'Pop-up protest' leaves Damascus shoppers' jaws agape
The demonstrators emerge silently from a throng of city shoppers, and when the security sirens sound they melt away again. Phil Sands, foreign correspondent, reports
DAMASCUS // The protest came out of nowhere, a holiday afternoon in central Damascus busy with shoppers interrupted by lofted banners demanding freedom and democracy.
With surprising calmness given the risk of dire consequences if they were caught by security forces, a dozen or so activists emerged from the crowd outside the historic Hamediyeh market.
Most were young, some teenagers. A majority were women, evidently secular, dressed casually in jeans and T-shirts. There were no chants or songs, no words, just the banners, most in Arabic, one in English, calling for freedom, calling for an end to regime killings, reminding the hundreds of onlookers that in Syria doctors can pay with their lives for helping wounded civilians.
The audience at first seemed to have little idea of what was happening: Damascus is full of banners and posters for candidates in forthcoming parliamentary elections.
But when reality began to sink in, they stood mute, eyes wide, watching.
A delivery boy on an old-fashioned bicycle stopped and stared, mouth agape. Drivers leaned out of their car windows or ducked their heads for a better view through the windscreen.
In a country that for decades has brooked no public dissent, scenes like this are hard to comprehend and, even after 13 months of an uprising that has thrown entire cities into an anti-regime revolt, somehow unimaginable and shocking.
The very heart of Damascus is still not used to such blatant shows of rebellion. On Fridays people expect protests and, as a result, many who prefer to turn a blind eye to the uprising simply stay at home, doors locked, windows shuttered, televisions tuned into the propaganda and soap operas on state-run channels.
A midweek May Day protest seen by hundreds of ordinary people is a different matter, however. It is much harder to ignore, dismiss or defame, especially when it doesn't fit with the government's insistence that the opposition are Islamist terrorists waging a campaign of violent intolerance.
This protest was peaceful and well organised, carried out with a smooth confidence by young men and women who could be the sons or daughters of almost any modern, middle-class Damascene family.
From the pavement, a smattering of applause rose - perhaps from other activists among the shoppers. A few drivers honked their horns in frustration at the blocked traffic. But mainly there was silence. No one hurled abuse at the protesters. There were no spontaneous shouts of loyalty to the president, Bashar Al Assad.
As if time had slowed, the demonstration moved across the road, leaving the way free for the cars. It resumed on the central reservation, banners held aloft again.
Walking casually, some smiling, some serious, the protesters crossed a busy road junction. They stopped in front of the justice palace, which houses the courts where scores of political dissidents have been sentenced to long jail terms over the years. The banners were again thrust into the air.
One of the protesters, a man in his thirties with grey hair, smiled broadly as if enjoying a simple day out with friends. Another, face stern, held his fingers up in the universal signal for victory and peace.
Ten minutes after the protest started, there was still no visible response from the security forces. Traffic police made no move to intervene, carrying on with their endless labour of keeping the traffic moving.
Then a siren wailed. Soon afterwards, the protesters melted away, disappearing quickly in small groups down side streets, hidden by their ordinariness.
A minute or so later, the Shabbiheh, burly men in olive drab trousers and T-shirts emblazoned with Mr Al Assad's face framed inside a heart, were running towards the justice palace.
They were too late to catch their quarry, arriving at the main entrance to Hamediyeh market with everything ostensibly back to normal.
But everything had already forever changed.
Updated: May 3, 2012 04:00 AM