World

Godfathers and thieves, Part Three: How the Syrian Revolution was crowdfunded

By Elizabeth Dickinson 16 September 2015

This is the third of five exclusive extracts relating the story of Mezyan Al Barazi, a Syrian expatriate living and working in the United Arab Emirates, and his efforts to support the revolution in his home country. At turns informative, tragic, and edge-of-your-seat suspenseful, Godfathers and Thieves reminds us that the next revolution, like the last, will likely be crowdfunded. By ELIZABETH DICKINSON.

In early March 2011, the United Arab Emirates-based Syrian businessman Mezyan Al Barazi remembers speaking with a friend about the Arab Spring. Protesters in Tunisia and Egypt had forced the dictators ruling those countries to resign and flee. In Libya, demonstrators were clashing with security forces and rebels were taking up arms against Muammar Gaddafi’s government. For Arabs of Al Barazi’s generation, who’d grown up certain they would die without ever seeing a change in government, the developments were world-shattering. Al Barazi remained unable to conceive that similar events could take place in his home country. “Nothing will happen in Syria,” he told his friend. “Only a nuclear explosion will bring change.”

Five days after their conversation, the first scattered demonstrations broke out in Damascus and Aleppo. Videos of unarmed demonstrators shouting for change were on YouTube, on television, on his phone. Impossible images. “This is proof of God,” his friend said. Who else besides the divine could unseat Bashar al-Assad?

Such was his astonishment that Al Barazi decided it was time to reclaim his nationality. For nearly a decade, he had run from his citizenship whenever he could. He cringed when his accent was recognised in cafes. When he heard someone speaking the Syrian dialect, he turned and walked the other away. “I’m Lebanese,” he would say, if someone asked. But as demonstrators rose against the government in Syria, Al Barazi began reaching out to the Syrians abroad he’d been trying to avoid. Almost immediately he realised that hundreds of others were doing the same.

The first place where he reclaimed his citizenship was Facebook; the site records him as having started working at “The Syrian Revolution” in April 2011. His timeline was transformed – from photos of travel and family to inspirational quotes and news about the uprising.

Among the first fellow sympathisers with whom Al Barazi made contact were a young couple named Wissam and Aswan. They lived in an apartment just a block from his office, but he had never met them before. Like Al Barazi, they came from families with histories of political dissent. And also like him, they had avoided Syrians in their new country. The regime had imprisoned Wissam’s uncle, and his father – fatally ill at the time of the arrest – had spent his final days haunted by his brother’s captivity. Wissam had fled with his wife in 2005 to Abu Dhabi, where he found work as a mid-level manager at a government agency.

The transformation they underwent with the outbreak of the revolution was similar to Al Barazi’s and typical of the Syrian expatriate experience in the wake of the uprising. Wissam and his wife had felt they needed to be careful even after they had settled abroad. “We (Syrian exiles) were all very worried about one another, because everyone thought the other was from the intelligence service,” says Aswan, a soft-spoken young mother. Their fellow citizens were surely spying on them. Their embassy was guaranteed to contain members from the Syrian intelligence services; how could it not, with such a sinister regime? “We were very afraid to speak about the revolution,” Aswan recalls.

And yet, they couldn’t help themselves. “We were dreaming,” says Wissam. “We needed to share our dreams with other Syrians.”

Despite their enthusiasm, the diaspora was caught off-guard as the demonstrations accelerated. Mostly of an older generation, they watched awe-struck – even embarrassed – at how young people stood up to the regime they had run from. Facebook erupted with videos of snipers taking aim at civilian protesters, and YouTube blistered with the sound of gunfire. But it quickly became clear that while those who fled Syria hadn’t fought Assad and his soldiers back then, they could do so now using a weapon few inside the country could wield: large sums of money.

In the 34 years since he had jumped out the window after completing his exams, Al Barazi had built himself a modest fortune. It hadn’t been easy. He had first made a career in Kuwait. He had gotten married and had children. After 13 years of painstaking networking with local businessmen, he’d been offered a high-paying government job that came with an apartment and a car – a rarity for an expatriate. On July 30 1990, he fronted costs to set up the office, expecting swift reimbursement. Two days later, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, beginning the first Gulf War. As troops moved towards the capital, Al Barazi and his family boarded a plane with the equivalent of just $5 dollars in cash. He was headed back to Syria.

At first, his forced return seemed a fortuitous opportunity. He specialised in irrigation, and in the 1990s, Syria was spending about 70% of its agricultural budget on channelling water to its croplands. The country had long imported food from abroad, and Hafez al-Assad wanted to increase Syria’s domestic production. The government poured assistance into the agricultural sector, buying strategic crops, subsidising inputs, and offering low-cost loans.

“I bought a wrench and started work,” Al Barazi recalled. Within a year, his new company had become the most successful bidder for technical irrigation, winning the largest single contract ever granted in the sector. Between 1985 and 2000, Syria’s irrigated land nearly doubled. And by 1993, Al Barazi’s business was worth a staggering 23-million Syrian pounds (roughly $460,000). At the height of his success, he was managing a modern showroom of irrigation machinery. Combining slick salesmanship with a back-breaking work ethic, he had become the Syrian representative for international brands like America’s Irridelco and Curtis Dyna-FOG, and Greece’s Polyglas.

But in Assad’s Syria, danger attends success, and soon, says Al Barazi, “I reached the level that I should not exceed”. The harassment began quietly. Competitors started winning contracts – one for tractors, another for fertiliser – even though their machines were of lower quality and their bids inflated.

In 2000, Hafez al-Assad died of a heart attack and was succeeded by his 34-year-old son, a London-trained ophthalmologist with little political experience. Many Syrians and Western officials hoped the young Assad would prove a reformer, and at first it seemed that he would. In his early years in office, Bashar al-Assad closed a notorious prison, allowed soft political critique, and opened up the economy.

But the so-called ‘Damascus Spring’ proved short lived. Assad handed lucrative bits of the privatised state to just a few loyal families, including his own (his maternal cousins, in particular). His neoliberal reforms dismantled the patronage-based welfare state that had placated the urban and rural working poor. As whispers of discontent mounted, the regime worked harder than ever to silence them. Dissidents disappeared off the streets. Families didn’t know why or even if their loved ones were being held; after months, sometimes years, they could only assume the worst.

By the early 2000s, Al Barazi was paying bribes for everything from procuring supplies to parking his car. He felt obliged to visit the local intelligence office weekly, often with folded bills of cash in hand. One particular civil servant came to his office every Thursday to collect his cut, as if it were a salary. He never asked for payment of course, but everyone in Syria – including Al Barazi – was by then adept at reading between the lines.

One day, Al Barazi walked into his secretary’s office and announced: “I have forgotten why I came here” to Syria. As he tallied the incoming profits, he realised his company wasn’t keeping up with the demands for bribes. “I was working with millions but ending up empty,” he says. “Finally, I left. I left everything: the money, the showroom, the engineers. Had I stayed, I would have gone crazy or become corrupt. The temptation was too great.”

Al Barazi landed in Abu Dhabi in 2003, bankrupt once again and certain that he would never return to Syria. The Gulf countries had more money, less corruption, and greater opportunities than Syria, he told himself. The United Arab Emirates is arid, but the government was interested in finding ways to farm. Al Barazi decided he would build the same company, an agricultural business, with the same brands he’d represented in Syria. This time though it would be bigger. He would prove to the world it wasn’t he, but Assad, who had failed back home.

Until 2011, Al Barazi thought of little else. Then when the uprising began, he channelled the single-mindedness that had made and remade his business into the effort to reclaim his homeland.

Just as had happened to the leaders of Egypt and Tunisia in 2011, Syrians abroad were sure Assad would fall in a matter of months. There were no limits to what Al Barazi would spend from his savings; just tell me what you need, he’d reply to any request. Even on days when the hopelessness of the struggle threatened to rise within him, he used his deep baritone to rally spirits at meetings and to beseech his fellow expatriates not to give up. On Facebook, he lightened the mood with crude jokes about the Assad family, cursing their souls and begging God for forgiveness for his wrath. He ended e-mails with an insult to the regime: Bashar al-Assad, the dog.

In September 2011, Al Barazi changed his ‘work’ to events manager at the newly-created Facebook group the Syrian Expatriates Coordinating Committee. He was already at the centre of a group of Abu Dhabi Syrians that had grown to about 100 core members – most of them recruited through social media. “We were engineers, and teachers, and doctors, and slowly we started getting to know one another,” recalls Al Barazi.

The Abu Dhabi group was just one of dozens being formed across the Middle East. Al Barazi sometimes spoke to his fellow expatriates on Skype or via Facebook. Jeddah in Saudi Arabia – home to a number of well-to-do Syrian businessmen – was the locus of activity. In Kuwait, young professionals from eastern Syria started gathering after work in cafes and restaurants.

The Syrian diaspora was quickly joining a long line of exile movements that had inserted themselves into conflicts back home. The civil war in Sri Lanka, which lasted 26 years, was fuelled in part by the ethnic Tamil diaspora living in Canada. Leaders raised thousands from individual families and as much as $79,000 from individual businesses. In the 1960s, the Eritrean Liberation Front became known for ‘shake downs’ of diaspora members, and in the 1970s, the Irish Republican Army turned to the largely Catholic Irish-American diaspora for everything from moral support to money.

What made the Syrian case special was not just the sheer scale of the funding, but the new tools of revolution made famous by the Arab Spring: social media. With applications like Facebook, instant messaging, and Skype, friends and family far from Syria could ask people inside what they needed, and then arrange to have it bought, packaged, and delivered through a web of checkpoints, border crossings, and armed groups. Sponsors of rebels and private militia could speak to their soldiers through WhatsApp, Viber, or a host of other messaging services. The only limitation was the cellphone signal. In addition to providing real-time communication between those in the country and those abroad, the network effect eliminated the need for a centralised organisation within the diaspora. Anyone with a smartphone could – and did – become his or her own relief agency.

With each passing week, the death toll rose, but it always seemed just shy of what it would take to build true international outrage. The Syrian government killed dozens of civilians at first, but never more than a few at a time. Then it was hundreds. By the late summer of 2011, rights groups counted more than 1,500 dead – most of them shot, shelled, or tortured to death by the Assad regime. By November the United Nations put the number at 3,500.

As the horrors compounded, Al Barazi was sure the world’s patience with the Syrian regime would run out. DM

Read Part One here.

Read Part Two here.

Godfathers and Thieves is published by Deca. Download the full story here.

Elizabeth Dickinson is a Gulf-based American journalist whose writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Foreign PolicyThe Economist, The Christian Science Monitor, and The National, among other publications. She is the author of the Kindle SingleWho Shot Ahmed, an account of a young videographer shot in cold blood at the height of Bahrain’s Arab Spring. She is also co-editor of the recent book The Southern Tiger, a narrative memoir by Chilean President Ricardo Lagos. She has reported from five continents and speaks French, Spanish, and Krio (Sierra Leone), as well as basic Yoruba and Arabic.

ABOUT DECA

Launched in June 2014, Deca is a journalism cooperative that creates long-form stories about the world to read on mobile devices. The group’s members have authored acclaimed books and published magazine articles in such outlets as Harper’s, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, GQ, National Geographic, and The New York Times Magazine. Deca’s writers include Pulitzer Prize, National Magazine Award, Livingston Award, Kurt Schork Award, George Polk Award, Michael Kelly Award, and Frontline Club winners and finalists. Learn more at www.decastories.com.

Photo: Free Syrian Army fighters take positions during what the FSA said were clashes with forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad in Aleppo’s Karm al-Jabal district October 15, 2013. REUTERS/Mohamed Mounzer Masri.

Gallery

While we have your attention...

An increasingly rare commodity, quality independent journalism costs money - though not nearly as much as its absence.

Every article, every day, is our contribution to Defending Truth in South Africa. If you would like to join us on this mission, you could do much worse than support Daily Maverick's quest by becoming a Maverick Insider.

Click here to become a Maverick Insider and get a closer look at the Truth.


SCORPIO

SARS & Gartner – global advisory giant’s mysterious deal with Moyane’s friend follows a pattern of tender corruption

By Pauli Van Wyk

"We spend the first year of a child's life teaching it to walk and talk and the rest of its life to shut up and sit down. There's something wrong there." ~ Neil deGrasse Tyson