ALEPPO, SYRIA — 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 or groups.
"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 opinion polls.
"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. The government also knows that the US will not seek to replace the regime with Islamic people."
But students face pressure not only from the government and the university authorities but also from their friends and parents. "Becoming involved in politics, I was aware that I might cross some of the regime's 'red lines,' but I suppressed my fear," says Nasser Babinsy, a friend of Arab and a fellow activist. "And 43 years of dictatorship teaches you a lot of fear."
But analysts point out that activists hoping to spread democracy must not only overcome official harassment, they must work against an educational and social system designed to support the regime.
"Syrian society is fighting against so many layers of authoritarianism," says Landis. "Arab nationalism is like a religion in Syria; it's not something that you can debate."
In addition, President Bashar al-Assad's limited economic reforms have removed some of the pressure for political reform. "Eighty percent of Syrians don't care about political freedoms," says Sami Moubayed, a writer and independent political analyst in Damascus. "They want jobs and more money."
But others argue that even religiously observant and less-educated Syrians are starting to see democracy as the best option. "Our country is tired of totalitarianism," says Mohammad Deeb Khor, a member of the opposition Revolutionary Workers Party, which formerly followed communist-style ideology. "People are thirsty for basic freedoms. Democracy is not paradise but it is a stage from which to meet society's interests."
As democratic ideas spread, Syrian democrats are also discovering the power of nonviolent protest. "Earlier this [year], a group of people demonstrated in Damascus, calling for an end to the martial laws," says Najib Dadam from the opposition Socialist Arab Democratic Union Party.
The regime sent 2,000 security men to beat them up, he says. "These things will continue to happen, and we will continue to build support, until this becomes a massive public movement."
While a mass movement might be some time off, analysts say exposure to satellite TV and the Internet is alerting Syrians to the possibilities of democracy. "If Iraq had been a success, the domino effect would have toppled all the dictatorships in the region," says Dr. Moubayed. "But America has lit a real interest in democracy in this region; the dominos are starting to fall, but slowly."