In February 1982, Syria’s late president Hafez al-Assad ordered his army, under the direct supervision of his younger brother Rifaat, to destroy the town of Hama which had been a major source of opposition to the Ba’ath regime since the mid-1960s. Besieged by 12,000 troops, the fighting lasted for three weeks. Robert Fisk, in his book Pity the Nation, describes how civilians began fleeing the town just as tanks and troops started moving in. According to Amnesty International, the Syrian army bombed the old city from the air to allow infantry and tanks through the narrow streets. By night, they destroyed buildings and places of worship. There were also reports of the use of hydrogen cyanide by government forces. After these attacks, military and security personnel were dispatched to comb through the rubble for surviving insurgents and their sympathisers. Torture and mass executions were prevalent throughout. The total number of deaths has been estimated at between 10,000 and 40,000; the vast majority civilians. Rifaat boasted of killing 38,000 people. I visited Hama a few days after Ramadan in December 2001. All that remains of the old city is a wall, a chilling reminder that in the Syria of the Assads, treachery comes at a heavy price.
The issue of whether — or how much — social-media tools such as Facebook and Twitter influenced the “Arab Spring” revolutions in Egypt and elsewhere has been a contentious one since the first rock was thrown in Tunisia earlier this year. But as more experts have studied the events in those countries, it has become increasingly clear that social tools and networks played a fairly critical role in helping turn what had been undercurrents of dissent into open revolt. Although they didn’t cause those revolutions to happen by any means, it’s arguable that they would never have happened — or at least would have happened in very different ways — if it wasn’t for the use of Facebook and other forms of social media.
While there has been much talk of the Arab spring, ethnic Berbers have played a key role in the changes sweeping through North Africa, which is leading to greater recognition for their culture and language.
In Libya, the group which has been repressed for decades by the Arab majority, has led fierce resistance against Col Muammar Gaddafi’s forces in their heartland - the western Nafusa Mountains.
Their flag - bearing the symbol of the Amazigh, as the Berbers call themselves - flew high as territory was captured and or shrouded soldiers as they were buried.
It was also raised aloft in celebration at the annual Amazigh festival in the southern Moroccan town of Agadir as Tamazight was adopted as an official language as part of the country’s consitutional changes.
Fathi Khalifa - who serves on the Libyan rebels’ governing body, the National Transitional Council (NTC) - says the uprising has given Berbers hope.