The student movement in Syria and its role in the revolution

Scenes of students across Syria coming out from their university dormitories to demonstrate against the regime, while militias used force to disperse them, have become more and more common.

The latest massive demonstrations have taken place at various universities, especially Aleppo University, which has been active since the start of the uprising and is the symbol of the student resistance

These demonstrations were suppressed in Aleppo University with great violence and repression at the hands of the security forces. During these demonstrations earlier in May, the security forces killed four students and arrested hundreds of others. The administration decided to shut down the university and its housing complex under the orders of the security services, only allowing exams and graduating projects to be held on campus. 

Despite the raids, arrests and threats of expulsion, students continued to protest on an almost a daily basis.

Today, not one week passes without the voices and chants from students at Damascus University being heard at the presidential palace only hundreds of metres away. Aleppo University suspended classes out of fear of the youth revolution, while bullets have outnumbered books at Homs University. 

Even expensive private universities have witnessed demonstrations against the regime, such as Yarmouk Private University and Kalamoon University. Students at these universities organized many protests on campus demanding freedom and in solidarity with cities in revolt. University corridors have been plastered with slogans and flyers demanding the overthrow of the regime. 

In several statements, these students asserted that they are “part of the student body of private universities that were established by the corrupt Syrian regime” where they are treated “as clients, not students”. They add that their revolution is “for the sake of their future”.

The students represent a quarter of all the martyrs in Syria since the beginning of the revolution in March 2011, according to the Syria Free Students Union (SFSU). The SFSU was founded on September 29, 2011 to struggle against the regime and to be a democratic, political and syndicalist station in the life of the student movement.

The main goals of the SFSU Students are:

• Combine the energy of the free Syrian students in all the Syrian universities
• Work closely to organize demonstrations and general strikes inside universities and schools, and outside them in civilized and humanitarian ways while being committed to the peacefulness of these activities.
• Work together with the rest of the revolution’s groups, unions and committees in order to topple the regime that has already lost its legitimacy, while maintaining national unity in the process.
• Work on building a civil state that has a democratic and pluralistic system to ensure freedom, justice and equality for all citizens.

The SFSU played an important role in the strikes and the campaign of civil disobedience in January and February 2012. 

They also demanded the dismantling of the National Union Syrian Students, which is affiliated to the regime and the Baath Party, declaring that it has become a tool of repression and regime terrorism against the students. 

A Union of Free Syrian Professors (UFSP) organization has also been formed and it issued a statement on January 24 2012 outlining its goals and ways to support a Syrian revolution.

UFSP stated that it will work with academics to not only campaign against the regime but also to restructure Syrian universities, turning them into beacons of science, justice and freedom in line with international standards and purging them of the presence of Syrian intelligence and security forces.

In addition, they claim that they want to move forward and continue in the march of freedom until victory or martyrdom. They declare as well that the victory is in the will of the people in overthrowing the regime with all its symbols.

It is important to remember that universities have historically been one of the main sectors of society, alongside the army, over which the regime imposed full control. The regime has banned all political activities except for those of the Baath Party. The Baath Party was the only political organization which had the right to organize events, lectures and public demonstrations on the campus of a university or military barracks or to publish and distribute a newspaper.

Even the political parties in the National Progressive Front, linked to the regime, did not have the right to organize, make propaganda or have a small official presence in these institutions.

A paragraph of the Charter of the National Progressive Front indicates that the parties linked to the NPF are prevented from any political work and activities in the sectors of the army and among the students at the university.

Indeed, student movements have a long history of resistance in the country. Since the French occupation and until the end of the last century, Syrian student movements were very often at the forefront of many activities against occupiers and authoritarian regimes. This role evolved in the first half of the 20th Century until the Baath Party came to power and the student movement was crushed. It was actually this student movement which triggered the revolt against military rule in 1954 before the Syrian army announced a coup against the regime from Aleppo. The movement also played a key role in confronting the Baghdad Alliance in the 1950s and demanded unification between Syria and Egypt.

The arrival of the Baath Party to power changed all that, and no immunity was granted to university campuses in any way. Security agencies could actually arrest students inside lecture halls and or on campus. 

In a similar manner, the regime imposed its domination on the bureaucracy of the trade union workers, and this is what prevented and hindered the labor struggle against neoliberal policies pursued by the authoritarian regime since 2000, which has caused a decline in living standards for the majority of the people.

Workers have also been a target of repression. Successful campaigns of general strikes and civil disobedience in Syria during the period December 2011 that paralyzed large parts of the country also highlight the activism of the working class and exploited who are indeed the heart of the Syrian revolution. In order to break the dynamics of the revolution, more than 85,000 workers were laid off from January 2011 to February 2012, and 187 factories were closed (according to official figures).

The students were not only victims of regime repression but also its neoliberal policies, which left many graduates unemployed at the end of their studies.

In 2010, the unemployment rate amounted 20 to 25%, reaching 55% for people under the age of 25 (in a country where people under 30 represent 65% of the population).

In spite of this situation, the universities became centers of resistance against the repression, like the universities in Egypt and Tunisia were. The Tunisian regime actually closed universities by force a few days before the overthrow of Ben Ali.    

In Egypt, the students created new and independent unions throughout the country. They participated and organized many protests. In both countries, as well as in Syria, the students and workers are the vanguard of the struggle, and  continue to fight to achieve the goals of the revolution.

Many students have declared and pledged that they will not continue their education before they complete their revolution. To repeat the chant heard at many of the ongoing student demonstrations: “No education without freedom”.

Khalil Habash is an activist of Syrian origin, and a member of the Syrian revolutionary left (Yassar Thawri Suri).