DAMASCUS (Reuters) - The preacher of the Saladin Mosque was reflecting on the joys of Mother’s Day, his sermon straying far from dramatic protests now gripping Syria, when a young man jumped up to the pulpit and grabbed the microphone.
“Why are you talking about this in these circumstances? Tell us about the political situation!” shouted the youth, before secret police arrested him and hurried him away.
The scene at the mosque in the lower income Damascus district of Ruknaldin, recounted to Reuters by worshippers who witnessed it on Friday, was striking in a country where pliant citizens have endured government-dictated sermons for decades.
In Damascus, as in the provinces, a barrier of fear which had blocked dissent is breaking down. Uprisings across the Arab world have not stopped at the door of one of its most hardline administrations.
For the first time, placards other than those glorifying Syria’s ruling elite and the “historic achievements” of the Baath Party are being raised in the towns of the strategic Hauran plain south of Damascus.
A single word is etched on them — “Freedom.”
The region, where four protesters have been killed by security forces since Friday, has seen the first non-sectarian protests against the Baath Party since Assad’s late father Hafez al-Assad crushed leftist and Islamist opponents in the 1980s.
Among them were the cream of Syrian society — lawyer and former judge Haitham al-Maleh, leftist leader Riad al-Turk, writer Akram al-Bunni, and poet Mohammad al-Maghout, who wrote that being tortured by a compatriot was more painful and humiliating than repression under French colonialism.
The violent campaign by the Syrian authorities in the 1980s left up to 70,000 people missing. In 2004, Kurds, many of whom are denied Syrian citizenship, mounted violent demonstrations against the government in which 30 people were killed.
In a sign of changing times, Montaha al-Atrash, whose father led a revolt against French rule in the 1920s, addressed Assad directly in an interview on BBC Television.
“Dr Bashar, listen to us. Non-stop pressure and repression will generate an explosion. You know, and you see how the region is boiling,” said Atrash, referring to a wave of Arab uprisings which have toppled two leaders and challenged many more.
“The regime is still responding to anyone calling for change by trying to portray it as a scheme for sectarian strife and division, and by unleashing on demonstrators security forces who are already filling the streets,” she added, speaking in Syria.
The protesters have not called for the removal of Assad, and Atrash said there was no hatred against the president, an ophthalmologist by training who was thrust into politics when his elder brother Bassel died in car accident in 1994.
But the name of one top figure of the ruling elite, Assad’s cousin Rami Makhlouf, is being uttered publicly. Owner of Syria’s largest cellphone company and several large businesses, Makhlouf is under U.S. sanctions for what Washington regards as public corruption.
Until now, no one inside Syria has dared question his activities. The tycoon maintains his businesses are legitimate, providing professional employment for thousands of Syrians.
“Go away Makhlouf. We don’t want thieves... There is no more fear after today,” is one of the main chants of demonstrators who burned premises of Makhlouf’s Syriatel company.
Residents of Deraa city, where the demonstrations started on Friday, say they have shaken off humiliation and decades of repression, and broken a ‘fear factor’ that had made people suspicious that even close relatives might be informants.
“I can now smell freedom,” said one youth, describing how mass demonstrations had helped unify a tribal-based society he said authorities had played a part in fracturing.
Even if protests subside — the south was calm on Tuesday morning — Syrians say the grievances which sparked them remain.
Opposition figure Riad al-Turk, who spent 25 years as a political prisoner including almost 18 years alone in a 2-meter by 2-meter underground cell during Hafez al-Assad’s rule, said Syrian leaders face “the moment of truth.”
“What is required is serious and clear steps to transform Syria from repression to democracy.
“They are steps outlined repeatedly: release political prisoners, abolish the state of emergency, legalize a multi-party system, separation of powers, the independence of the judiciary, and scrap the clause that makes the Baath Party ‘leader of state and society’,” he said.
“All I know today is that Syria will not remain the kingdom of silence,” 80-year-old Turk said.
“Fear will no longer suffocate, and my homeland will not remain a big prison.”
Additional reporting by Suleiman al-Khalidi