On Assad's Doorstep

The revolution is finally coming to the once quiet, now tense streets of inner Damascus.

DAMASCUS, Syria — The eyes of the world are on Syria's outlying towns and villages, where the rebels are organizing and where the bodies are piling up. As the U.N. Security Council prepares to meet to discuss the crisis, U.N. monitors are rushing to the town of Mazraat al-Qubeir to investigate claims that at least 78 civilians were killed in cold blood by President Bashar al-Assad's militiamen. If true, the attack would be a grim echo to the gruesome massacre in the town of Houla last month.

But as Syria's periphery descends into chaos, observers may be missing a more subtle deterioration of Assad's authority at the center of his regime. The Syrian capital of Damascus, whose commercial center has been seen as immune from the nationwide unrest, is increasingly turning on the Assad regime -- and widening unrest in the heart of the city now appears to be only a matter of time.

An important moment came last week, when security forces opened fire in the center of Damascus to disperse a small gathering of peaceful demonstrators at the end of Hamra Street, located just a few hundred meters away from parliament. Within minutes of the demonstrators gathering, security forces rushed onto the scene, firing into the air to scatter the protesters. The crackdown was notable because it marked an escalation of force by Syrian security services, which had hitherto largely restricted themselves to using batons against demonstrators within the heart of the city.

For 15 months, central Damascus has appeared a bastion of regime support in a sea of unrest. The lack of meaningful protests and violence, the busy cafes and bustling restaurants, and the sight of people apparently continuing their daily lives unaffected by the turmoil have played into the regime's narrative of enduring stability. In contrast to the capital's impoverished suburbs -- home to those most affected by state corruption, brutality, and mismanaged economic liberalization -- those living in the center profited from the last decade of Assad's rule, and did not turn on the regime in great numbers. This section of the population has been emblematic of the so-called "silent majority" -- the middle class that has seemingly sided with the regime out of a desire to maintain its privileged economic position and also out of fear of the violence and chaos that could follow the fall of Assad.

However, according to conversations with old acquaintances, businessmen, shopkeepers, middle-class professionals, and taxi drivers in the capital, the mood has markedly shifted away from the regime over the last couple of months. "Don't be fooled by the cafes and restaurants," an old friend, a businessman who once enthusiastically poured forth about the new possibilities opened up in the country under Assad, told me. He spoke of a city deeply on edge and increasingly hostile to the regime.

Another well-off, middle-class man launched into a tirade over the regime's incompetence and its willingness to push the country to civil war for the sake of preserving power. Syrians with the means to do so -- even including many who had previously made commitments to seeing the conflict through from within the country -- are now making plans to leave, and an exodus of middle-class professionals is expected come the end of the school year.

This hollowing-out of regime support in the capital, which is increasingly visible to visitors and residents alike, suggests the potential dawn of a new phase in Syria's long struggle. The decision by Damascene merchants to go on an unprecedented strike over recent days -- locking their stores shut or sitting outside and refusing to do business in response to the Houla killings -- marked an important escalation of local defiance. Previous calls for strikes, by contrast, had withered out unsuccessfully.

To be sure, many continue to back the regime within the capital, particularly some minorities who fear, as one Alawite told me, being driven out of Damascus. To many in this group, there is a clear solution to Syria's crisis: The Assad regime should be striking back with even more force to overcome foreign-backed "terrorists."

But cracks in the support of former regime stalwarts are increasingly evident. Even one member of the parliamentary opposition -- dismissed by most of Syria's revolutionaries as regime stooges -- told me that "the regime is crumbling" and that change is now inevitable. "We want to keep the state but get rid of the regime," the parliamentarian said.

Foreign observers also think the Assad regime is on its way to collapse. "Everyone here, even the street cleaners, accept that Bashar can no longer be the driving force of the country," one diplomat in Damascus told me. "The regime is finished."

The changing dynamic has not only been sparked by increased support for the opposition -- indeed, many Damascenes struggle to identify their vision for Syria's future -- but by a sense that the regime is no longer able to fulfill its most basic pledges of ensuring security and stability within the confines of the capital. Criminality is on the rise: Bodies are turning up in city morgues, and kidnappings, rape, and petty crime are all appearing in a city that has long been one of the safest capitals in the Middle East. Meanwhile, there has been a noticeable escalation in the clashes between Assad's security forces and Free Syrian Army fighters across Damascus's suburbs, many areas of which fall under effective rebel control at night.

Anti-regime protests are also fast approaching the very heart of power. Whereas they were once confined to the farthest suburbs of the capital -- the likes of Harasta and Douma -- they are spreading to districts like Midan and Kafr Sousa, just minutes from downtown Damascus. One Western diplomat who continues to live in the city center told me that the nightly mortar attacks and gunfire from the suburbs had increased noticeably in intensity over previous weeks.

Some Syrians cite the May 10 attack, where car bombs exploded outside an intelligence building during the morning rush hour, killing at least 55 people, as a turning point, highlighting the threat of violence that regime tactics were bringing upon their heads. "We suddenly panicked," one middle-aged Syrian told me. "Our children were out, and we knew it could be them [killed in the attack]."

International sanctions are also beginning to bite, pushing up prices and creating new shortages and hardships for ordinary Syrians. Passing through the eastern gate of Bab Sharqi, a Christian quarter one afternoon, I came across a line of people several hundred meters long queuing for cooking gas. Tensions were clearly fraying at the front, with people shouting and elbowing their way to the front to demand first access to a truck that plainly didn't have enough supplies for the entire crowd. Elsewhere, those businesses that haven't closed are suffering unprecedented economic pain: The lobby and restaurants of the Four Seasons hotel, once a hive of business activity, now lie eerily empty -- a lone pianist providing the soundtrack for a city at the end of its rope.

As shown by its use of live fire on Hamra Street, the regime appears to be growing ever more forceful in pushing back, seeking to fall back on its still substantial military advantage to quash the threat. The day after the violent dispersal of the protest, pickup trucks openly loaded with mortars were shown on Syrian TV driving through the restive district of Midan -- a clear warning to the local population. During my visit, security measures for entry into the heart of the city tightened -- including increased barricades and new road closures -- as did precautions outside the homes of key regime figures. These could well be signs of a regime on its back foot.

It is near impossible to truly gauge the balance of power in Damascus and Syria at large today. But the capital gives off the impression of a city on the brink. For many this brings a sense of deep foreboding. The emergence of widespread unrest in Damascus could prove fatal to the regime's lingering pretensions to legitimacy and control, likely provoking a brutal and bloody response. As one man, speaking with a sense of deep trepidation, told me: "We know that it will come our way in the end, of course."



Once More Unto the Breach

Egypt's battered revolutionaries can't decide if they're winning -- or on the verge of a historic defeat.

For more images of Egypt's revolutionary soul-searching, click here. 

CAIRO – In downtown Cairo last week, dozens of familiar faces from Tahrir Square gathered at the Journalists' Syndicate to discuss the next stage of the revolution. The lobby buzzed with the crackle of a shoddy sound system, scattered conversation, and the barks of organizers to keep it down. With none of their candidates making it through to the runoff in Egypt's presidential election, scheduled for June 16 and 17, the revolutionaries were gathering to discuss pushing the nation to boycott the next stage of the very democratic process they fought to establish.

Standing in the crush of T-shirts, jeans, and scruffy beards, Nadine Wahab, one of the coordinators of Our Right, a movement that grew out of opposition leader Mohammed ElBaradei's canceled presidential campaign, seemed satisfied. "The boycott is a stand against the entire election process and not any one candidate," she said. "The question is whether the process itself will be a step in the transition of Egypt, and in my opinion it isn't."

The revolutionaries' strategizing was once again thrown into turmoil on June 2, when an Egyptian court sentenced former president Hosni Mubarak to life in prison but dismissed charges against his sons and top security officials. The ruling, widely derided as insufficient and politically motivated, re-energized the Egyptian protest movement: Thousands flocked to Tahrir to express their outrage at the ruling, chanting, "Not felool or the Brotherhood, the people want a president from the square!" (It sounds better in Arabic.) Politicking was never far from the surface, as Muslim Brotherhood presidential candidate Mohammed Morsy joined the crowd in the hopes of changing the minds of boycott supporters like Wahab by associating himself with the revolutionary moment.

But the return to Tahrir doesn't resolve the revolutionaries' primary dilemma: In a few short weeks, Egyptians will go to the ballot box to choose a president who will not be from their ranks. Their choices are Morsy, the candidate of a conservative Islamist group that has a poor record of working with secular activists, and Ahmed Shafiq, a stalwart of the former regime who has publicly praised Mubarak and openly called for trampling anyone who dares protest.

The renewed revolutionary zeal has buoyed activists' shared assumption that they are not alone in their fight. But on the million-dollar question of what to do next -- boycott the vote entirely, approach Morsy with demands for concessions in exchange for political support, push a "nullification campaign" to convince 51 percent of voters to spoil their ballots, or plug an initiative for a five-member presidential advisory council -- some stalwart activists remain torn.

When I caught up again with Wahab on the night of June 3 near Tahrir Square, she told me she wasn't sure whether she would participate in the boycott, saying she might join the nullification campaign in an effort to discredit the election. She thinks it is still a mistake to negotiate with the Brotherhood, though the renewed protests do give the revolutionaries more leverage. "I'm still hesitant about what the real next step is, but I'm considering [nullifying my ballot]," she said. Though Wahab cautions the revolutionaries who want to negotiate with Morsy to remember the Brotherhood's track record, "I now think, OK, it's still a very bad decision, but at least now I can say, you're going to the table with a bit of an even field," she said, referring to the rising number of people in the streets.

The idea of a presidential coalition is also gaining momentum in revolutionary circles. Parliamentarian Zyad Elelaimy, a member of the Revolutionary Youth Coalition -- one of the groups that organized the first day of the 18-day uprising -- said that the coalition is planning to agitate for an "advisory board" composed of Morsy, leftist Hamdeen Sabbahi, and maverick Islamist Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, who would then choose two more members and govern for a year. Shafiq, whom Elelaimy maintains should be disqualified based on a recently passed law that bars former top regime officials from running for office, would be excluded.

"We have to make the people discover if the candidates who are saying that they are part of the revolution are working for themselves or working for the revolution," Elelaimy told me. The coalition will be tasked with choosing a new constitutional committee, holding new elections, and instituting a taskforce on transitional justice.

But whatever happens next, there is widespread agreement that the revolutionaries' performance since the magical 18 days of protest that ended Mubarak's reign has been nothing short of disastrous. "We fucked up a lot," said Ahmed Hawary, a leading member of Our Right who ran as part of a liberal coalition in last year's parliamentary election and was defeated. "We're always fucking up. Since day one, it's all a series of being fucked over by our own decisions. Since March 2011, it's downhill all the way from there."

Everyone readily admits that after deposing Mubarak, the revolutionaries did not have a post-Tahrir plan, and time and again, they fell back on their mainstay tactic of protesting in the street when military rulers did something they didn't like -- shutting down central Cairo and sending the local economy into a tailspin. Although they won concessions at times, most Egyptians lost patience with the instability and yearned for security.

"We were so keen to ensure that we would not start anything to get [personal] benefits and do everything for the sake of the country, and to ensure this, I think we harmed the country," said Islam Lotfi, a member of the Revolutionary Youth Coalition and a founder of the Egyptian Current, a political party created by Muslim Brotherhood Youth members who were kicked out of the Islamist group last spring. The coalition, for example, refused to negotiate with SCAF shortly after Mubarak's fall on the grounds that they didn't want to say they represented the Egyptian people -- thereby losing a valuable bargaining chip.

According to Lotfi, the revolutionaries made two other huge blunders: The first was leaving Tahrir in the first place, instead of pressing their demands through constant street protests. The second was not starting a political party in March 2011. "It would have been the first million-member party in Egypt," he told me wearily in a coffee shop in downtown Cairo.

While the revolutionaries were protesting, the Muslim Brotherhood and the ultra-traditionalist Salafis were deepening their networks in the countryside and getting ready for elections, reaping the fruits of the revolutionaries' efforts in both the parliamentary and presidential elections.

When the revolutionaries -- those that weren't boycotting -- finally did get around to preparing for elections, they split their vote between multiple candidates. In the parliamentary elections, liberals ran against each other for seats. During the presidential elections, those campaigning as candidates of the revolution made the same mistake: Aboul Fotouh received 19 percent of the vote while Sabbahi garnered 21.5 percent. That's a silver lining for the veterans of Tahrir -- they can say that nearly half the voters cast their votes for their candidates, suggesting there is a vast reservoir of voters out there to whom they can appeal. 

"After 80 years, the Muslim Brotherhood got 5 million votes. After 30 years of ruling Mubarak got 5 million votes. Us, after a year and half of dying, our candidates combined had 11 million votes," Mahmoud Salem, an influential blogger who writes under the handle of Sandmonkey, told me. "It's actually amazing that people who don't have their stuff together get this many votes."

But despite the optimistic spin, the revolutionaries seem intent on duplicating their old mistakes, splintering once again over what to do next. Some want to work with the Brotherhood to prevent a Shafiq victory, extracting whatever concessions they can from the Islamist movement. "I think there is a clear choice, between revitalizing the old regime represented by Shafiq or taking the bitter medicine of Morsi," said Wael Khalil, a veteran activist and member of Masrena ("Our Egypt"), a movement aligned with revolutionary activist Wael Ghonim that is working to present a list of demands to Morsy. "[A Shafiq victory] will be Mubarak back in power and to me this is a catastrophe."

Others support a boycott or nullification campaign, arguing that they must pressure the system for reform even as they admit they need the Brotherhood to balance the remnants of the old regime. "The only thing preserving us from being killed is them fighting each other. They don't have time to see us, the flies, buzzing around," Hawary says. "If you have two wolves, just keep them there. Don't eliminate one wolf so the other will eat you. Just keep them there, yapping at each other, until you figure out what you're going to do."

Calculations like Salem's have reinforced the belief that the Egyptian people are looking for a third way. Despite all the revolutionaries' mistakes, there is still a chance they can unite and emerge as a major force on the country's political scene.

"I think [the election results] might be a slap in the face, a wake-up call that things can be different if we unite and I think this time around I think I'm going to have to be optimistic because I don't have any other choice, otherwise it's a dead end," said Sally Sami, human rights activist and founding member of the Social Democratic Party, which holds 16 seats in Parliament. "The only chance we have is to create a strong movement that can hold whoever comes to power accountable."

And with thousands of protesters back on the streets and tents erected again in Tahrir, the revolutionaries appear to be getting another chance. Sitting with Wahab in an office next the square before an Our Right meeting, she told me she was hopeful, though far from certain, about what comes next.

"A week ago, I would have said the final nail is being slammed into the coffin of the revolution -- well, I wouldn't have said that, I would have thought it, but I wouldn't have said that to anyone," she said, smiling. Now, "rather than the sort of downhill spiral that we were doing, we're sort of marching back uphill and this time it looks like we may be able to put a nail in the coffin of the counter-revolution."