No Country for Anyone

The Syrian rebellion is turning hard-line Islamist, squeezing out Christians, Alawites, and Kurds who also hate Assad.

BEIRUT — A small group of young opposition activists makes its way through the pitch-black streets of the northern Syrian city of Raqqa, slowly approaching the Church of the Lady of the Annunciation. A few of them clamber onto the church's wall and hoist up a wooden cross, struggling under its weight, as they sing a tune from the early days of the revolution. "One, one, one. The Syrian people are one," they chant. "Syria belongs to Muslims and Christians."

The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), al Qaeda's Syrian franchise, had pulled down the church's cross earlier that day and had raised the jihadi black flag in its place. The activists' act of defiance lives on in a clip uploaded to YouTube in September -- but the church does not. The following day, ISIS fighters swiftly made their displeasure known by torching Raqqa's only two churches.

In the uprising's early days, members of Syria's religious and ethnic minorities played a prominent role in the camp opposing President Bashar al-Assad, organizing peaceful demonstrations alongside Sunnis and campaigning for civil liberties. Today, the war-wracked country is a particularly grim place for these Alawite, Christian, and Kurdish activists who tried to bridge Syria's sectarian divides. Not only do they face the regime's brutality, but they are forced to contend with Islamist militias that are harassing Syrian minorities with impunity.

Some activists have already turned the page, arguing that their acceptance of a movement effectively headed by radical Islamists, who clearly reject them as apostates, is akin to embracing self-dissolution and disappearance. Thaer Aboud, an Alawite activist whom the regime imprisoned early in the uprising and whose father was arrested by the Syrian authorities in the 1980s for being critical of the regime, sounds nostalgic for the early days of the rebellion, before some elements of the anti-Assad cause tried to write people like him out of the revolt.

"I was a Syrian person with a Syrian agenda in every sense of the word," he says. "I lost everything -- I mean real loss here -- for the cause of my people. Three years of suffering, of sacrifices, of being a vagabond, of trying to scrape a living … and now I feel like the revolution has made an outcast out of me."

When the Free Syrian Army (FSA) was established, Aboud quickly reached out to a Sunni colonel in Jabal al-Zawiya, Idlib province, who had defected from the army. Aboud attempted to keep lines of communication with Sunni fighters open, but growing sectarianism made it difficult for the groups to trust one another. He blames the regime for fomenting these divisions, arguing that it was the biggest benefactor of Syrians' inability to trust one another. As a result, he says, minority opposition activists are now an isolated and sorely disillusioned bunch.

"I have one Alawite friend who's still inside. He uses a fake name, but the situation has become unbearable there," he says. "If I were to risk my life to funnel food and medicine to people in destitute areas, but at the same time those people are swearing at me and threatening to slaughter me, a moment comes when I must ask myself, 'Why am I helping them?'"

But even as the uprising became militarized and Islamists gained strength, a few individual dissidents from minority groups carved out a space for themselves within the anti-Assad cause.

It can be a delicate topic. By their very nature, such activists are striving to get beyond Syria's sectarian divisions, and they bristle at being trotted out as the revolt's token minorities.

"This is a thorny subject among Christian activists," says a young Syrian priest from Aleppo who currently resides in Lebanon. "Some activists are annoyed that they have been reduced to appetizing fodder for the media and somehow portrayed as more exceptional than others."

These activists often speak of being socially ostracized from their communities, as their anti-regime stance is tantamount to treason. Given these social pressures and the violence of Assad's intelligence apparatus, they have little choice but to press on.

"Despite the formidable challenges they face in their own communities, and in the communities they chose to relocate to, they are very much aware that backing out, at this stage, is not an option," said the priest.

Loubna Mrie, a 22-year-old Alawite activist with a cherubic face, lost her own mother to the cause. She was only 19 when the uprising erupted, and she quickly became infamous in her hometown of Jableh for siding with FSA fighters. Her enraged father, embarrassed by his daughter's public betrayal and eager to prove his unwavering loyalty to the regime, abducted his own ex-wife, Mrie's mother, and executed her. In a video published by the Guardian, Mrie refers to her father as "an assassin" who used the brutal methods characteristic of the security apparatus against his own family.

In the six-minute interview, Mrie delves into the painful details of the story, as tears stream down her face. "I have to contribute with this [revolution], because my mom died for this," she said matter-of-factly. "And I feel like now it's a personal cause. It's not like a country's cause."

To the dismay of her colleagues in the nonviolence movement, Mrie has wholeheartedly embraced the militarization of the revolution. She continues to interact with fighters in hard-core Islamist battalions and has close friends within Jabhat al-Nusra, which has been designated by the United States as an al Qaeda affiliate, and the Salafi group Ahrar al-Sham.

"The Western media portrays Islamists as a boogeyman, a terrifying specter threatening to engulf us all, but Syrians should know better," she says. "At the end of the day, those so-called 'extremists' … they are just Syrians to me."

Mrie has armed herself with an abundance of anecdotes that unsettle claims that minorities can no longer travel safely in rebel-held areas. She tells of one time when she unknowingly ventured into the line of sight of a government sniper while walking in Aleppo, taking pictures. A fighter quickly grabbed her and ran by her side, shielding her as best as he could to ensure he would get hit if the sniper fired a shot in their direction.

"In that moment, I feel those guys will rebuild Syria one day. I'm not afraid for my country," she says defiantly.

Much of Mrie's success in bridging these divides has been due to simple persistence. The first time she ventured to a front line in Aleppo to greet some hardened fighters, she said, they simply glared at her. The following day, during the holy month of Ramadan, she went back bearing a tray of sweets at sunset when the fighters were breaking their fast. She hung around in silence for a few days until they eventually warmed up to her.

"There is a truth which people conveniently ignore," she says. "When a fighter sees others with him in the same deep trench, knowing they could die with him at any moment, he stops caring whether they're Alawite, Sunnis, or Christian."

Nevertheless, the rise of al Qaeda-linked groups has undeniably limited the ability of members of Syria's minorities to participate in the anti-Assad cause. Mayada al-Khalil, another Alawite activist, had been working with a group of underground opposition activists since 2003, when she was a student at the University of Aleppo. In February 2012, while Khalil was working at the Violations Documentation Center, a Damascus-based opposition group that tracks the conflict's violence, she was detained by security forces.

Khalil was kept in prison for 83 grueling days. It was the fear of dying at the hands of prison guards that drove her to temporarily leave Syria. She found herself entertaining two options: She could either go into hiding in Ghouta, the besieged Damascus suburb where the notorious Aug. 21 chemical attack took place, or make a more drastic move to the liberated areas in northern Syria.

"I thought of going to Raqqa to see what I can do there to help, but the latest developments and the growing presence of the ISIS made me rethink this option," she says.

It's not only Syria's religious minorities who are suffering -- members of its ethnic minorities also bemoan how Assad has played on old divisions to pursue a strategy of divide and rule.

Hozan Ibrahim, a Kurdish-Syrian activist currently living in Germany, was jailed by the regime a decade ago for pursuing demands for Kurdish rights, including that Kurds be allowed to teach their own language in schools. Now, he says, Assad is using Kurdish organizations to his advantage: The Syrian regime realized it couldn't keep a strong grip on every corner of the country, he says, so it relinquished control of Kurdish areas to a local militia that it knew it could co-opt. He says the group -- a local affiliate of Turkey's Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) -- skillfully exploited the troubled relationship between Kurds and Arabs to drive a deeper wedge between the two communities and put an end to any stirrings of dissidence among Kurds.

"The activists who stayed in Syria are now intimidated by the PKK, with whom the regime struck some sort of agreement with," said Ibrahim. "Once the PKK became the sole authority managing Kurdish areas, keeping in line with the regime's methods of repression, activists had to choose between joining the PKK, which is essentially a regime puppet, or staying home."

Ibrahim was just 19 when he was thrown in jail. During his imprisonment, he was kept in solitary confinement for interminable stretches of time, until the ideals he fought for started fading from view. His experience of losing the initial spirit that drove him to rebel in the first place would no doubt ring true for some of today's beaten and beleaguered activists.

"I wasn't the same person when I finally got out of prison. I had so much aggression in me. I don't think I felt normal again until I left Syria for good," he said.



The Coiffeur of Cairo

For 50 years, Mahmoud Labib has cut the hair of Egypt's rulers, from Sadat to Mubarak.

CAIRO — Mahmoud Labib put on a dark suit when he received the call. Not his usual hot-pink shirt, open halfway to his navel. He slicked back his silver hair in a Chuck Berry-style conk. Hosni Mubarak was expecting him.

The 75-year-old hairdresser headed to the military hospital in the Cairo suburb of Maadi. It was late August, and Egypt was in turmoil; the former president had just been freed from prison after two years. And the man needed a haircut. Mahmoud says he considers Mubarak a customer just like any other, but the aged former leader stands at the heart of Mahmoud's magic -- the mystique that drew people and presidents to his hair salon's iron latticed door, with a golden "M" at the center.

Mahmoud has cut Mubarak's hair since he was vice president, and Mahmoud knew his sons when they were little boys running around in T-shirts and shorts. And the hairdresser's time with the man who ruled Egypt for three decades provided him with a privileged view of a leader who often proved awkward and secretive toward the public.

"He was a man of very few words. For the first 10 years, it was just salaam alaikum and alaikum as-salaam," Mahmoud says between customers during a recent visit to his salon. "Later, I would go to him and we would spend a couple of hours after I finished [cutting his hair]. There was space. We developed a relationship like I have with any other customer."

While Mubarak's critics paint a picture of a leader obsessed with handing power to his family, Mahmoud describes the former president as desperate to find a way to leave office in his final years but thwarted by his inner circle. "There was too much pressure from those around him telling him the country would slide into chaos without him," he says.

A statue of a naked satyr stands at the entrance of Mahmoud's salon. Inside, Mahmoud projects himself as a fashion avatar: He bathes himself in cologne and walks across his domain, lighter than a feather, rolling his fingers through his customers' hair. His half-dozen stylists wear matching yellow sports shirts emblazoned with Mahmoud's name and a drawing of a more youthful, smoldering barber with a pompadour. He scoffs at hair-styling legends like Vidal Sassoon and Alexandre de Paris, dismissing them as men who lost their hunger for the art.

His clientele of graying, middle-aged men rejoice at any mention of his illustrious former clients. Caricatures and photos of Anwar Sadat adorn the space -- one picture shows Mahmoud trimming the former president's side hairs. Another has the barber crouched in a stylish black outfit behind a seated Sadat.

Mahmoud's walls bear no extravagant tributes to Mubarak. The stylist speaks with affection about his longtime friend -- but denies any deliberate omission. If someone had given him a photo of the two together, he insists, he would have put it up. Mahmoud claims no one ever gave him such a gift, and besides, he insists, he has never liked photographs of himself.

"Others go and get their photographs taken, but I never asked someone to be photographed with them. Even the actors and artists, who have been my customers for decades," Mahmoud explains. "These pictures come by chance. I go for work and work alone."

In the 1960s, his first client from the inner circle of political power was President Gamal Abdel Nasser's teenage son Hakim. Nasser warned Mahmoud not to give the teenager sideburns -- the colonel wanted his son's hair cut like a soldier's ­-- but Mahmoud ignored the Egyptian strongman's advice. The barber knew Nasser would forget his own warning but that his son would never forgive him. Next came then Vice President Sadat's teenage son, whose hair Mahmoud still cuts today. Then Sadat came to sit in his barber's chair, and finally Mubarak, who started visiting the stylist after he became vice president.

Mahmoud still loves Sadat, calling him a "wise man" and "salt of the earth." He traveled the world with the flamboyant Egyptian leader -- including to the United States, for the Camp David Accords. Comparing his work on the Middle East peace process to a hair salon, Sadat told Mahmoud that if the Palestinians were hairstylists and lost their shop, and then were offered a seat back inside, they would be foolish not to take what was available to them.

Mahmoud brags that he never changed his ways for the powerful. "When I was first introduced to Sadat, I told him about all my flaws. That I am a hard drinker and a [marijuana] smoker, that I stay up late every night and so on. I told him all the bad things about me, so that if someone went to inform on me, he'd already know."

He muses that perhaps Mubarak thought he could learn the secrets of Sadat's court from the president's barber. "I knew nothing," Mahmoud chuckles.

When Mahmoud visited Mubarak at the military hospital in late August, it was the first time he had seen his friend in the flesh in two years. They kissed on the cheeks, hugged, and shook hands. He said Mubarak was physically weak but mentally as sharp as a tack. He says the former president continued to maintain a busy, organized schedule -- every inch the air force commander that he had been decades ago.

"You know how these airmen are. If he finds a strand of hair out of place, he'll tell me, 'Don't leave it,'" Mahmoud says admiringly. "Look: He is 85 and his hair looks as healthy as ever."

Mahmoud has watched Egypt struggle after Mubarak's downfall. First the Muslim Brotherhood, which he dreads, won the presidency. Then the country was thrust into chaos when the military deposed the Brotherhood and launched a far-reaching crackdown that has cost over 1,000 lives. Today, the Mubarak years look far better to many Egyptians, even if the ex-president is shunned like a wayward relative.

Taking a break from a client, Mahmoud smokes a Rothman and describes Mubarak's mindset since his release. "Perhaps on the inside he is happy that [the Muslim Brothers] have left, but that's all," he says. "He is unhappy about what has occurred. He wonders how much time will it take Egypt to mend things. He is worried for the country."

Mahmoud also styled the hair of Mubarak's two sons, watching them grow into dapperly attired men who joined their father in the stewardship of the country. When the sons were thrown in prison, Mahmoud urged the general prosecutor, another one of his clients, to let him keep cutting their hair. The prosecutor refused, however, leaving the sons' hair to the care of their prison staff.

Mahmoud expresses sorrow over Egypt's treatment of Mubarak's younger son, Gamal, who had ambitions to succeed his father and today cools his heels in Cairo's Tora Prison on charges of corruption and inside trading. Mahmoud remembers broaching the subject of Gamal's succession to the presidency with Mubarak. "He told me, try as he might, Egypt is too big and Gamal couldn't handle all of it."

Another time, says Mahmoud, Mubarak confided his worry about Gamal's rising profile: "Mahmoud, he could be finished off by a bullet worth less than a piaster."

The fear that Mubarak would pass power to his son ultimately contributed to the popular protests that resulted his downfall in early 2011. But Mahmoud portrays Mubarak as an aging commander who wanted to loosen his grip on power but did not know how. After his favorite grandchild died of an illness in 2009, Mahmoud says Mubarak was vocal about his desire to resign and soon had to be hospitalized in Germany due to his own health crisis. "He was weak; I was fatter than he was," says the rail-thin coiffeur. "We'd have to carry him from the bed to place him on [the] barber's chair, so I could cut his hair."

Mahmoud talks as if it were never Mubarak or Gamal who were at fault -- somehow, they were always the victims, while the men around them sabotaged their efforts. Mahmoud blames invisible hands -- "the movers and shakers" and "the people with interests and money to make" -- for Egypt's struggles and for undermining those whom he sees as good and true, such as Sadat and Mubarak. Mahmoud also mentions Mubarak's belief that he was thrown out because he was standing in the way of an American plan to grab new bases in Egypt -- a charge that the former president voiced in discussions with his prison doctor, which were secretly recorded and released on the Internet in September.

To Mahmoud, these past few years are like a reversal of the best decade of his life -- the 1950s, when he apprenticed in downtown Cairo, which was then alive with writers, musicians, and military officers plotting revolution.

He doesn't recognize his old haunts today. "These are haphazard times," he says, puffing a cigarette between clients. But he swears not to retire. "So as long as I am standing and working I have energy. I can work 12, 13 hours and not tire."

And when Mubarak calls again, he will come -- as he has always done.

Photo: Yassin Gaber