Naming Friday: Debating Syria’s Day of Revolt
By: Yazan Badran
Published Sunday, January 29, 2012
The titles given to Fridays in Syria have turned into an important marker of what the people demand. But following a heated debate ahead of last Friday, naming the day most closely associated with revolt has become an increasingly contested affair.
Revolutions create motifs, symbols and features by which they are remembered. Egypt’s Tahrir Square defined a revolutionary tradition that reverberated all the way to Europe.
Friday, with all its affiliated actions and rituals, is the Syrian uprising’s own revolutionary tradition. There are weekdays, and then comes Friday, the day of protest; with the multitude of emotions it evokes across the country, from fear and sadness to excitement and anticipation.
Mass mobilization on Fridays is certainly not an exclusively Syrian practice. But ten months on, Syria’s revolution is where Friday turned into an emblem. What began as an effective platform for mobilization and a relatively safer way to gather crowds through the Friday prayer, has mutated into a full scale “day of revolution.” Protests still happen during the week, but it is Friday that everyone awaits. Al-Jumaa (Friday) prayers are still held, but protesters no longer wait for them. Demonstrations break out before, during and after prayers. They occur around mosques and away from them. The day becomes the ultimate weekly showdown between the protesters and the regime’s oppressive machine.
Within this context one understands why the seemingly symbolic names given to each week’s Friday protests have become a contested issue among different opposition groups. The names, chosen by the administrators of the Syrian Revolution Facebook page, and taken for granted by Syrians during the early months of the uprising, grew to become the public representation of the uprising.
The names, and the debates surrounding them on and off Facebook, perhaps, shed more light on the underlying currents and the schisms within the revolution, than do the many TV appearances of the politicians claiming to represent it. The debates also pose a fundamental question: How representative is this sample of Syrians who have access to Facebook compared to the greater population who’s taking part in the protests? The short and obvious answer is: very little.
But a deeper inspection of the level of interaction, seen through protest videos, seems to suggest that these debates find their way even to the remotest of places. They either reflect or help shape the general mood across the country.
The abstract values, religious motifs and homages to different groups inside Syria, that Friday names had in the early months – Friday of Rage, Friday of Saleh al-Ali, Great Friday and Friday of Azady, to name but a few – seemed to appeal to most if not everyone within the opposition. After Ramadan of last year, and as the conflict dragged on and the oppression became bloodier, the names – e.g. Friday of No-Fly Zone and Friday of the Buffer Zone – started reflecting a schism between a populist militaristic narrative that reflected and appealed to frustration on the street and one that viewed such narratives as a black hole that threatened both the revolution and the country.
The divergence drew attention to the tight control the Syrian Revolution Facebook page held over the naming of the Friday protests. The group had already come under fire several times for an apparent conservative bias regarding page content. Detractors pointed out that the group’s only known admin has very close connections to the Muslim Brotherhood, and argued that a few individuals, with such controversial backgrounds, shouldn’t be allowed to hold absolute control over an important asset for a revolution that portrays itself as inclusive of all Syrians. The subsequent debate prompted the page to relinquish control over the name to a popular voting system, while retaining the right to pick and limit the available choices.
The arrangement hasn’t convinced many, as seen by the latest round of heated exchanges these past two weeks. The backlash against the Syrian Revolution page started building up with a series of Friday names over several weeks that advocated foreign intervention as a solution to the Syrian crisis. This is a volatile and highly divisive topic inside the opposition. It exploded when the page chose to overturn the Friday 20th name that garnered the most votes, “Friday of the Revolutionary Detainees” was dropped in favor of the next-popular choice which harped on the same theme of foreign intervention in the name of “Internationalization is our goal.”
An immediate outcry followed, and within hours the page relented and announced that the name would be an homage to the detainees, but with the subscript of “Internationalization is still our goal.” A second wave of protests ensued and the page was forced to backtrack again and announce that the name will simply be “Friday of the Revolutionary Detainees,” without the subscript.
The confrontation led many to lose any confidence they may have had in those running the page. Several groups and individuals started petitioning to hold the voting on a neutral website away from the Syrian Revolution page. However, it also seems to have prompted the page to take a more moderate and conciliatory approach to the names. So when the ultra-conservative TV station al-Wisal – known for hosting a show by the controversial Islamic Shiekh Adnan al-Arour – advocated “Jihad Declaration” as a Friday name for January 27, the page issued a statement declining to consider the name, citing its “divisive and exclusionist” nature.
When secular opposition groups organized a campaign, in response to the rumored “Jihad Declaration,” to have “Civil State” as a Friday name, the page obliged and added it to the options. “Friday of the Civil State” ended up losing out in the vote to the “Right to Self-Defence.” Seeing that another wave of protest was looming after many claims of vote rigging through fake pages and accounts, the page included “Syria is a Civil State for all its citizens” as a subtitle. It remains to be seen, however, whether this truce will hold.
Nevertheless, the volatile nature of the naming process is a good indicator of a complex dynamic in the revolution that is more than a binary schism of secular/conservative. And the debates surrounding it are prototypes of the ones Syrians will eventually have to tackle as a nation when the dust settles.
Yazan Badran is a Syrian blogger based in Japan.