Syrian protests move onto university campuses

Published online 18 April 2011

Nature Middle East


Protests in Syria reached the capital Damascus on 11 April when several hundred students staged a protest at Damascus University in support of the pro-democracy movement.

Ammar Qurabi, head of Syria's National Organization for Human Rights, told the Associated Press that one student was shot dead when security forces opened fire to disperse the crowd. Qurabi says the student was from the southern city of Deraa, .

Sana, the state-owned news agency, carried reports denying any pro-democracy protest took place. They quote Mohammad Said Mahasni, dean of the Faculty of Sciences, Damascus University, as stating "these reports are baseless and untrue." He told Sana that there was a small gathering of pro-government students who are in fact decrying the pro-democracy movement.

Several videos posted online, however, showed student protesters shouting chants calling for greater freedom. The videos also show what appears to be plainclothes policemen beating students and making several arrests.

Restrictions imposed on journalists by the Syrian government mean it is difficult to independently verify events taking place. Yet, as with Tunisia and Egypt, young people have employed social networks, such as Facbook and Twitter, to organize and publicize their plight.

Demonstrations in Damascus are rare and the current uprising is the biggest challenge to President Bashar Al-Assad's 11-year authoritarian rule.

Two days following these events, the protests spread for the first time to Aleppo, Syria's second biggest city and its commercial capital. Activists at Aleppo University and Damascus University estimate more than 500 students went out protesting at both campuses on Wednesday. The day ended peacefully but security forces clamped down again on the protesters in Aleppo on Thursday, beating and detaining several of them.

After they were dispersed, one activist told Reuters that the government quickly organized a pro-government protest which was filmed by Sana news agency.

"The regime is aware that it cannot let campuses breath. They have seen what an emboldened student movement can do elsewhere," he added.