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Syria and Yemen Crack: From Politics to Soul

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The Syria I visited with my husband five years ago was a politically complicated place, where the streets were tamped down. As tourists, we were a bit suspect, subjected to a two-hour baggage search at 2 a.m. as we drove across the immigration border.

Today Syria -- with escalating repression -- has cracked. Just as Yemen has cracked. And there seem to be distinct differences between the revolutions of Syria and Yemen vs. the revolutions of Tunisia and Egypt. Former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's departure was fairly swift and relatively painless in comparison with what ensued in Bahrain, Libya and other countries.

The Egyptian revolution was the first to make headline news daily with Former President Mubarak staying the course as best he could with the help of his foreign allies. While the Mubarak exit was considerably more complicated and took a little longer to negotiate with the superpowers, Egypt and Tunisia were well served by their revolutions. Both countries have transitioned rapidly into the next steps of nation building with a clear focus on democracy, creating a constitution and fair parliamentary elections -- even though final outcomes are unpredictable at this point.

In contrast, Syria and Yemen -- which are both more repressed and deeply splintered -- are disturbing, offering little clarity about outcomes at this stage. The revolutions in these two countries seem to be imbued with a sense of pathos and an intense emotional tenor. Could these visceral, raw-to-the-bone comments and reactions from the protesters on the streets be caused by brutal government repression, which robbed their spirits and wounded their souls?

I am struck by the lexicon that Syrians and Yemenis use to describe their plights as they protest bravely, risking their lives. I was at Macy's in San Francisco, a couple of weeks ago to buy shirts for my husband's birthday, and the clerk at the counter recognized that I was a Muslim. We quickly jumped into a discussion on Syria, his homeland, and he said without flinching, "It's better for some of us to die and get over this brutality than to be subjected endlessly to ruthless repression." So he is clear about his choice: "Die if we must, but we must go forward." But, I wonder, at what human cost?

In Syria, the regime's ferocious assaults against the protesters have brought the revolutionary cauldron to a boiling point. The brave protesters fight for their long held hopes and dreams for democracy, justice and human dignity, having endured two generations of the Assad family's iron-fisted rule. Both former President Hafez and his son, President Bashar al-Assad, lived by the same mantra: exploit sectarianism, and divide the Alawites from the Sunnis. The protesters subjected to this modus operandi for decades are savvy to this strategy. They wish to heal, to coalesce with their brethren and to overcome longstanding poisonous divides that were intentionally inflamed by the Assad dynasty. The vision of the protesters is clear: the divide and conquer strategy does not belong in the 21st century -- where collaboration, networking and the Internet rule.

Mohja Kahf, a Syrian born, American poet and author of E-mails From Scheherazad, says it straight: "One, one, one is the motto." She explains that Alawites are partners with Sunnis in the Syrian revolution -- because all Syrians share the common burden of poverty and repression.

Mohja sees the Syrian revolution through her lens as an immigrant in America:

I have not lived as part of a religious minority and an ethnic minority in the US for 39 years, slugging through the Federalist Papers on how to protect minority rights in a democracy, and learning the lessons of the civil rights movement the hard way as a Muslim American and an Arab American, to see any minority hurt in democratic Syria. Mohja has her counterparts in Syria.

The remarkable women I met there include: a parliamentarian whose husband prepared and served us coffee in their home with a prominently decorated Christmas tree, which she explained was "a symbol of their secularist values." An intriguing but strident Marxist poet stated her politics in no uncertain terms: "I only agreed to meet you because you are from India and not because you live in America." And, finally, I met a rare Syrian woman -- one of three well known women entrepreneurs in the country who ran a successful business, importing Italian kitchen appliances for which she " paid a high price, ending up as one of the guys," rather than getting married and enjoying family life.

For two generations, Syrians have been caught in a vice between a dictator and his brother, a hardliner. How will this cycle break in the second generation of the Assad dynasty in Syria?

Yemen: "If Ali Abdullah Saleh returns and is president, people will blow themselves up." says 32 year old, Tawakul Karman, President of Yemen's Women Journalists without Chains and a member of the Islamist opposition party, Islah.

Yemen is a tortured place at many levels. It gave safe harbor to the incendiary Yemeni Imam, Anwar al Awlaki; it was the starting point for the Christmas bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab who flew into Chicago; and it is a stronghold for Al Qaeda.

The protesters in Yemen are on a spectrum ranging from moderates to radicals. Mohammed Abu Lahoum, a former member of President Saleh's party resigned to join the protests early on and believes that what "Yemen needs now is reconciliation." He calls this the second stage of the revolution and acknowledges that corruption is at 99% and lawlessness at 80% - both need to be cut in half. "This is our chance, now Saleh is away," said Muhammad al-Ha'et, an elderly lawyer with anguish, "Yemen has always been run by the military. This is the first real revolution -- the others were just military coups. We must not fail."

In Yemen, "Defeat the regime" is a popular motto. Protesters value the civility and tolerance that emerged in their demonstrations, disapprove of Saleh's return and support a civilian transitional council going forward.

In "Change Square" outside Sana University in Yemen, rival tribes relinquish long standing vendettas and dance together. College students speak to Zaydi rebels from the North, who are historically represented as devils by government newspapers. And women emerge from their traditional indoor lives to make impassioned speeches. The length of the revolution helps. "We can't say everything has changed, but the seeds of change are there," says Atiaf al-Wazir, a blogger and activist. And clearly there are cracks between the youth and harder line Islamists who are intolerant of the new ethos in "Change Square."

Jamila Ali Ahmed, a passionate 20-year-old woman in a full black niqab, with only her eyes showing, contrasts the mood pre and post revolution in Yemen when she says: "Before we were sitting at home like pigeons trapped in a cage. When we arrived to the square, we felt the beauty of freedom. We feel proud now and we want a dignified life."

I detect a qualitative difference in the Yemeni and Syrian revolutions, compared to the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. I hear the pain, the emotionality behind the comments and quotes. People are beyond frustration and wounded -literally and metaphorically -- by the head on violence perpetrated by the regime against them. Tawakul Karman, president of Yemen's Women Journalists without Chains, captures this intensity as did Mohja Kahf, and so did the clerk at Macy's in San Francisco.

The opinions mentioned in this blog reflect the personal perspective of Shahnaz Taplin Chinoy, Chair, Muslim Women's Fund.