Omar Aziz was born in Al-Amara neighbourhood in the Syrian capital, Damascus, on 18 February 1949. He graduated with a degree in economics from Grenoble University in France, and went on to craft a successful career in information technology and consultancy in the United States and Saudi Arabia. Husband to Nada and a father of three, Aziz was a former member of the left-leaning People’s Democratic Party in Syria.
What did he do?
Known by friends and comrades as Abu Kamel, Omar Aziz was working in Saudi Arabia when the Syrian uprising erupted in March 2011. Explaining his decision to leave his more comfortable life and return to Syria, he told his wife Nada: “I will not respect myself, nor will you respect me, if I stay away from my country at a time when I have so much to offer.”
Even though he was 62 years old, Aziz became embroiled in the revolutionary movement that began to sweep through Syria, regularly discussing tactics and strategies with young activists in Damascus and its suburbs. He understood the youth’s explosive enthusiasm for reclaiming public space through protests and demonstrations, suggesting creative ways for holding ‘flying protests’ in the back streets of Damascus.
However, he was adamant that protests alone could not topple the regime and that more long-term, forward-looking strategies were needed. This led him to propose the establishment of local councils – forums that would allow local communities manage their daily affairs independently of the state’s institutions. They created a free space for communication and collaboration among different social actors, and were used to achieve coordination between revolutionary forces on local, regional and national levels.
In November 2011, Aziz drafted a discussion paper on local councils – a formative and visionary document espousing principles of horizontal organizing, anti-authoritarianism, mutual aid and self-governance. Aziz was heavily engaged in organizing and distributing humanitarian aid to internally displaced people in Damascus and to suburbs facing attacks and siege by the Syrian regime, however he was wary of the reliance on donor aid and the transformation of humanitarian work into a substitute for revolutionary activism.
After several months of discussion and meetings with local residents and activists, Aziz helped establish the first local council in Barzeh, a working class neighborhood to the north of Damascus which witnessed some of the most diverse protests in Syria, together with an intense crackdown by the regime. Inspired by the initial success of the Barzeh council, several more local councils sprang up in the following months.
Aziz was arrested by Syrian security forces in November 2012. He was first held in an over-crowded cell in an intelligence branch, before being transferred to Adra, the central prison in Damascus, where his heart failed on 17 February 2013. Aziz had kept a low profile and wrote under a pseudonym, never seeking limelight or recognition. In the last months before his arrest, the revolution occupied his entire life, forcing him away from his family. It was only after his death that some of his pioneering contributions were revealed.
What were his ideas?
Aziz distinguished between two overlapping stages: the time of power and the time of revolution. He claimed that only when the boundaries between those two stages are dismantled will the revolution succeed in transforming the social and political order. For this to happen, the revolution needs to permeate all aspects of people’s life and this is precisely why Aziz viewed protests as an insufficient, albeit necessary, element.
As his friend Muhammad al-Attar explains, Aziz foresaw the possibility of forced school drop-outs, either due to arrests of students and teachers, or due to the sieges imposed on rebellious cities. To counter this he stressed the need for creating an alternative education system.
Quasi physical liberation from regime control was not enough. Echoing the Zapatistas, Aziz believed communities needed to create their own autonomous modes of service-provision to achieve collective liberation here and now. As Muhammad Sami al-Kayyal, one of Aziz’s comrades, puts it, “Omar Aziz stood for the complete break-up with the state in order to achieve collective liberation without waiting for regime change or for one ruling power to replace another. He believed that communities are capable of producing their own freedoms regardless of political vicissitudes.”
Additionally, Aziz called for horizontal linkages between the different revolutionary actors on the ground. According to him, revolutionary organizing consisted of coordination, exchanging expertise and creating supply lines among communities. These are tasks undertaken by people themselves and not fulfilled by a self-appointed revolutionary leadership imposed upon them from above. Once knowledge is shared and expertise are passed on, the distinction between ‘elites’ and ‘masses’ will be negated in this non-hierarchal space he aspired for.
What was his legacy?
A leftist economist, public intellectual and community organizer, Aziz was an unconventional radical. Combining theory and praxis in his ‘local councils’ project, Aziz laid the ground for one of the earliest experiments of self-governance to come out of the Arab uprisings.
His ideas of autonomous councils were initially ostracized by the more prominent activists and politicians, who deemed them either too early or unnecessary. It was working-class communities who first embraced his ideas, re-enforcing Aziz’s confidence in creating the change from the bottom-up.
However, as the Syrian uprising enters its fifth year, very little of that original spark is left. The local councils, envisioned by Aziz as a means for collective emancipation from all forms of oppression, have been coopted by the political opposition and mired in corruption. Marginalized communities that briefly reclaimed their voice and choice, have been thwarted again by the regime and counter-revolutionary forces. But while there is still a lot to learn from the model promoted by Aziz, there is also much to take from his contagious optimism.
One particular saying by Aziz will always linger: “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.” Make that four years.