this regime, we need freedom.’” It’s rumored that people might protest Tuesday night. And another, more sophisticated demonstration in support of the country’s political prisoners has been scheduled for Wednesday, and publicly endorsed by leading activists, intellectuals, and family members of the imprisoned.
Mike Giglio is a reporter at Newsweek.