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Pro-democracy Syrians in Egypt fight a battle of their own

Syrian protesters residing in Egypt tell Ahram Online they are threatened by their own embassy in Cairo and neglected by Egypt's ruling military council - but Egyptians are on their side

Sherif Tarek , Sunday 21 Aug 2011
Syrians protesters opposed to Syrian President Bashar Assad regime during a gathering outside the Sy
Syrians protesters opposed to Syrian President Bashar Assad regime during a gathering outside the Syrian embassy in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, March 15, 2011. (Photo: AP/Hossam Ali)

While in Syria demonstrators are getting killed en masse by the troops of Bashar Al-Assad’s autocratic regime, Syrians in other parts of the world are speaking out against the tyrannical ruler, seeking the sympathy and support of the Arab world.

The Syrian revolution started in mid-March and has so far witnessed horrendous war crimes and a myriad of human rights violations. With the army using heavy artillery against the unarmed protesters, the death toll in the turmoil-plagued country has risen to at least 2000. Meanwhile, worldwide resentment boils for Al-Assad’s boundless brutality against his own people.

In Egypt, Syrians have been staging demonstrations, vigils and occasional sit-ins in solidarity with their beleaguered countrymen. The Syrian embassy and the headquarters of the League of Arab States have been the two prime targets for their demonstrations in the past months - and more protests are yet to come as the revolt heats up.

“We rally at least once a week, sometimes twice. It depends on the developments in Syria,” Abdullah Al-Masarani, a Syrian student at El-Qasr El-Aini School of Medicine, Cairo University, told Ahram Online. “When we first started to congregate our numbers were small, but starting in April we have become hundreds.

“Our primary demands are the same as that of the people in Syria; we used to call for changes, then demanded to bring down the regime, then to see Bashar Al-Assad stand trial and be condemned to death for his crimes. 

“The anti-regime Syrians abroad are also trying to get everybody to stand by them. Some people are with the government because they believe it’s against Israel and the US; it’s the image he [Al-Assad] has always promoted.”

Aside from calling for wide-reaching support to fulfil the demands that their compatriots have bled and died for in the homeland, Syrian protesters in Egypt have their own struggles to overcome and goals to achieve.

Syrian embassy threats

Egyptian-based Syrian activists might be safe from the constant bombing and merciless raids of Al-Assad’s army, but they have been suffering from mistreatment and threats made by the Syrian embassy, whose officials, they say, have been trying to thwart the anti-Al-Assad protests at any cost.

“When we first started demonstrating in front of the Syrian embassy the employees there used to come out and physically assault us,” Salam Al-Shawaf, a 33-year-old activist from Damascus, told Ahram Online. “Once they even kidnapped one of the protesters and held him inside. He turned out to be Egyptian.

“The ambassador left Egypt without saying why. We want him to be officially relieved of his duties,” he said. “The embassy’s attitude is so unacceptable; they once played pro-Bashar songs while we were protesting. Some of us lost siblings, relatives or parents, so it was so inappropriate.”

Syrian Ambassador Youssef Ahmed came under fire after embassy officials threatened demonstrators to withdraw their nationalities and scholarships. Other threats were as serious as to hurt their families in Syria. As a result of the intimidation tactics, some of the protesters agreed to chant pro-Assad slogans, against their beliefs.

“The threats were gradual,” Al-Masarani explained. “They started by saying they would find out who we are. Later, they threatened students to deprive them of their scholarships, withdraw their Syrian nationalities and even to go after their families.”

In the wake of the ceaseless demands for the ambassador to be sacked, Ahmed left Egypt with his family on 3 August and headed to Damascus, without saying whether he was on vacation or decided to step down in response to the persistent attacks against him. 

Criticism against SCAF, praise for Egyptian army

“I was expecting [Egypt’s ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces] SCAF to clearly state that they forced the ambassador to leave. Instead, they just remain silent, so we still have no idea if he’s still in his position. SCAF really disappointed me,” Omar Fehail, a medical student at Misr University for Science and Technology, said to Ahram Online.

Anti-regime Syrians were hoping to see Egypt’s authorities support their uprising through tangible actions and declarations, like other countries. For instance, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah bin Abdel-Aziz deplored the bloodshed in Syria and recalled the monarchy’s ambassador.

“We once staged a vigil in front of the Saudi embassy’s premises in Egypt to express our gratitude to the Saudi King for his attitude towards what’s happening in Syria,” Al-Shawaf stated. “Since [Egypt’s] military council is in charge, we want them to announce their endorsement of the Syrian revolution. The least they can do is recall the Egyptian ambassador in Syria,” he elaborated.

Egyptians and Syrians, alike, are sceptical of the military council's policies towards Syria. But they are grateful for the protection the Egyptian army has provided for their protests.

“Syrian protesters in Egypt were assaulted quite often by embassy personnel when they first started to demonstrate, but now they are barely attacked, thanks to protection provided by the Egyptian army during the recurring protests,” Al-Shawaf said. “Our relationship with the Egyptian troops is perfect.”

For his part, Fehail said: “The army usually let us stage demonstrations in front of the embassy. Only once did they prevent us from doing so, after it was rumoured that we had attacked the embassy. What really happened is that some of the protesters cut the electricity when the embassy played pro-Assad songs.”

Support in Tahrir Square and everywhere else

Syrian activists in Egypt might not find the kind of support they want from SCAF, or other Egyptian authorities; however, local media and public have nothing but complete sympathy with their cause.

Back on 8 July, the date of the start of the latest sit-in in Tahrir Square, a Syrian man took one of the podiums to ask SCAF to support his strife-torn country. “Syrians are being murdered every day. The military council must declare its stance on what’s going on there,” he told the crowds, who emotionally started chanting “Egypt and Syria, [are] one hand.”

Al-Shawaf commented: “I was one of those Syrians who gave speeches in Tahrir Square. Egyptians everywhere feel our pain; they all want Bashar gone.”

Most Egyptian political forces have backed the revolutionary Syrians during several protests, including the 6th of April Youth Coalition, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, the Revolution Youth Coalition, El-Wasat and the Wafd Party.

“Through a number of activities we have been trying to make everyone understand what’s really going on. We used to talk to people in Tahrir Square and once organised an event at El-Sawy Culturewheel to get our message across,” 22-year-old Al-Masarani stated.

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