Monday was the beginning of a new academic year in Syria. To mark the occasion, the government of President Bashar al-Assad announced that it would fine students $1,000 for skipping class. The move reveals just how significant of a threat students represent to the regime's survival. In the wake of the audacious student protests throughout Syria, it is evident that the regime's fears could well be justified, as pupils attack the very government that provides them with a free, outstanding education system — an unusual hallmark of the violent authoritarian state.
Undeterred by Tuesday's reports of the new penalties for Facebook users, ranging from $50 fines to prison terms, Syria’s Facebook community remained defiant: “Here’s a like and here’s a comment, down with the regime!” “Fines, fines ... what Syrian has money to pay them anyway?” posted one user on “The Syrian Revolution 2011”.
Facebook rumblings over the weekend have turned into a torrent of real-time footage of student protests in Homs, Deraa, Hama, and Huran. In addition to eyewitness accounts, the walls of youth and student-administered Facebook pages have been plastered with a wide range of debates and comments, most of which support the daring actions of the students. In fact, readers commenting on the scenes of crowded protests in Hama, which were calling for an end to Ba’ath education, described the students as “the generation of change and liberation,” “Sons of liberation,” and “loyal heroes.” Posting similarly supportive messages on the Syrian National Movement for Democratic Change’s wall, Facebook users voiced their approval of the school children in Huran and filmed brandishing placards reading, “No studying and no teaching until the regime falls.”
Rallies and demonstrations by secondary school pupils were staged in numerous major cities across the country. The demonstrations, which called for the fall of the regime and the hanging of Assad, were met with a vicious response from security forces. The young protesters were beaten, and many were arrested.
These acts of defiance represent a conundrum unique to Syria’s uprising. The articulate and capable youth at the forefront of virtual and on-the-ground activism are products of an education system that is, at all levels, the envy of many in the Arab world. While undoubtedly oversubscribed and colored by a Ba’athist interpretation of history and nationalism, Syrian schools, colleges, and universities offer a high-quality, free education that is open to all, including Palestinian and Iraqi refugees.
Furthermore, as the only Arab state committed to teaching entirely in Arabic, Assad’s Syria has contributed significantly not only to the modernization of the language, but has also provided graduates and school leavers the wherewithal to express themselves eloquently and coordinate effectively. The government faces the irony of being undermined by the products of its own enterprise.
The regime’s decision to fine absentee students indicates that, having meticulously overseen the crafting and implementation of the national curriculum, Assad is all too aware of the power these accomplished students could wield. After all, holding them in the classrooms at ransom keeps them away from demonstrations where they might put their state-gifted educations to use.
Moreover, as Facebook Syria continues to expand and evolve, it is evident that the threat of prosecution for Facebook dissent has come too late to suppress the awakening of this new, virtual "Arab Street."
Photo Credit: Charlotte Fyer