When I was growing up in Cairo, there was a rumor that the Egyptian secret service placed an informant in every neighborhood who knew every little move you made, your family history and what you said about the government.
Just one bad word about the regime, and you'd be snatched from your bed, never to be seen again.
Though I was young and didn't understand politics, the idea of an informant scared me.
I didn't really want to believe this rumor — unconfirmed as it was — about my neighbors, who were good and kind people.
There was a man whom people thought was the informant. He had a day job — a presumed cover, of course — but I heard he had a top position in the government.
And then there was an incident when a young man from my street disappeared. Neighbors said he was taken to prison and might never come back. He did came back, though, only different. He wasn't as social or as passionate, just changed.
Now that I'm older and understand more about how the Middle East works, I doubt that man in my neighborhood was the informant. Informants by definition do not easily stand out. They could be your teacher, your neighbor, even your brother.
Dictators use fear and retaliation to control the population. Systematic arrests, imprisonment, torture and execution crush citizens' spirits, keeping them silent. But usually just the idea that a neighbor could rat you out to the government was enough to keep people in check.
This idea that you can sit in a coffee shop with your friends and criticize your government or president, as we do here, was nonexistent where I grew up.
I thought things were bad in Egypt before the Arab Spring — that is, until I learned more about what is happening in Syria.
Not only has the Syrian government monitored its citizens for the last 40 years, the Assad regime controls every aspect of people's lives, from arts and entertainment to social norms and politics. It's not really a government; it's a mafia-like system, where torture and execution are common.
People are thought of as property. That's true of everyone, including women and children.
When I think of the way I felt about the informant, the man who disappeared for years, the torture in Syria and the ongoing killing of innocent children, it's clear why Arabs rarely have tried to rebel en masse until now.
That so many of them rose up at once is nothing short of a miracle from God above.
According to the Syrian American Council, more than 15,000 Syrians have been killed since the Syrian revolt that began in March. Among the dead are an estimated 1,000 children, 1,000 women and 600 people who died during torture.
Yet Syrians are continuing to risk their lives for ideals we sometimes take for granted: freedom, dignity, justice.
You might not be able to stop the injustice in Syria, but you may support its victims by staying aware, speaking out against human rights abuses and standing alongside them in spirit.
When you think of them, think of the life and freedom you would want for yourself, your family, friends and children. And remember, the Founding Fathers and their followers once fought for the freedom you have today.
MONA SHADIA is a reporter for Times Community News. An Egyptian American, she was born and raised in Cairo and now lives in Orange County. Her column includes various questions and issues facing Muslims in America. Follow her on Twitter @MonaShadia.