A Glimpse of Post-Assad Syria: Inside Aleppo's New Islamic Justice Committees

By Florence Aubenas

This article originally appeared in Le Monde.

For nearly three months, a rumor has been spreading through Aleppo: whoever faces hardship, however small, can go to a hearing of the "Committee for the promotion of good deeds and support of the oppressed."

There, in this northern neighborhood of the country's largest city, members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) are "enforcing justice" and "asserting the rights" of the ever growing number of people who are deeply distressed or simply disgruntled.

"It has become one of the town's most popular areas, everyone wants to be a part of it," says Abu Mustapha. It's not quite a courthouse, but almost. It's not quite social services either. It's not even a political space - the only thing it is is religious. It's an unprecedented glimpse, the people hope, of what an Assad-free Syria would look like.

Like everywhere else in northern Syria, the civil servants paid by the Assad regime (teachers, doctors, judges, policemen, administrative employees) fled when the FSA arrived. It sometimes only took one night for public services and institutions to empty, leaving a 70-kilometer long strip disconnected from the official Syria, the Turkish border to half of Aleppo.

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"We went from dictatorship to nothing. The war is not over yet, but chaos is looming at every corner. So we are taking things in our hands, everyone is doing what they can," says Ahmed Al-Rhami, a member of the committee.

In this administrative desert, it takes pragmatism, improvisation and incredible willpower to launch initiatives. The day after the Bab Salama customs office was taken over by the FSA in Aug. 2012, a new customs stamp was already in effect, stamping documents with "Syrian Arab Democracy."

You would think a brand new regime - even temporary - would choose a truly symbolic name, the fruit of much debating, brawling or even quick brainstorming. Think again. "The group who had the stamp made in Turkey came up with it," says an official at the border's press office. Here, like elsewhere, nothing was looted - or almost nothing. The official buildings are intact - minus combat scars - and a list displaying the items of furniture found by the rebels when they took over have been posted on the wall "so that we are not accused of stealing anything, like Bashar's bandits would."

One of the most sensitive subjects for the new authorities is justice: "If it wasn't for this issue, would the revolution have even happened? If you recall, the first slogan was against injustice. The rebels know that they have to show they are different," explains a pastry seller. He came to volunteer his services to the committee.

Every day, more and more want to participate, with volunteers lining the halls this day. "It's also a way to support the current movement without holding a rifle," says a man wearing a Lady Gaga t-shirt under his winter coat. "In my case, I'm too old to fight, I don't even like fighting."

A mixed bag of misery
As we talked, the lights suddenly go out in the hall, but we continue to talk in the darkness of the rainy morning. Nobody seems to pay attention to the blackout - electricity problems have been a regular occurrence since the beginning of the war - except in Damascus, they say. "But we don't really know what's happening over there," says someone from the shadows, in a djellaba loose-fitting outer robe.

A member of the committee announces that the candidates have to go through a selection process. "You mean we need connections, just like before?" shouts a barber. The committee member adds that there are criteria and a test. "What kind of test?" asks the pastry seller. "You will be questioned on religion: what are alms, what is purification," the man answers. Silence. "Will you establish Islamic justice later on?" asks the man from the shadows in the djellaba.

The committee has started seeing the day's cases. One after another, people come to explain their problems, a mixed bag of war and poverty-related misery. A father asks for a new home, his house is on the front line, in the Salah Adine district, he says. "We only give a home to large families who had their houses destroyed," says the committee.

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