The holy month of Ramadan began Monday in many parts of the Muslim world — 30 days of fasting from dawn to dusk, when large crowds gather for an additional nighttime prayer.
Ramadan could also be a decisive time for the protest movement in Syria. The government has stepped up mass arrests as activists vow to shift from weekly rallies to nightly ones outside mosques that have become centers of protest.
"I am not going to stop," said Mohammed Ali, a 24-year-old architect, and one of many activists who say they will be on the streets every night during Ramadan.
He made his declaration on a Skype Internet call, the safest way to talk to young activists, where identities are blurred — along with the risks of challenging one of the most brutal police states in the Middle East. He answered after two weeks in jail, arrested and tortured, he said, for organizing demonstrations.
He began protesting on March 15, when demonstrations were small. Now the risk is much greater. "Because here in Syria, our revolution, when you go out, maybe you are going to die, because the army and the security force will shoot you, will shoot us, with live fire," he says.
You never know if you're going to make it home, says Amer Sadeq, a spokesman for the uprising in a Damascus suburb.
"I mean, you go through this mix of feelings, knowing that we might die today. But then after 10 minutes, all of that goes away and you just remember why you are out there and why you're doing this, and you keep going," Sadeq says.
'Give Me Liberty'
Ask any of these young activists why they keep going, and it comes down to this, says Ali: "Give me liberty or give me death. We want our freedom and also our dignity."
But what Syrians mean by freedom and dignity isn't exactly clear. At the most basic level, it's a rejection of the 40-year rule of one family and one political party. It's a revolt led by a youthful army, mostly under 30, equipped with smartphones and global connections — a generation that is the country's largest.
"Before March 15, we weren't really living, we existed. We had something around our necks," says Dhia Dugmosh, 25, who left graduate school in Beirut to head home to Damascus to join that first protest in March. "After March 15, I became human, I had a purpose, I had honor. There was life. That's what's kept me going."
Ask where the revolution is going, and activists do not agree on any strategy beyond taking it to the streets. But that's an advantage, insists Dugmosh. Rallies are more than just an outlet for rage, he says.
"The advantage of having these demonstrations is that we are creating a Syrian identity," Dugmosh says.
There is a lot of talk about identity these days, not all of it positive. Activists point to new loyalties forged under fire; solidarity between cities under siege. But old identities have surfaced, too.
The Alawite sect, a minority in the country, backs President Bashar al-Assad and his Alawite clan, which dominates the security services and the military command. The majority on the streets are Sunni Muslims.
Activist Rami Nakhle acknowledges that sectarian killings in the city of Homs last month may be a preview of worse to come. A group of Alawites tried to break up a demonstration, the Sunnis fought back and three Alawites were killed, their bodies discovered in a trash dump.
"We are not denying it. We are not saying it's black and white — the protesters, all of them Martin Luther King and Gandhi, absolutely not," Nakhle says.
Activists are trying to calm the city, Nakhle says. They organized meetings between the diverse communities in Homs ahead of Ramadan, when he is convinced the regime will try to fan sectarian strife.
"It's not fair, it's not justice and it really [leaves] crazy anger, we understand this," Nakhle says.
The Threat Of Arrest
A clearer sign of a shift in government tactics was the campaign of mass arrests ahead of the holy month that could prove to be a hot time in Syria.
"I was walking in the street. Seven men with machine guns, they catch me and start to hit me and put me in the car with my father," says Ali, part of the latest roundup.
The security police go house to house in search of activists. Many say the threat of arrest, with almost certain torture, is more frightening than getting shot.
"The first question was: Give me your e-mail that you use it for Facebook," Ali says, and when he refused to divulge the password that could compromise other activists, his father was brought into the interrogation room.
"So I start to yell. They hit me on my face. They said to me, 'If you don't tell us the truth, we will kill him. We will torture him very much.' I said to him, 'Yes, ask me and I will tell you.'"
A condition of his release was to sign a declaration that he would not join or organize a protest again. But Mohammed Ali says he will be out on the streets every night.
Rami Nakhle says activists have "burned their return boots" — an Arabic saying that means there is no going back. If they stop now, he explains, the secret police will round up every activist inside Syria.
"My friends are in hiding. They are wanted," he says. "So, we have two choices: to win or to sacrifice them."