Kamal al-Labwani interview by Joe Pace
Dr. M. Kamal al-Labwani - Founder of the Liberal Democratic Union
Interviewed by Joe Pace
August (6, 16, 21) 2005
The interview is in three parts:
Part 1: Liberal Democratic Union (LDU)(al-tajammu'a al-librali al-dimuqrati)
Part 2: State of the Opposition
Part 3: Role of Foreign Pressure
Kamal was a member of Riad Seif's civil society forum, which formed during the famous, but short lived, Damascus Spring (2000-2001). Both were arrested at the outset of the Damascus winter in 2001. He was released from prison last summer after completing his three year sentence and has recently started a new political party--or "union" as he calls it; parties are banned. In early August, some 200 people came to his house in Zebidane to discuss the founding charter, but the police closed down an entire neighborhood to prevent people from reaching his house and they stayed there for some 14 hours. According to Kamal, they warned him that Islamists who were displeased with his Liberal Democratic Union might murder him...and of course, Syrian security is in no position to prevent such a barberous act.
The founding document is an interesting read for those who can read Arabic. Go
to http://www.kamalm.com/ and click on "jideed." It is the most comprehensive, detailed charter of any opposition movement. I asked Kamal at one point why he went so far as to specify the structure of the bicameral legistlature, to which his response was, "we're preparing for the day when the regime falls. We're letting them know that we're thinking past their collapse and planning for the future. Its a type of pyschological warfare."
Interview with Kamal Lubwani
THE LDU OR LIBERAL DEMOCRATIC UNION
What did you do before the Damascus Spring?
I was born in Zebadani in 1957. I graduated from the medical school at Damascus University in 1981. During my college years I worked with Riad at-Turk’s Communist Party which was working in secret at that time. I left the party after four years for various reason, one of which was the lack of democracy within the party itself. During the time that I worked to establish my medical clinic, I continued studying and reading about political issues. I immediately became involved in the Damascus Spring and joined the Committees for the Defense of Human Rights, the Committees for the Revival of Civil Society, and we established a forum for national dialogue with Riad Seif. I was arrested for those activities for three years. I was released last year and I immediately devoted myself to my political activities.
Could you give me the background on you’re new party? What are its guiding principles?
We have a union and not a party in the popular sense of the word. The union is based on three principles: democracy, liberalism, and secularism. The opposition is fractured and we are trying to unite it and the only thing that people are united on is those three principles. So we invited a large portion of activists to a meeting and most of them came, but the security wouldn’t let them enter the house. But it’s not a party: it’s a current, an alliance, an extensive assembly based on a new spirit and new political values. It’s larger than a party. It will contain all the parties and the smaller movements both internal and external and it will encourage the religious movements and even extremists to join and pursue political activism through peaceful, public means. We think that liberalism is a consensus-building philosophy.
Who was responsible for organizing the union’s platform?
Originally I was propositioned to be part of the assembly that Rihab al-Bitar was forming, but they stop short of being true opposition to the regime. They wait for permission from the authorities. So I told them that their behavior and their project cannot become the makings of a real opposition and I offered them an alternative platform. They were working on the union’s formation for three months. When I showed them the platform they got scared, so I left the group and presented the platform to people for a general discussion. I received a lot of responses and went through three different drafts of the platform until this one, which was supposed to be discussed at my house. Before drafting the final version I had visited a lot of people in all the provinces to discuss these ideas. Some hundred and fifty people agreed to come to Damascus and they agreed to help me.
The purpose of the meeting was to approve the founding document as a theoretical basis for the organization. The second purpose was to announce our project and demand that the government license us if they are willing to publish a new party law. But we all know that the authorities lie and it won’t permit anyone to speak out because the authority is corrupt and dictatorial and corruption and dictatorship fundamentally contradict transparency and freedom of opinion because the first opinion that anyone would express would be opposition to the corruption and tyranny and the crimes the authorities have committed. And then they’ll face arrest, interrogation, and a trial.
They say we enact a party law, we’ll implement reform but its all lies because these authorities are incapable of it. Based on their history, they couldn’t stand up to a child because he would scandalize them.
You mentioned that you wanted you’re project to include all of the parties. How much of the opposition and the Syrian public are committed or receptive to liberalism?
I was probing society in order to determine the true magnitude of support, but it’s difficult because there is no freedom of discussion. But from my discussions, I can say that about 70% of Syrians are receptive to liberalism and maybe from a background that would make them receptive to liberalism. At the very least, 70% would be receptive and accepting of these ideas if we are able to convey them, if we are able to reach the people and dialogue with them. The political forces that exist today are ancient inheritances… They have not produced anything new. During Damascus Spring we tried to form new currents like the movement for civil society and the forums but they were crushed. The state planted its supporters in the movements and they failed.
But even among those forces that exist today, 50% are willing to leave their organizations and work with us in a new environment. And this is what’s encouraging us—getting two hundred people on board is no easy task. In a country dominated by oppression, many organizations have only five or ten real members. But we began with two hundred and hopefully we can hold several meetings and become a thousand by the end of the month. And from what I have seen from all the different social segments that have shown interest, I am confident that we will attract new people that were not previously politicized.
So in short, I can say that 50% of the opposition and 70% of the people would be willing to participate in this project?
The entire project? The founding document calls for civil marriages, complete equality for women including equal inheritance, and separation of religion and state. Don’t you think those points might meet with opposition amongst the religious masses?
I think that 50% of society—i.e. the women—will endorse these ideas because they have a direct interest. No one refuses a right that is offered to them. None of them are going to refuse equal inheritance. I’m speaking about the women because they are oppressed; you’re speaking about the men. Nonetheless, I suspect half the men would endorse these ideas and if half the men and all the women do, we have 75% support.
In terms of the secular component, everybody is beginning to recognize the need for a separation of religion and state after witnessing the terrible events in Iraq and Lebanon. Otherwise we will be divided along sectarian lines because we are a country of many sects and ethnicities.
And when we say that the religious figures shouldn’t be in power we don’t want to promote atheism or undermine religion. Our definition of secularism is that religious injunctions should not determine the country’s politics. We are not going to wait for Sistani or Al-Azhar or other religious authorities to make the political decisions for us. Let the religious man stay religious. And those who want to participate are welcome. But for politics, there will be an elected assembly that issues law regardless of religious injunctions. At any rate, this has been the reality in Syria since the fifties. Secularism is not something alien or new in Syrian society. Of course, today there are fundamentalist and terrorist groups that are demanding the reestablishment of religious rule, but this hasn’t existed since the time of the Ottomans.
They talk about returning to the past. But we refuse to return to the past. We do not want to replace a dictatorial, fascist, totalitarian regime with a theocratic regime. We want secularism to continue—we want its continuation, development, and penetration throughout society.
You say that people recognize the need for secularism. How do you reconcile that with what appears to be an Islamic resurgence in Syria?
The Islamic resurgence is happening for several reasons. One part of the resurgence is a protest to despotism. Another is a protest to sectarian discrimination because the regime is sectarian. Another is a response to the failure of Marxist and Nasserist ideologies. But this resurgence is not antagonistic to our project. We are not the antithesis of the resurgence; on the contrary, we want to absorb it into our project. We are able to do this—we have met with many devout people and they accepted the project. I think that a lot of those people that you are talking about consider religion a source of morals and values. They will be with us, not on the other side. It was originally part of my idea to bring them into this project, to find mutual interests and find the values shared by Islam and modern liberalism. This political and cultural project is extremely important and I will focus much of my efforts on this point.
Without this project it will never be possible to rid ourselves of cultural and intellectual backwardness that constitutes the groundwork for terrorism and extremism. This is the essence of the project: bringing these sorts of groups into the political arena where they are part of civilization and respect other viewpoints. Even Europe couldn’t advance until Christianity underwent a transformative reformation. In Europe, the Christians were responsible for the Inquisition and countless executions prior to the advent of liberalism. If we can reconcile Islam and liberalism, Islam will be more urbane, tolerant, and averse to violence.
We’ve been unjustly frightened by them. They are ready to endorse these acceptable things. Those who are extremists stake out a radical position because they have been wronged and deprived of everything.
What sort of complaints, apprehensions, or demands have the religious groups you’ve met with displayed in response to the founding charter?
They have accepted that the government should not be religious in character and that the president be elected irrespective of his religion. They have accepted that the parliament will be the source of legislation, not the Qur’an. They have deep convictions about the authority of the Qur’an, but they don’t want to impose it on people because we have other religions in Syria like Christianity. Even the Muslim Brotherhood—its leader, Bayanuni said that the Qur’an is to them the source of legislation, but they would not impose it in any constitution.
Of course, there are people who oppose secularism. This secular regime has brutally oppressed those sorts of people, so they are against secularism as part of their opposition to the current regime. But once we achieve a secular democracy that ensures the right of expression, the right to participate in politics, civil rights, provides work opportunities, etc—I think that they will defend this system, not fight it. The greatest mistake was the marriage of despotism and secularism because opposition to this regime—to many people, at least—entails opposition to secularism. But when we merge democracy, liberalism, and secularism, they’ll find that it is in their interest to defend it. Here is the barter: when we can lift the oppression that has been foisted on them and they begin to realize their rights, they will mellow and it will be easier to cooperate with them.
What about the economic platform? How is your advocacy of capitalism received by the communist and socialist groups?
All of the parties, from the communists to the authority are advancing the idea of the “market economy,” but this phrasing is an attempt to avoid the word capitalism. But the market economy is capitalism and they can call it a market economy or a social economy, but all of those are phrases designed to avoid calling it what it is. None of the parties, including the Ba’th party are advancing an agenda for which capitalism doesn’t play a part.
Capitalism is the solution to our problems, not this idea of a social economy. They don’t want to use the word capitalism because they can’t simply reverse forty years of oppression in the name of socialism. They nationalized property, committed theft, and robbed the country of its resources in the name of socialism. They can’t just say they were wrong. They have to say “we’ll reform, develop, and modernize,” but all of the procedures being undertaken to that end are movements towards capitalism.
I’ve challenged people to give me one example of a party platform that doesn’t discuss opening markets, attracting foreign investment, etc. No one is talking about nationalizing properties—everyone is talking about privatization and free markets.
What is the most prominent form of opposition you’re facing from those that you are trying to court?
I’m facing the greatest opposition from the qawmiyiin (nationalists) and to an extent, the Marxists because they suffer from ideological stagnancy. They think that liberalism serves on a small segment of society and not an idea that embraces freedom for all. In the totalitarian state, liberal thought has become a popular demand. We are not trying to build Syria in the 17th or 18th century when only the bourgeoisie excelled. ِِThe whole of society is facing a new kind of political feudalism, which is the state. The state today possesses feudalist characteristics and we need liberalism to rid society of that sort of state.
That’s what is happening in Eastern Europe which is working day and night to transform its people into students of freedom and democracy. And there was no carrier of the liberal ideal because there was no bourgeoisie—only communists. Nonetheless, that society was able to create a new condition for itself. It was quickly able to build a liberal project.
I am orienting this project towards all people. Those who are resisting it suffer from intellectual stagnancy, claiming that liberalism from a historical standpoint was ushered in by the bourgeoisie and that new liberalism is another form of monopoly. I don’t think that’s correct. Liberalism is for the impoverished. Today people suffer from unemployment, hunger, and homelessness—what’s the reason? It’s not capitalism. The reason is the state, the totalitarian state that promised social services and didn’t deliver on anything. The state that monopolized every aspect of society and apportioned its riches only to the children of the authorities. So today, even the poor, the deprived, the hungry—they are liberals and even though they are not bourgeoisie. Socialism is the cause of poverty. You can’t solve their problems by re-implementing the source of their problems—you can only do that with new ideas. You can only counter the idea of totalitarianism with liberalism.
What inspired you to found this assembly at this time?
The regime had the intention of creating its own liberal current to change the instruments of power—from the Ba’th party to another assembly, but the same authority figures would remain in power. They would host elections and emerge as another political trend. After they robbed the country they had the economic keys to the country, they had the capacity to buy all of the votes—without real political reform, of course—and they would replace the Bath party with a liberal party that would carry them to the next stage, like what Hosni Mubarak did. That is what compelled me to be opposition. I felt that this was a real danger for Syrian society and it meant that economic reform wouldn’t produce anything because the children of the current authorities would take over for them. And the people wouldn’t enjoy any benefits from those changes and it would only further strengthen extremist currents. So I tried to pull the rug from under them and create a true liberal party, not for the sake of corruption and not to be a mere transition mechanism, but for the sake of the citizen who has been harmed by despotism.
If you are prohibited from publishing, assembling, and speaking publicly, how do you plan on promoting you’re assembly and attracting new members?
We’re prohibited from assembling, but I still publish on the internet and my articles are distributed to a large number of people. There is a prohibition on writing but it isn’t a total prohibition. At the very least, we can try to convey the ideas and engage in dialogue verbally. They try to prohibit everything but they can’t because we continue to contest. They closed the Jamal al-Atassi forum so we founded a new party, the founding statement of which contains things that no individual was discussing, namely what to do after the collapse of this regime.
There is a popular theory that capitalism necessarily results in democracy and democracy cannot be realized without capitalism. What do you think about this idea? Do you think one has to come first?
You’re speaking about two ideas. Yes, capitalism will result in democracy if it is free capitalism. Capitalism isn’t just a market philosophy, it is also a set of values. If it is distorted capitalism, corrupt capitalism, monopolistic capitalism, it won’t produce democracy—it will produce political feudalism. The idea that economic reform necessarily leads to political reform is contradicted by experience. What is economic reform anyways? The government is moving towards a free market but its efforts are hemmed in by its own interests. Certain personalities are opening up banks and companies solely for their sons.
Economic reform prior to political reform will lead to corruption and it will produce a corrupt democracy if democracy ever emerges. This is exactly what the authorities are trying to do. Political reform must come first because a corrupt regime cannot be trusted to undertake economic reform. The corrupt don’t reform just like criminals don’t become saints. The only solution is the ballot box whereby the people can elect a government that is willing to represent the will of the people and engage in true reform. The government is running from political reform and talking about economic reform. There was a bidding for a contract to build optic cables and they returned all of the bids, saying that the contract had already been given to Rami Makhlouf. That’s not reform, that’s an economic monopoly.
The first step in reform is confiscating the riches of the corrupt. As soon as we see an index of the president’s expenses among others, then we will know that real reform has begun.
How do plan on attracting the Kurdish groups to your assembly?
If we succeed in our democratic project, the Kurdish issue will become a secondary concern. If it fails and Syria remains a poor, backwards country, then the Kurdish issue will get worse. People want to live, so when you provide them with the means to do so, they will forget some of their particular concerns. But if they continue to live in a society dominated by poverty and oppression the tensions will explode. The Kurdish issue is a problem for the entire region—the situation is worse in Iraq, Iran, and Turkey. This issue crosses over several state boundaries, so if the international community were—with the consent of those states—to carve out a separate independent state, I wouldn’t have an objection. I’m for Kurdish self-determination. But that state would have to be realized through negotiations and not through war.
The most important thing is that we improve the economic situation and ensure that they enjoy their rights and only then will the situation solve itself.
STATE OF THE OPPOSITION
What is the future of the opposition in your mind? Is it a more unified version of the present oppositional figures and parties or does the future lie in a new generation?
The problem is that there is no politically mobilized street. When that happens, everything will change. Today, the opposition is purely symbolic and this sort of opposition is incapable of uniting because it is based on personalities, on the capability of single individuals to confront the authorities. I distributed the founding document for this organization in my name and invited people to my house. The project was to a large extent personal and it couldn’t have been otherwise because if I had used someone else’s house there are no guarantees. Perhaps he would cancel the entire thing and people would abandon it because of the pressure from the security. But when I invite people to my house, I ensure that I will not backtrack. If I publish these documents in my name, they can imprison me but I will stand steadfast behind them, but there is no guarantee that someone else would.
You are forced to rely on the strength on one’s character because you will be entering combat together. Group work cannot be flexible unless it is secretive and we are absolutely against that. For this reason we are trying to create symbols and combating the authorities symbolically. What we need today are new symbols and a new strategy of dueling with the government. The society is watching and when the masses begin to move, they will move behind those who represent them. It’s like how people get riled up at soccer games and express allegiance to the best players on their team. Our ability to combine the symbols and the masses depends on our activism in the political arena. That arena is very small right now, but as soon as people become active they will begin looking for symbols. So right now, we are reserving space in that arena so that when the day comes that people move to the street—either because of foreign or internal pressures—we will be ready.
So why is the opposition so weak and personalized, why is it incapable of garnering more popular support?
The first reason is fear. People say, “I don’t want to work in politics just to serve 25 years in prison or maybe die.” They don’t want to loose their work. The first reason for the weakness of the opposition is its isolation from the people. The second reason is the interference of state apparatuses that frighten and torment. The third reason is absence of a new, mature political consciousness—people are still trapped in the texts of the 1950s, like Marxism and qawmiya. The people are isolated from political culture. They are not acquainted with new ideas because nobody reads—book consumption is trifling. For that reason, a new mentality has not developed. The fourth reason, like I said, is that the opposition is overly dependent on individual personalities and the culture elite, which is dangerous. It makes the opposition fractious. This is counter to the principle of politics which must be collective in nature.
Why isn’t there a politically mobilized street in Syria? Fear cannot be the only reason—Egypt, Iran, even Uzbekistan all suffer from oppressive regimes, but at least based on the number of people who attend demonstrations, the street is more politically active in those countries. Why is Syria different?
You can’t say that the Syrian street isn’t politicized. Basically, there are no politics in Syria. Even the Ba’th party isn’t political and you won’t find a single real politician inside the regime. The regime is run by the military and security branch, not by politicians. Our society is totally dispossessed of politics. The fundamental problem is that this regime is a militaristic, security-obsessed, police state. One moment they are arresting people for muttering a word, then they tell us we can’t meet in our own houses, and so people have stopped speaking out. They are just waiting for the regime to fall.
The second problem stems from the opposition itself. They have permitted the regime to penetrate them with secret police, slander them, and enfeeble them. And nobody trusts them—we haven’t reached a stage where the parties are able to mobilize the street. If we presented a real program and behaved like real opposition, maybe people would be convinced by us.
For forty years, we didn’t hear a single word from any media outlet about what was happening in Syria. The events in Hama were not mentioned by the BBC even once. The city was besieged and 24,000 people were massacred and the battle lasted a month—the media didn’t say a word. That was evidence that the regime was supported from the outside, especially by Europe and Russia. People were afraid to go to prison for twenty years when only one in ten came out alive—they starved or died from torture. All of those factors contributed to the silence of the street. If the street felt like there was any hope—even one in a hundred—they would begin to mobilize.
What are you’re thoughts on Rihab al-Bitar’s new party, "The Free Democratic Coalition?"
Rihab al-Bitar is never far from the authorities and they are the ones who pushed her to form the party just like they pushed others to form human rights organizations. The secret police are running 70% of the opposition and we are struggling to preserve that 30%.
How do you know who is real opposition and who are the infiltrators?
First, their history and their relationships: there are lots of long and complicated processes that we use to make sure that someone is truly independent from the security branches, so he has to undergo long and complicated tests.
Rihab says that she wants to oppose the opposition and oppose the authorities. But that’s not opposition to the authorities and she even admits that.
Another liberal union was established in Aleppo last month. What’s the difference between your two assemblies and what is the nature of the relationship between the two?
I’m not sure exactly why Samir Nashar started his project, but it’s his right to do so. He tried to convince Riad Seif to be part of his project but Riad refused. So he started the project with eight people, one of whom pulled out, and none of whom except Samir have any political history. And his political history is very recent—only after the Damascus Spring did he become involved. He doesn’t have any political experience; he’s a trader and he’s hoping to hide that. A trader can be part of a political movement and he can be a member, but he cannot lead a political movement. Political work is professional work—it’s exhausting, it requires a lot of culture, a lot of experience with people, the authorities, and the opposition.
I tried hard to convince him to be part of our project, but he was insistent that he wanted a project that was his own. It’s his right to want something distinguished and to represent a certain segment of society and hopefully he will succeed.
Is there any disagreement over ideology or the party platform between the two of you?
There is a disagreement regarding the social segment that we want to direct out efforts towards. I want to direct it towards everyone who has been harmed by despotism, whereas, he wants to direct it towards the ownership class. He wants to incorporate the rich into his party, whereas, I want to represent the widest segment of society possible. I think that the style of our work differs on a fundamental level, but not the goals—we both want a free market, a democratic country, and a secular government.
Is there any sort of competition between your parties?
No. But we are ready to cooperate with them and there is a close friendship between us.
Other than you and Samir Nashar, who else is working to establish liberal parties?
There is Rihab Al-Bitar and there was another group of people working with me, including Nabil Fayyad and Jihad Nasra. They broke off from my group immediately after the first meeting at the behest of the security apparatus. They will continue to work as a liberal assembly, but it’s ultimately a sectarian assembly. Samir was very clear in his intention to focus on the Sunni majority. I am against that. We should be orienting ourselves to all social segments regardless of sect. Their projects are very because they will partition what must be a national project and they contradict liberalism.
ROLE OF FOREIGN PRESSURES
Having an assembly is one thing, but how can you pressure the regime to even listen to your demands? Does foreign pressure have a role in implementing your agenda?
The strategy is to dislodge the regime. The regime is very weak, but the power of society is even weaker. Our confrontation with the authorities will be symbolic: we will violate every taboo and cross every red line that they have drawn. We have recently reached a stage in which we can expand the opposition’s activities and speak about almost whatever we wish with the press without fear. We have surpassed that prohibition, at least. We’re trying to reach the street, but on that issue they are still playing games with us.
We are trying to create a framework for a new form of government and the regime is afraid of this; this is why it has returned to its use of oppressive tactics like refusing to let people meet in their own houses. It will cease to be effective in the foreseeable future because we expect one of the following: either a spontaneous, violent reaction from the street like what happened in Qamashli, or international pressures, or even events within the regime. This is the sort of regime where if you apply pressure on it, its inner elements will prove incapable of cooperating with one another and it will implode. So the combination of foreign pressure and social pressure along with the internal congestion this regime suffers from will open up an avenue for change. We can’t say exactly where the avenue will open up; it’s like putting pressure on a water bottle. A weakness will develop, but you can’t predict exactly where. That is why we have to combine all of our forces and collectively pressure this regime which is likely to collapse in any circumstance.
My strategy is without limits. I have a strategy of applying pressure by raising new demands, by producing symbols, by creating a new social movement, by encouraging people to take initiative and participate in politics. This is useful but insufficient. There are social crises that will push people to act. There is a crisis in foreign relations in response to Syria’s deviant behavior. The infrastructure of the regime is also based on conflicting and competing gangs and this will weaken it as well.
What’s the role of foreign powers in assisting reform?
The foreign role is very important. We cannot overcome this crisis peacefully without international guarantees. Foreign pressure is decisive—it will determine whether Syria is marred by chaos or whether it undergoes a peaceful transition of power. And this role will be important for at least ten years to come because at present we are incapable of forming a complete awareness that incorporates all of the movements. So I think that the sincere Syrians internally should work with sincere external powers to help Syria transition from despotism to democracy. The absence of either side will doom this project.
Specifically, what sort of foreign pressures do you advocate?
All sorts of pressures. Unfortunately, economic pressures would be felt by the people because the regime is shielded by its corruption. Military pressure is dangerous but possible if it focused solely on the symbols of the regime. The most important thing is that the pressure be applied directly to those in power.
How do you apply pressure on the regime without negatively impacting the people?
The names of every person who violates human rights, like officers, should be put on a blacklist along with the symbols of corruption. And their assets should be tracked down. This is legal, natural, and part of the job of the international community. Any person who violates human rights should be tried in an international court, which we should be able to appeal to. The United Nations is entitled by law to interfere with a country’s internal affairs to combat oppression and servitude. Dictatorship is the last form of servitude.
Diplomatic isolation is another option; diplomatic relations should be conditioned on respect for human rights. The European Union is trying to get its economic agreement passed with Syria in order to save this regime from American pressures and they have not stipulated clear conditions regarding human rights. So perhaps the international community can place enough moral pressure on the regime to prompt change. Everyone saw in Lebanon how the United Nations managed to quickly achieve an agenda that the Lebanese themselves were incapable of for years. The Syrian army immediately withdrew and they held elections. But right now there isn’t any real pressure being placed on Syria, especially from the European front.
There’s a difference between pressures placed on the regime—i.e. penalties imposed when it violates human rights—and direct assistance to the opposition—i.e. material or organizational support. What sort of the latter do you want from the international community?
The first thing is monitoring the regime’s behavior and highlighting its infractions in the press. The press would provide us a forum to reach the people which is very important because the oppression here prohibits us from transmitting our ideas to the street. The foreign press is much more capable and its use will strengthen us.
The second form of assistance is material support—relationships with the embassies, with international organizations, help in publishing and disseminating, etc. Maybe we could reach a stage where we received financial support, though this is dangerous because it could corrupt the organizations. If we did accept money it would have to be public, transparent, and with the knowledge of the regime.
I think those three things—the pressure, the press support, and material support—would be enough to turn the opposition into a significant force in society. And the combination of those three would drastically facilitate the dislodging of this regime.
What are you’re thoughts on the Syrian opposition in America, such as Farid Ghadry’s party [Syrian Reform Party]?
In politics, everyone tried to preserve their own interests and they have a right to pursue their interests. But they are different from us—their circumstances and their demands differ. We are living inside the country so our demands are oriented towards internal affairs. They are interesting in being able to come and go freely and in investing. They may be duplicitous because they have two different loyalties—one to Syria and one to America. We might be able to work together and they might be able to help us, especially if they can influence US decision making and we would be willing to welcome them, but on the condition that the program comes from the inside.
Does Farid Ghadry’s party have any base or support in Syria?
None whatsoever. He doesn’t have anyone inside the country and anyone who did cooperate with him would be accused of treason and arrested. His party has called for military invasion of Syria, so nobody is going to work with him. Nabil Fayad joined his party because state security sent Nabil. They sent him to Washington to figure out what was going on and he succeeded—he infiltrated the party and the Americans. I tried to warn them but they didn’t listen to me. There is no doubt that Nabil is an agent of the regime—a cheap, petty man—and it was Ghadry’s mistake to cooperate with a man like that.
What do you think is the real purpose of America’s project to remake the region?
I think that America wants to make important changes in the region, especially towards democracy. But they are no longer able to present any evidence to convince people that they are serious in their desire to promote democracy.
If America wants to convince people that it’s serious about its desire to promote democracy, democracy needs to be its first priority. Their first demand cannot be Iraq, followed by Israel, followed by Lebanon when 18 million people are suffering inside of Syria. The US presents 15 demands and not a single one has anything to do with the internal situation. The first, second, third, fourth, and fifth demands need to be directed towards internal politics.
You cannot expect the people to be allies in your efforts to fight terrorism when you are supported the foul acts of the regimes that you have supported for 40 years. I cannot forget who America counts as its allies—Mubarak’s regime, the Hashemites in Jordan, and even the Syria regime, which, in many regards, is an ally of America. If American doesn’t change its policy, people are going to remain skeptical.
The only way for America to regain its credibility is to change its policy and to demonstrate that it is interested in and cognizant of the afflictions that the Syrians are suffering from. Syrians need to see official statements to this end.
Is the US embassy doing anything to support civil society or dissidents in Syria?
Not at all. The group that is working on that agenda is extremely weak. They deal with us through a single person who barely speaks Arabic and is incapable of initiating anything. Basically, all they do is jot down notes on the latest news of the opposition, the sort of news that they could just as easily obtain from a newspaper. They have demonstrated no willingness to coordinate or cooperate with the elements of civil society. The US is not counting on the opposition to play any internal role.
Syria has been left out of the US’s agenda to promote democracy in the region—the US hasn’t exerted pressure on the regime to respect human rights nor has it given any funding from the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) to Syrian civil society. Why do you think Syria is the exception?
Maybe they are afraid that if they give people money, they will expose them to danger. There is a law that sentences people to a minimum of three years for accepting foreign money and the emergency law imposes the death penalty for such an offense. Maybe the Americans are afraid of subjecting someone to that sort of punishment.
Some opposition figures say that moral support from America would actually undermine their credibility by enabling the regime to dismiss them as traitors. Do you think moral support from America is potentially counter-productive?
It would make sense to call me a traitor if I was from the outside, but I spent my entire life here and I don’t need a certificate of good behavior. If I was to cooperate with the Americans and benefited from its pressures it would be for the popular interest and no one would accuse me of being an American agent. I want the American pressures to increase because we profit from them. It’s only natural that we would look to the superpowers of our day to help motivate change.
We cannot deny that American foreign policy has undergone tremendous changes in the aftermath of September 11. We have recognized those changes but the people still have not. I am prepared to work with the international community for the sake of bringing democracy to America and this is not something that warrants accusations—on the contrary, it will enhance our power to serve the people’s interests.
How did the Lebanon withdrawal impact the opposition and the credibility of the regime? Did it encourage people to mobilize?
The withdrawal influenced people morally but that wasn’t reflected materially because the regime began to clamp down even more internally to compensate for its loss of Lebanon. Those who were pillaging Lebanon came back to rob the Syrian people. At best it boosted people’s morale and encouraged them that some day they could mobilize and expel these authorities from Syria as well.
How did the Iraq war impact the opposition?
There were two divergent effects. In the beginning, the fall of Saddam had a huge effect and gave people hope. But when the situation in Iraq deteriorated, it had the opposite effect: people began to fear for the future. Even when the greatest powers intervened in Iraq they were unable to achieve stability, which indicates a real problem.
This society doesn’t understand that there is another force intent on ensuring instability in Iraq. The whole world is conspiring against the Iraqi people to foster instability so that the American project fails—all of Iraq’s neighbors and even some of America’s allies. Even the Europeans are contributing to this. For this reason, the Iraqi people are paying a tremendous price. And this left a negative mark on the Syrian opposition.
Some people contend that the West has much to fear from democracy in the Arab world because the Islamists would win. How do you address this concern?
That concern is exaggerated because elections aren’t going to occur tomorrow. Elections are the last, not the first step, in the transition to democracy. The first step is freedom of speech and political parties and only when there is an informed public opinion will there be elections. But that requires a year or two. In that time period, the Islamist parties will not dominate; if you give us freedom, you have nothing to fear from the ballot box.
Do you think that there are any figures in this regime committed to reform?
The reformists within the government are committed to changing the mechanisms of the regime and not the people in authority. So they can say that bribes, corruption, and despotism should no longer be the means to enrichment because those people already have a fortune and they want to invest their money in the market. It is in their interest to change the economic mechanisms so they can further enrich themselves, but the very people who are pushing for this reform are the same ones that were former symbols of corruption.
What do you expect from the new party and press laws?
No law that has been promulgated by this regime in the last forty years has been a real law. They have been hindrances, they have constrained our freedom. There will not be a law that freely permits parties. The only permitted parties will be those that cooperate with the security apparatuses. I don’t expect anything from these authorities and anything they do will be without substance and dangerous.