Omar Aziz (fondly known by friends as Abu Kamel) was born in Damascus. He returned to Syria from exile in Saudi Arabia and the United States in the early days of the Syrian revolution. An intellectual, economist, anarchist, husband and father, at the age of 63, he committed himself to the revolutionary struggle. He worked together with local activists to collect humanitarian aid and distribute it to suburbs of Damascus that were under attack by the regime. Through his writing and activity he promoted local self-governance, horizontal organization, cooperation, solidarity and mutual aid as the means by which people could emancipate themselves from the tyranny of the state. Together with comrades, Aziz founded the first local committee in Barzeh, Damascus.The example spread across Syria and with it some of the most promising and lasting examples of non-hierarchical self organization to have emerged from the countries of the Arab Spring.
In her tribute to Omar Aziz, Budour Hassan says, he “did not wear a Vendetta mask, nor did he form black blocs. He was not obsessed with giving interviews to the press …[Yet] at a time when most anti-imperialists were wailing over the collapse of the Syrian state and the “hijacking” of a revolution they never supported in the first place, Aziz and his comrades were tirelessly striving for unconditional freedom from all forms of despotism and state hegemony.”
Aziz was encouraged by the revolutionary wave gripping the country and believed that “ongoing demonstrations were able to break the dominance of absolute power”. But he saw a lack of synergy between revolutionary activity and people’s daily lives. For Aziz it didn’t make sense to participate in demonstrations demanding the overthrow of the regime whilst still living within strict hierarchical and authoritarian structures imposed by the state. He described such division as Syria being subject to the overlapping of two times “the time of power” which “still manages the life activities”, and “the time of Revolution” belonging to the activists working to overthrow the regime. Aziz believed that for the continuity and victory of the revolution, revolutionary activity needed to permeate all aspects of people’s lives. He advocated for radical changes to social organization and relationships in order to challenge the foundations of a system based on domination and oppression.
Aziz saw positive examples all around him. He was encouraged by the multiple initiatives springing up throughout the country including voluntary provision of emergency medical and legal support, turning houses into field hospitals and arranging food baskets for distribution. He saw in such acts “the spirit of the Syrian people’s resistance to the brutality of the system, the systematic killing and destruction of community”. Omar’s vision was to spread these practices and he believed the way to achieve this was through the establishment of local councils. In the eighth month of the Syrian revolution, when wide-spread protests against the regime were still largely peaceful, Omar Aziz produced a discussion paper on Local Councils in Syria where he set out his vision.
In Aziz’s view the Local Council was the forum by which people drawn from diverse cultures and different social strata could work together to achieve three primary goals; to manage their lives independently of the institutions and organs of the state; to provide the space to enable the collective collaboration of individuals; and activate the social revolution at the local, regional and national level.
In his paper Aziz lists what he thinks the core concerns of the local councils should be:
the promotion of human and civil solidarity through improving living conditions especially through provision of safe housing to the displaced; providing assistance, both psychological and material to the families of the wounded or detainees; providing medical and food support; ensuring the continuity of educational services; and supporting and coordinating media activities. Aziz notes that such acts should be voluntary and should not be a substitute for family or kin support networks. He believed it would take time for people to feel comfortable outside of the provision of state services and adjust their social behavior to be more cooperative. Aziz believed the council’s role should be kept to a minimum allowing for the development of unique community initiatives.
the promotion of cooperation including building local community initiatives and actions and promoting innovation and invention which Aziz saw as being stifled by half a century of tyranny. The local council would be the forum through which people could discuss the problems they face in life and their daily conditions. The local council would support collaboration and allow people to devise appropriate solutions to the problems they faced including on issues relating to infrastructure, social harmony and trade, as well as issues that required solutions external to the local community. Aziz also saw a key role as being the defense of territory in rural and urban areas that had been subject to expropriation and acquisition by the state. He rejected the urban expropriation of land and marginalization and displacement of rural communities, which he saw as a method used by the regime to enforce its policy of domination and social exclusion. Aziz believed it necessary to ensure access to land which can satisfy the necessities of life for all and called for a rediscovery of the commons. He was realistic but optimistic. He noted that “it is clear that such acts apply to safe locations or areas quasi- ‘liberated’ from power. But it is possible to assess the situation of each area and determine what can be achieved.” Aziz advocated for horizontal linkages to be made between councils to create linkages and interdependence between different geographic regions.
the relationship with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the interrelation between protection and defence of the community and the continuity of the revolution. Aziz believed that it was essential to coordinate between the popular civil and popular armed resistance. He saw the role of the FSA as to ensure the security and defence of the community particularly during demonstrations, support securing lines of communications between regions, and provide protection for the movement of people and logistical supplies. The role of the council would be to provide food and housing for all members of the FSA and coordinate with the FSA on security for the community and the defence strategy for the region.
the composition of local councils and organizational structure. Aziz saw a number of challenges facing the formation of multiple local councils. The first was the regime, which repeatedly stormed cities and towns in order to paralyze the movement, isolate the people in enclaves, and prevent cooperation. Aziz argued that to respond to such onslaughts by the state, mechanisms of resistance needed to remain flexible and innovative. Councils would have to scale up or down according to need and adapt to power relations on the ground. He believed this flexibility was essential for the community’s desire for freedom to be realized. He also saw the challenge in encouraging people to practice a way of life and social relationships which were new and unfamiliar. Also service provision needed to be maintained and it was necessary to find a way to get an independent source of power in the face of cuts, as well as supporting the development of economic and social activities. For this reason he believed local council members should include social workers and people with expertise in various social, organizational and technical fields who have both the respect of the people and a potential and desire to work voluntarily. For Aziz the organizational structure of the local council is a process that begins with the minimum required and should evolve depending on the level of the transformation achieved by the revolution, the balance of power within a given area, and relationship with neighboring areas. He encouraged local council’s to share knowledge, learn from the experience of other councils and coordinate regionally.
the role of the National Council is to give legitimacy to the initiative and gain the acceptance of activists. It should seek funding in order to carry out necessary work and cover expenses which it may not be possible to be cover at the regional level. The National Council would facilitate coordination between regions in order to find common ground and foster closer interdependence.
Omar Aziz’s work has had a huge impact on revolutionary organization in Syria. Whilst the mainstream political opposition failed to achieve anything of note in the past two years, the grassroots opposition movement, in the face of violent repression, has remained dynamic and innovative and has embodied the anarchist spirit. The core of the grassroots opposition is the youth, mainly from the poor and middle-classes, in which women and diverse religious and ethnic groups play active roles (see here and here ). Many of these activists remain non-affiliated to traditional political ideologies but are motivated by concerns for freedom, dignity and basic human rights. Their primary objective has remained the overthrow of the regime, rather than developing grand proposals for a future Syria.
The main form of revolutionary organization has been through the development of the tansiqiyyat; hundreds of local committees established in neighborhoods and towns across the country. Here, revolutionary activists engage in multiple activities, from documenting and reporting on violations carried out by the regime (and increasingly elements of the opposition) to organizing protests and civil disobedience campaigns (such as strikes and refusing to pay utility bills) and collecting and providing aid and humanitarian supplies to areas under bombardment or siege. There is no one model but they often operate as horizontally organized, leaderless groups, made up of all segments of the society. They have been the foundation of the revolutionary movement creating solidarity amongst the people, a sense of community and collective action. See here about Yabroud’s (Damascus suburb) efforts to organize in the absence of the state. Some local committees have elected representatives such as in Kafranbel Idlib, where a committee of elected representatives have made their own constitution (see here). Youth activists from Kafranbel keep the popular protest movement alive and have gained world wide fame for their use of colorful and satirical banners at weekly protests (see here). They also engage in civil activities such as providing psychosocial support for children and forums for adults to discuss issues such as civil disobedience and peaceful resistance.
At the city and district levels revolutionary councils or majlis thawar have been established. They are often the primary civil administrative structure in areas liberated from the state, as well as some areas that remain under state control. These ensure the provision of basic services, coordinate the activities of local committees and coordinate with the popular armed resistance. Undoubtably as state provision of services has disappeared from some areas, and the humanitarian situation has deteriorated, they have played an increasingly vital role. There is no one model for the Local Councils, but they mainly follow some form of representative democratic model. Some have established different administrative departments to take over functions previously held by the state. Some have been more successful and inclusive than others which have struggled to displace the bureaucracy of the old regime or have been plagued by infighting.
Whilst the main basis of activity is very much at the local level, there are a number of different umbrella groups which have emerged to coordinate and network on the regional and national level. These include the Local Coordination Committees (LCC), National Action Committees (NAC), the Federation of the Coordination Committees of the Syrian Revolution (FCC) and the Syrian Revolution General Commission (SRGC). None represent the totality of local committees/councils and they have different organizational structures and differing levels of engagement or non-engagement with the formal political opposition. See here for an interactive map which shows the coordinating committees and councils, as well as the flourishing of many other civil initiatives and campaigns in a country where such activity was previously brutally repressed.
A major threat facing these diverse initiatives has not only been the persecution of activists by the regime, lack of resources, the onslaught of the state’s attack of civilian areas and increasingly deteriorating security and humanitarian conditions. Some local councils have been hijacked by reactionary and counter-revolutionary forces. For example, in Al Raqqa non-local rebel groups with salafi/takfiri leanings took much of the power away from the local council. As they have tried to impose an Islamic vision which is alien to almost everyone, the people of Raqqa have been holding continuous protests against them. In this video here from June 2013 people are demonstrating against arrests of family members by Jabhat Al Nusra. The women are shouting “shame on you! You betrayed us in the name of Islam”. Throughout August 2013 the people of Al Raqqa have been protesting almost daily against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) demanding the release of hundreds of detainees, abductees and missing persons. Likewise in Aleppo revolutionaries launched the ‘enough is enough’ campaign calling for an end to rebel abuses and for accountability. This demonstration from June 2013 was held in front of Sharia Court in Aleppo after the killing of a child for allegedly insulting the prophet Mohammad. The people here are calling for the murderers to be brought to justice saying “”The Sharia Committee has become the Air Force Intelligence!” (the most brutal security branch of Assad regime). In Idlib people have also been protesting against a Sharia Committee which has been established, here they say “we are against the regime, against extremist killing and oppression” and are calling for the return of professional lawyers (independent judiciary) to the court (instead of religious men).
Omar Aziz did not live to see the often seemingly insurmountable challenges that would beset Syria’s revolutionaries, or the successes and failures of experiments in local self-organization. On 20 November 2012, he was arrested from his home by the mukhabarat (much feared intelligence service). Shortly before his arrest he said “We are no less than the Paris Commune workers: they resisted for 70 days and we are still going on for a year and a half.” Aziz was held in an intelligence detention cell of 4 by 4 meters which was shared with 85 other people. This likely contributed to the deterioration of his already weak health. He was later transferred to Adra prison where he died from heart complications in February 2013, a day before his 64th birthday.
Omar Aziz’s name may never be widely known, but he deserves recognition as a leading contemporary figure in the development of anarchist thought and practice. The experiments in grass roots revolutionary organization that he inspired provide insight and lessons in anarchist organizing for future revolutions across the globe.
1 Budour Hassan, ‘Omar Aziz: Rest in Power’, 20 February 2013, http://budourhassan.wordpress.com/2013/02/20/omar-aziz/
2 Omar Aziz, ‘A discussion paper on Local Councils,’ (in Arabic) http://www.facebook.com/note.php?note_id=143690742461532
6 For a report on Local Councils see in Gayath Naisse ‘Self organization in the Syrian people’s revolution’: http://www.internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article3025
8 Via @Darth Nader https://twitter.com/DarthNader/status/304015567231266816
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A Discussion Paper on Local Councils in Syria
Introduction: The Period of Power and the Period of Revolution
A revolution is an exceptional event that will alter the history of societies, while changing humanity itself. It is a rupture in time and space, where humans live between two periods: the period of power and the period of revolution. A revolution’s victory, however, is ultimately achieving the independence of its time in order to move into a new era. The Syrian Revolution has entered its eighth month and still has days ahead in its struggle to overthrow the regime and unlock new areas of life. The authoritative control on the territories is relatively present, but its scope of power differs from region to region, from day to day, and from hour to hour throughout the same day. During the past, continuos demonstrations were able to break the dominance of absolute power in certain areas. It was the continuation of demonstrations that produced a National Council that included a broad spectrum of mass movements, organizations, and political parties, which were counted on to represent a legitimate alternative authority to the Arab and international communities. The National Council is imperative in order to accomplish the efforts required to protect the Syrian people from the regime and its brutality.
However, the revolutionary movement remains independent of daily human activities and is unable to interfere with everyday lives. Although the public still manages as they did in the past, there are “divisions of daily work” between day-to-day activities and revolutionary activities. This means that the social formations in Syria lives in two overlapping times: the period of power, in which the regime still manages everyday activities, and the period of the revolution, in which activists work daily to overthrow the regime. The risk lies not in the overlap of the two periods, for that is the nature of revolutions, but rather in the absence of correlation between the spheres of daily life and the revolution itself. So, what is feared of the movement during the coming period is one of two things: humans becoming bored due to the continuity of the revolution and its disruption of their daily lives, or humans resorting to the use of heavy weaponry, causing the revolution to become the rifle’s hostage.
Accordingly, the efforts one must undertake in order to independently detach his or her social formations under authority and separate “the period of power and the period of revolution” is the extent in which the revolution will successfully create an atmosphere of victory. It must be recalled that the past months were rich trials of several focuses in the areas of emergency medical and legal support, and now, we must urgently enrich these initiatives to include broader areas of life. The blending of life in a revolution is an inherent requirement for its continuation and its victory. It requires a socially flexible structure that is based on the collaboration between the revolution and the daily lives of humans. This form of structure will be called: the local council.
The purpose of this entrance, and what is followed in the discussion paper, is to research the feasibility of the formation local councils with members from diverse cultures who belong to different social divisions, yet are working together to achieve the following:
To support the people in managing their own lives independent of institutions and state agencies
To form a space for collective expression that supports the collaboration of individuals promotes daily and political activities
To initiate activities of the social revolution at a district level and unify supporting frameworks
As time passes, the course of human life for individuals and families transforms into one of a constant search for safer places to live. This course in time also transforms daily work into tireless efforts to discover what has happened to missing loved ones. Thus, families persistently work to access information regarding detainment locations and rely on their general knowledge or relatives to assess the areas of detention.
The role of local councils is to transfer such misery from what would usually fall under “the period of power” into a process that includes a unique community initiative.
The council must, at a minimum, work on the following:
i. Find safe housing for families coming new into the regime and provide them with needed supplies. The council located in that region must collaborate with its counterpart, the local council from the region that the families initially fled from.
ii. Organize statements for the detainees and transfer the information to concerned authorities in the revolution. The council must arrange to contract legal authorities and must provide support to the families by issuing follow-ups on the conditions of loved ones in detention.
iii. Manage the request reports of affected families and work to ensure the expenses through financial aid for the public and “regional revolution funds.”
Such acts demand organization, proper management of information, and knowledge of the arts of administration; however, this is not impossible despite the given type of rebellious environment. The revolution has nurtured a generation of experts in organizing demonstrations, strikes, and sit-ins that are capable of arrangements and work management specialties carried out innately by the people.
This revolutionary responsibility must not replace relatives or acquaintances (or at least during the first stage) and should not be binding in any way. Humans will begin to feel comfortable out of state services, and those who find temporary alternatives for kinship relations need time and practice in order to enter into contact and collective social behavior sophisticatedly and effectively.
The Topic of Exchange Between Human Beings: The Formation of New Participants
Provide a venue for discussion in which human beings are able to trade and search for solutions to daily issues
Build horizontal links between the local councils of one geographic region and expand to include links between different geographic regions
The revolution transformed individuals themselves to broaden the horizons of their own lives once they ensured that the conflict was their means of liberation and, thus, marked their continuity and cooperation with the struggle enduringly. They were able to discover their newly defined capabilities of innovation and invention, of rich social engagements and assorted colors, that were different than what they had initially entrusted while being restricted under a single tyrannical killer for half a century.
Here, the local council’s role is activating the people’s cooperation and transferring it into their living spaces, which will vary in the nature of their activities and their movement in the face of authority, namely:
i. Encourage people to discuss their conditions every day (in regards to their livelihoods and daily demands) and to solve specified issues collectively.
ii. Consider the issues that require solutions outside the scope of the given locality, such as finances or support from other areas.
The Topic of Land: Collective Rediscovery
Defend the territories of the region that the state seeks to expropriate or has already acquired.
The State’s acquisition of land in the cities and suburbs of Syria and its entailed population redeployment are foundations of its policy for domination and social exclusion. The State thus relies on these strategies to ensure its power. This policy has worked to form “safe” residential areas for officials and army officers, for shopping areas, and for the implementation of business plans in order to accommodate the wealthy. The revolutionary movement that we are witnessing in the rural and suburb areas of Syria is one aspect of the people’s rejection of the State’s expropriation and marginalization policies.
The role of the local council is the direct defense of property from State squatters, by any means necessary. It is imperative to take action through:
Intervening quickly with properties that are subject to expropriation resolutions.
Communicating with legal networks of the revolution to raise cases before the courts and challenge the decisions of acquisition in hopes of cancellation or, at the very least, postponement.
Making the defense of the property and land an issue that concerns that masses of residents in the area collectively.
Configuration of Local Councils:
The formation of local councils is related to the ability of movement in each region, which means it will be harder to accomplish in areas that are subject to heavy security presence and relatively easier in areas where revolutionary movement is more empowered.
The achievements of the local council will be a gradual process according to the people’s circumstances, demands, and interactions with it.
The success achieved by each of the councils will be measured through experience and an increase in designated members.
The configuration of local councils will not be an easy task, though it will be the basis for the continuity of the revolution. The difficulty of formation will not only be due to the suffocating security collar and siege, but also new and unfamiliar practices in life and social relationships. This situation demands an independent entity that is separate from the authority, in which the role of the body will be to support and develop economic and social activities in the area of its presence, while having an experienced administration in various fields.
In the beginning, the program of the local councils must be applied in locations that have the most appropriate conditions. These localities will serve as pilot areas in order to correctly measure the proper formation of councils in other areas that are subjected to the toughest of conditions.
Due to the absence of the electoral practice under the current circumstances, the local councils must be made up of social workers and laureates who are respected by the public, have expertise in social, organizational, and technical areas, and the potential and desire to commit themselves to voluntary work.
The launch of local councils in stages will be in accordance with the priorities of the regime and those who will support its creation:
i. Local council members
ii. Regional activists
iii. Volunteer activists from outside the area that have experience in their respective fields of work
The Role of the National Council
The Council plays a pivotal role in the following matters:
The legitimacy of the initiative: the National Council must adopt the idea of local councils, which will provide it with necessary legitimacy to launch, and facilitate acceptance by the activists in the sector.
Funding: The National Board of Directors must accept financing the “Revolution Funds,” which in itself is a job the Council must fulfill. It allows greater flexibility in covering the establishment of local councils by covering all expenses of creation and costs that may not be covered by the region itself.
The National council must facilitate the coordination between regions and raise the expectation of organization to the framework of entire provinces, for each area and each locality is still based on initiatives that are in accordance to their reckoned mobility. This independence undoubtedly proves the great flexibility in the movement, regardless that it was most affected by the absence of accommodating spaces. The role played by the National Council here is essential in finding a common ground and a closer interdependence between different regions.