Michel Kilo the Patriot
Michel Kilo has been arrested - this time for more than the usual several hours. Mr Kilo’s family told news agencies that he was called in for questioning by the security services on Sunday around noon and that he had not returned 24 hours later. He has been questioned regularly in recent months but never for more than a few hours.
Ferry Beiderman of the Financial Times explains that Michel Kilo had been instrumental in a petition drive by Syrian and Lebanese intellectuals, calling for Syria to demarcate its border with Lebanon and establish embassies. The petition appeared on the eve of the introduction last Friday by the US, France and Britain of a draft resolution in the United Nations Security Council calling on Syria to respect Lebanon’s sovereignty.
Kilo was one of the most respected members of Syria's internal opposition and his arrest marks a new low for the regime in its present crackdown on dissidents and reformers. Michel Kilo had always been extremely careful to separate his opposition efforts from US backed plans to destabilize the regime. In fact, he had been so outspoken about keeping the US at arm's length that US based opposition leaders such as Farid Ghadry had gotten used to labeling Kilo a regime spy and apparatchik.
There has never been any doubt about Kilo's bonafides. In the spring of 2005, he was the star of a three part al-Arabiyya series on Syrian reform. His voice emerged out of the various panels of Syrian opposition members and reformers as the clearest and most compelling. When Mahdi Dakhlallah, the information minister, tried to silence Kilo with the charge of being disloyal and anti-Syrian, Kilo trounced him, insisting that the true nationalist is one who wants the best for his country even if it means telling painful truths. Kilo would take none of Dakhlala's nonsense and Dakhlallah had the good sense to know he was in the wrong; he fell silent. Kilo earned every Syrian's gratitude that evening.
I had the honor of appearing on al-Jazeera's "Open Dialogue" show with Michel Kilo last year. We arranged to take a cab over to Beirut and back that same evening, which gave us many hours to chat. Kilo grew up in Latakia on the coast. He studied in West Germany and didn't speak any English, which severely limited his ability to get his message out to a foreign audience. German journalists relied on him extensively, but English-speaking journalists rarely used him, which is a great loss, for he is one of Syria's most articulate and forceful analysts. He makes is living as a journalist. He wrote for as-Safir, the Lebanese independent paper for many years, but left them and began to write for an-Nahar more recently, not only because as-Safir shied away from his more forceful attacks on Syria, but also because an-Nahar paid more and was eager to give prominence to new and outspoken Syrians.
As a Latakian Christian, who came from the secular left, Kilo is particularly well placed to pressure the Asad regime where it hurts. He speaks its language of Arabism and socialism and appeals to the same Syrians who are considered most likely to be regime supporters. He passed my Mother-in-law test with flying colors. An Alawite mother of four, Um Firas has an advanced degree and fears the Moslem Brotherhood, a member of which tried to assassinate her husband in 1982. She is not easily attracted to regime opponents; nevertheless, she admired Michel Kilo and always watched him on those rare occasions when satellite TV did a special on Syria. Each time she heard him, she would praise his reasonableness and wonder why the government didn't listen to him. Unlike Bayanouni of the Muslim right or Riyad al-Turk, the fearless leader of Syria's most important communist movement, Michel Kilo calibrated his attack on the regime to appeal to the Um Firases of Syria. No one could accuse him of being an ideologue or unrealistic. He was practical and had an innate sense of what was doable. He is the kind of opposition-reformer that Syria needs many more of.
The fact that Michel Kilo was a central figure in the Damascus Declaration last year ensured its success. By endorsing the notion that secular Syrians must join up with the Muslim Brotherhood to demand change, he helped give respectability to the alliance. Like all Arabs, Syrians are painfully aware that their divisions and internal fragmentation are the source of their weakness and the foundation of authoritarianism. Not until they can agree on the basic outlines of who should rule and how they should rule will hope for change be kindled. Everyone understands that Syrians have miles to go before reaching the threshold of consensus for peaceful change. Michel Kilo, more than most Syrians, did his part in convincing Syrians that they can produce consensus and peaceful change. So long as all sides cling to civil discourse and religious tollerance, violence can be avoided.
One can only hope that Michel Kilo, a true patriot, will be free soon.