Any Given Friday

How a battle over a Facebook page became a war for the soul of the Syrian revolution.

A woman stands in the middle of a busy Damascus street. Yellow cabs honk and weave around her. Her red dress, splattered with white paint, flows in the wind along with a red fabric banner held up above her head like a translucent shield. A group of people gathers on the sidewalk to observe as she turns side to side, for all to see. As we watch them watching her through our computer screens, we hear a new sound -- not a familiar chant of the revolution, but loud claps of extended applause. When she faces the camera, we finally read her words: "Stop the killing. We want to build a country for all Syrians."

Her name is Rima Dali, and she stood in protest alone, armed with a red scarf and a powerful message, in front of the Syrian Parliament on April 8. She would be detained for two days for her dissent.

Dali's action, while brave, would have been easy to disregard as a fleeting incident if it hadn't happened again, a few days later, in front of the Palace of Justice. And again a few days after that, when more people occupied Dali's place and even more onlookers clapped from the sidewalk.

Activists like Dali, who had a strong presence at the beginning of the uprising, are trying to rewind Syria's clock to the early months of the revolution, when the message of selmiyeh -- peaceful -- dominated the streets. During the past two weeks, despite the regime's relentless violence, Syria protested like it was 2011 again.

During the 10-day lull between the announcement of U.N. and Arab League special envoy Kofi Annan's six-point plan for a ceasefire and its implementation on April 10, violence sharply escalated in Syria -- as it usually does before every international ultimatum directed at President Bashar al-Assad. But since then, while shelling and government attacks have continued in certain flashpoints, the daily death toll has decreased significantly. Within opposition circles, another sentiment was brewing even before the ceasefire: a realization that it's time to reclaim the revolution in order to reclaim the country.

For months, the civic and social activism of these peaceful protesters have been rendered obsolete next to the physical heroics of the Free Syrian Army's (FSA) military operations against the regime's brutality. Peaceful protests in city squares not only seemed impossible, but utterly useless against tanks, shells, and snipers. As armed resistance took its place within the revolution, the nonviolent activists slowly became passive pacifists. In recent days, however, that has changed.

This sea shift has been evident in the change in tenor of the names for the Friday protests. Every week, anti-Assad activists take to the Syrian Revolution 2011 Facebook page where, every Wednesday, they vote on the name of the upcoming day of protest. With more than 444,000 "likes," the page is one of the most popular online hubs of the revolution. In fact, people use the number of common "friends" they have with the page as a badge of honor: If you are pro-revolution and only a few out of your hundreds of friends have "liked" the page, it means you need to find new friends.

On April 6 -- Good Friday -- the chosen (and very awkward) name for the weekly day of uprising was rooted in Islamic history: It was the Friday of "He who has equipped a fighter has himself fought."

The name was intended as a call for Arab countries such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia to fulfill their religious duty and arm Syria's opposition. In stark contrast, last year on Good Friday, the Friday was named just that: al-Jumaa al-Azimeh, to express the unity of the Syrian people above divisive sectarianism. This time around, many asked: Why couldn't the same name have been repeated again this year? But the long-winded name had won -- by Facebook's version of democracy.

Last week, before the Facebook polling closed for the name of the April 13 protests -- the day after the U.N. ceasefire deadline, the day in which solidarity was key -- one name was in the lead: the Friday of the Armies of Islam. Yet another divisive (and completely off message) choice. This time, however, peaceful activists were ready to take action and fight back in a battle for the Friday name.

On Wednesday, April 11, media activists on Facebook and Twitter began a campaign to "rock the vote" for Friday's name. They advocated the secular, inclusive choice, "A Revolution for all Syrians." It was an intense campaign. Usually around 8,000 votes are cast each week, but last week there were more than 30,000. It was as much a battle between Islamic sentiment and secular inclusiveness as it was a struggle between those dedicated to solely an armed resistance, and those who still valued the power of nonviolent activism.

The gap between the two names slowly narrowed, and eventually the message of unity won by almost 2,000 votes. This small but significant victory unleashed palpable excitement among Syria's online activists: There was a sense that they had been heard and gained control of the revolution's message, at least for the moment. It was a needed boost of energy to a group of worn-out activists and, more importantly, it proved that a revolution within the revolution was not only possible but necessary.

Syrians' practice of naming the Fridays of the revolution was inspired by their Yemeni counterparts, who did the same thing during their revolution. The first Fridays were named by the Revolution page's administrators, and reflected the popular aspects and crucial demands of the revolution: Friday of Dignity, Friday of the Martyrs, Friday of Freedom for Detainees, etc. The names grew to have such influence on the street that the various opposition groups decided everyone should have a say in naming each Friday. In an exercise of online democracy, a voting system was established on Facebook with a weekly suggestion of seven potential names -- two nominated from the Revolution page, two from the Local Coordination Committees within the country, two from the Revolutionary Councils inside Syria, and one from the what is called the "red rose" group representing pacifists and secular individuals.

Some weeks, the names referred to current events, while others seemed to be random and at odds with the principles of the revolution. Fridays that request some sort of intervention have become common: There has been a No-Fly Zone Friday, for example, and Buffer-Zone Friday, a reference to the idea of setting up a safe zone for anti-regime Syrians along the Turkish border. Some Fridays seek to legitimize certain opposition factions -- for example, "The Syrian National Council represents me Friday" and "The Free Syrian Army protects me Friday." In fact, the Free Syrian Army was dedicated three separate Fridays of support.

The Friday names both stem from the street and in turn influence it. Especially for the politically charged names, the process seems to work in a cycle of forced legitimization: the Revolution page suggests the names, people on Facebook vote, the name is raised on banners held up by the people, who in turn give legitimacy to the name that was given to them. The name becomes a part of the revolution's timeline -- each week, it appears in media reports and video clips as the guiding principle behind the protests.

In the last two weeks, the need for active voices of nonviolent resistance was apparent in efforts both inside and outside Syria. One instance of Syrians being inspired by the world outside their borders was a flash-mob protest in the Sham City Center Mall in Damascus, which emulated flash-mob protests that have been popular for months with university students across American and Canadian cities, though of course without the same level of danger.

Another example of youth activism occurred in the early morning hours of April 12, the first day of the Annan ceasefire, when a large group of University of Aleppo students created a human SOS formation on campus grounds. Armed regime thugs soon arrived, locking the gates to trap the students. Some were beaten and arrested in the aftermath.

Recently, the launch of the Zero Hour Internet campaign -- a manifesto calling for mass protests to occupy the squares and streets across Syria -- created a positive, revolutionary buzz. Video clips supporting Zero Hour came from prominent activists inside Syria as well as supporters outside. While many are skeptical whether this hour will ever come to fruition, the strong, unified reception it has garnered from activists, opposition military forces, and politicians has underscored the urgent need for this message.

These events have emerged in tandem with the U.N. ceasefire and the beginning of yet another monitoring mission, with the first five of an advance team of 30 monitors arriving in Damascus on Sunday. The creative, nonviolent resistance tactics counter the regime's escalation of violence toward the Syrian people, despite the agreed-upon ceasefire. The FSA, for the most part, has held the truce while the regime pounded areas in Homs, Zabadani, Idleb, Douma, Taftanaz and rural Aleppo with rockets and shells. Bullets from security forces and snipers continued to target civilians protesting in many areas of the country, including the cities of Aleppo and Deraa. Despite these gross violations by the regime, the opposition continues to restrain the armed resistance and call for peaceful civilian protests.

Rima Dali's last Facebook status before being detained was inspired by a Martin Luther King quote: "The means we use to achieve our goals must be as pure as our goals." Her message has since become a Facebook page, and inspired a renewed campaign of nonviolence. One of Dali's friends, activist and harpist Safana Baqleh, was detained while attempting to protect her from security forces. She is still missing. On Monday, a group of activists protested in front of the Ministry of Interior once more. Their signs focused on the injustice Syrian citizens face every day at the hands of the police: "If you must arrest me, arrest me gently"; "If you want to arrest me, let my family know where I am"; and Rima's direct question about her detained friend Safana, "Where is the harpist?"

Using means as pure as our goals is one of the most difficult -- but also the most important -- principles of the Syrian revolution. To follow it in the face of increased brutality, the opposition must fine-tune and recalibrate its actions and message as the revolution moves forward. The difference between the Revolution Facebook page and Rima's red scarf is the difference between forcing a message and being the message. It is a lesson that the Revolution page, despite its popularity, must embody if it wishes to remain relevant.

In the beginning, no one thought Syria faced an endless list of Fridays ahead, but now, 57 Fridays in, it may be time to rethink the practice of naming the weekly day of revolt. The concept, once powerful and unifying, has grown tired and divisive. The Friday with a perfect name, "A Revolution for all Syrians," marked a rare moment of rewinding the past and perhaps capturing a glimpse of what may have been if we had not grown passive. It's a moment worth holding on to for a while.

Let every Friday be a day dedicated to the Syrian's people fight for freedom and dignity. And let each one be called, simply, Friday.

The Syrian Revolution/Facebook


How to Lower the Price of Oil

The road to cheaper gas at the pump runs through Riyadh.

If there's one thing that unites U.S. President Barack Obama, top-ranking Saudi officials, and Americans at the gas pump, it's this: The price of oil is too damn high. What's more, given physical and market realities, this should not be so. Despite the sanctions on Iran and the threatened loss of its export production, the world has no shortage of oil.

Several oil suppliers are more than capable of picking up the slack left by Iran. U.S. and Canadian production, both actual and in the near future, is at historically high levels. And more significantly, Saudi Arabia's potential output is an unprecedented 12.5 million barrels per day.

Still, fears abound about a shortage of oil. The United States and Europe are now contemplating the extraordinary, and unnecessary, measure of releasing oil from their strategic petroleum reserves to calm markets. And in a rare and significant move, Saudi Oil Minister Ali Naimi recently published an opinion article in the Financial Times expressing frustration at his inability, through reassuring statements, to bring down the price of oil, despite its abundance and the kingdom's ability to satisfy all demand.

There is a double paradox here: The leading oil-exporting country in the world not only would like to see lower prices, it finds itself powerless to achieve the desired result. Nonetheless, the key to lowering prices lies with Saudi Arabia and, remarkably, it involves straightforward adjustments to the way oil is marketed and sold.

There is, of course, solid logic behind Saudi Arabia's ambitions to bring down oil prices. Higher prices are not in the long-term interest of producers -- they are bad news for the global economy, and destroy demand in industrial and developing countries alike. The kingdom also has political reasons to be leery of elevated prices: It is concerned that the present high price is discouraging some oil-importing countries from curtailing their purchases of Iranian oil, thereby strengthening Tehran's hand with abundant financial revenues.

Saudi Arabia is ready to increase its already high production volume further to 12.5 million barrels per day, an all-time high, and its storage facilities abroad have been filled to the brim, according to Naimi's article. It is anxious to assure international buyers that it could meet any shortfall of supplies -- for example, if Iranian oil disappeared from the market. Saudi Arabia may not want to be seen as actively undermining Iranian oil exports, but it is in fact doing just that.

So, why do oil prices remain stubbornly high? Why does the market behave irrationally and not want to listen? The reason is simply that Saudi Arabia deliberately refrains from using the market power that it might command. This is the result of past experience, when Saudi Arabia's market share and revenues suffered as a result of OPEC's aggressive price setting policy that existed before 1985. In the years prior to that date, Saudi oil production collapsed from an all-time high of 10.3 million barrels per day to a minimum of 3.6 million, in the futile attempt to defend OPEC imposed prices. Ever since that experience, Saudi Arabia has refused to be tied to a rigid price target.

As a result, Saudi Arabia is a price taker. Through press announcements and speeches, Saudi officials signal their intentions to international buyers and sellers and attempt to influence market sentiment, but the kingdom is not active as a seller on the open market. In practical terms, Saudi Arabia does not allow its oil to be traded, nor does it offer its oil without restrictions for resale. The kingdom only sells to final users -- that is, to refiners, who process the crude oil themselves. That means oil may be available, but will remain unsold if refiners do not have a demand for it.

Saudi Arabia should behave instead like a central bank that periodically conducts auctions for government paper. The interest rate -- or, in this case, the price of oil -- is then determined by the result of auctions and trading on the secondary market. Saudi Arabia, after all, is and acts like the central bank of global oil.

If Saudi Arabia allowed its crude to be traded -- that is, sold by the original buyer to some other final or intermediate client -- the abundant availability of Saudi oil would drive prices down. But the Saudis are afraid of playing an active role in the market because they do not want to be accused of "controlling" the price of oil. There is, however, a lot of ground between "controlling," at one extreme, and exercising no influence on the market on the other. It is in fact unlikely that Saudi Arabia could "control" the price even if it took a very active role in the market -- but it could certainly have an influence. Yet, the stereotype of OPEC as a monopolist intent on squeezing consumers is so deeply rooted that Saudi Arabia does not want to be seen influencing prices at all.

The United States and other leading consumers should encourage Saudi Arabia to play a more active role. A global oil market in which Saudi Arabia exerts its proper influence would be less volatile and more closely representative of the equilibrium of supply and demand. It is in our best interest that Saudi Arabia should succeed in moderating prices.

As the revival of oil and gas production in North America and in other parts of the world gains strength, it will be in the interest of all to maintain prices at a level that is neither too low nor too high. A much lower price would nip the expansion of new sources in the bud, while higher prices could abort the fragile economic recovery. Saudi price targets, which lie in a band that hovers around $100 per barrel, are not out of line with the interests of the industrial countries.

Saudi Arabia should be supported, and even urged, to be a price leader rather than a price taker. Oil prices should be discussed in the context of G-20 and other international gatherings much in the same way as interest rates or exchange rates are. No market can function well if the No. 1 supplier remains on the sidelines. Getting Saudi Arabia in the game will be good for American consumers, and bad for the mullahs in Tehran.