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Syria: Revolution on campus?

The protest movement has spread to Damascus University, once a bastion of loyalty to the regime.

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Syrian people gather around the car of their president Bashar al-Assad to greet him after his speech at Damascus University on November 10, 2005. (Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images)

On a campus where even a whisper of politics risks jail time and where loyalty to the ruling party is rewarded with better grades and the best dorms, the small gathering of medical students, holding olive branches and flowers and dressed in bright white coats, were staging something truly revolutionary: A rally against the regime.

“God, Syria, freedom only,” chanted the group of some 150 budding doctors, their voices reverberating around the faculty buildings of Damascus University.

Outraged at the killing of more than a dozen protesters in the central city of Homs in just two days and with the army set to move into Daraa, the southern city where Syria’s popular uprising began, the students had dared the previously unthinkable.

The regime’s reaction was the same on campus as off it: Violent repression.

“God, Syria, Bashar only,” came the rhythmic chant, as around 500 members of the Students’ Union, run by the ruling Baath Party, slowly descended on the protesters. The call for freedom was drowned out.

“We tried to ignore them at first, but they kept coming closer,” said Mohammad, 22, one of the student protesters. “Then they began to beat us with wooden sticks and their belts.”

The white coats scattered, olive branches and flowers left to be trampled underfoot.

“We used to be afraid of the secret police, but now we are afraid of our friends who sit next to us or live with us in the same dorms,” said Mohammed, who like other students interviewed for this article declined to publish his full name, fearing retribution for speaking out. “It is a shame.”

Big Brother watching

Since taking power in a military coup in 1963, Syria’s socialist Baath Party has opened up free university education to hundreds of thousands of students from poorer families. Damascus University alone now counts nearly 220,000 enrolled students.

At the main gates of Damascus University students and teachers pass under the gaze of a towering statue of the late President Hafez al-Assad, draped in a university robe and holding a stack of books.

But in the one-party police state of the Assad dynasty, the campuses of Syria’s universities have long been places for smothering dissent, rewarding loyalty to the regime and for gathering intelligence on students as much as educating them.

“All new ideas come from the youth and therefore the university environment is even more controlled than the rest of Syria,” said Fadi, a 25-year-old student at Damascus University.

Human rights activists have documented dozens of cases of students arrested after speaking their mind on campus and being informed on by a fellow student to the Students’ Security department of the Union.

“Students report each other to the Union and in return they are offered privileges such as being allowed to stay out until late or better dorm rooms,” said Khaled, a former student of the university.

One of Syria’s leading cyber activists, profiled by GlobalPost last month, was in part motivated to join the opposition following the arrest and disappearance of his sister from Damascus University after she was heard questioning Assad’s effectiveness.

Joining the party

The principal route for the regime’s exercise of control over campus is through rewarding students if they join the ruling party and the Baath-run Students’ Union.

Political life starts early. Elementary school students can join the Baath Pioneers and later, during high school, in the Revolution Youth Union.

Upon enrolling at university, students are encouraged by their teachers to join the Baath Party itself. Membership guarantees students an instant increase in their grade points, a crucial boost for many hoping to enter the best faculties.

“Baathist students receive five to 10 grade points more than us so they can get into the better faculties,” said Mohammed, who did not join the ruling party.

Membership of the Students’ Union, run by Ammar Saaty, a Baath Party MP, while not compulsory, also brings many rewards.

“It is easier to get a room in campus if you’re a member of the Union. Otherwise you might have to rent a room in the city which costs a lot of money,” said Mohammed.

Members of the Students’ Union are rewarded when they inform on students suspected of not supporting the regime and, as was the case with the medical students’ protest, are often directly used to violently break up demonstrations.

A current student said the Union is now offering rewards to members who catch anyone filming at protests on campus: The successful agent gets to keep the mobile phone of the person caught and is given money.

Thugs roaming campus

Students’ Union members were joined on campus by hundreds of plain clothes secret police patrolling an empty and eerily quiet Damascus University, according to several current students.

“Now there are more than 300 secret police patrolling inside the university alongside members of the Students’ Union,” said Ahmad, a student at Damascus University. “They swear at people and if anyone answers back they will be beaten.”