The Republic of Fear

By Giglio, Mike | Newsweek, April 11, 2011 | Go to article overview

The Republic of Fear


Giglio, Mike, Newsweek


Byline: Mike Giglio; With Reporting From Damascus

Protests in Syria have brought a vicious government crackdown--and renewed paranoia.

His name is a pseudonym, adopted when he ran afoul of the secret police, his movements and whereabouts similarly a secret. His online photo evokes an eerie sense of familiarity but isn't real. A computer-generated amalgam of many men, it is everyone and no one at all. Even his virtual presence is a specter, concealed behind encryption.

In a country where people have lived under surveillance for decades, paranoia is woven into the fabric of everyday life, says Malath Aumran, a Syrian dissident who leads a phantomlike existence, trying to elude the government's spies. The secret police, he says, "approach me in so many ways."

Phony BBC reporters have contacted him to speak with activists on the ground. He has been approached by "honey traps"--agents who pose as pretty female activists to ensnare him. Aumran was friendly with another activist for months before discovering he was a government mole. A reporter from an Arab radio station called Aumran and asked for his take. "Give me a second to prepare the recording," the reporter told him, with a click indicating the tape was rolling. Day after day, the reporter called for an update, and Aumran obliged, analyzing the dissent that has ranged from small sit-ins in Damascus to massive protests beyond the capital. After several interviews, Aumran got curious and decided to check out the station online. After an extensive search, he realized that his interlocutor wasn't a reporter at all. The radio station didn't exist.

On the surface, Syria is a welcoming country, with an appealing mix of old and modern. The Great Mosque of Damascus is surrounded by a fragrant, sprawling bazaar where brawny men in dishdashas sell cardamom and sumac from bursting sack made of burlap. In another part of the capital, a luxurious Four Seasons hotel towers over a marble-and-glass row of shops, where skinny women sell colorful, cloudlike Versace dresses that barely weigh down on the polished racks. But what tourists may fail to notice is the sinister, ubiquitous presence of the Mukhabarat, the secret police of the governing Baath Party, led by President Bashar al-Assad, the lanky British-educated optometrist who, after the death of his father and brother, unexpectedly found himself the leader of the Syrian Arab Republic. Like inhabitants of Iraq, East Germany, and the Soviet Union before them, Syrians live in a house of mirrors, wondering who among their neighbors are really government spies. "People adopt two faces," says Ahed Al Hendi, an activist who fled Syria four years ago. "One face they reveal to their families. The other they show people they don't know because they assume they are secret service. It's like living in a prison. Every single word could be counted against you." Human-rights groups estimate that thousands of political prisoners currently languish in the country's many jails. But while more than 100 have been killed during recent demonstrations and there are allegations of prison torture, Assad, so far at least, hasn't shown a penchant for systematic brutality. Still, memories of political violence run deep. …

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