Two years ago, Syrian student Muhammad Arab was imprisoned for
calling for reform of his country's political system. Now released
and back studying at the Faculty of Medicine in the University of
Aleppo, he is determined to continue promoting democracy.
"Prison wasn't great, but living without freedom is worse," says
Mr. Arab, a broad-shouldered young medical student.
Arab is one of a handful of students agitating for reform and
struggling to build a pro-democracy student movement in Syria, where
martial law imposed in 1963 forbids unofficial political gatherings
"The student movements are not very significant in terms of being
able to change things now," says Joshua Landis, professor of Middle
Eastern studies at the University of Oklahoma. "But here is the very
genesis of a new Syrian effervescence. This is the start of a 10- to
15-year transformation of society."
While no organized student movement exists at present, one may be
emerging. A small number of students are loosely linked but have no
official names, leaders, or organization. They simply come together
to organize political debates, spread democratic ideas, and take
"We're talking about little groups of 10 or 15 students," says
Dr. Landis, who spent 2005 in Damascus and is the author of the blog
Syriacomment.com. "They just appeared in the past two years. Every
now and again, the government tries to smash them. When there are
demonstrations, the police beat them up and their leaders are sent
to prison for lengthy terms.
"Most of the time this is enough to convince most students not to
get involved in politics," adds Landis. "But there are always some
who are prepared to carry on."
Arab is a case in point. At his university in Aleppo, Syria's
second-largest city, he ran against a candidate from Syria's Baath
Party in student elections in March 2004. When he won, the
university suspended him and 80 other students.
Undeterred, he traveled to Damascus, five hours south, to join a
protest against the university's decision. There he was arrested and
put on trial in Syria's State Security Court. "I saw my lawyer for
only a few minutes before the trial, so there was no chance to
prepare a defense," he says.
Then the court, Syria's highest, sentenced Arab to three years
imprisonment. He served only eight months, but was regularly beaten
and threatened, he says.
"The government is more afraid of secular opposition groups than
religious ones," points out Ayman Abdul-Nour, a prominent reformist
member of the Baath Party in Damascus. "Because any time the
government wants to get rid of the Islamists, it can just call them
terrorists and bomb them. …