Opposition News and Michel Kilo Quotes from Wieland
Over at Levantine Dreamhouse, there is a nice write up by Abu Kareem of Michel Kilo and Anwar al-Bunni. Evidently Anwar al-Bunni has begun a hunger strick, according to a few sources. Kamal Lubwani's hearing, which should have taken place two days ago, was postponed until May 29th.
Abu Kareem also has an interesting review of the first Annual Meeting of the Syrian American Congress (SAC) , which was held in Chicago this Saturday, May 20th. A number of headline speakers did not show up, such as Riad al-Saif, Ambassador Imad Mustapha, and Minister Buthaina Shaaban. But others did show up. The organization is off to a bumpy start, according to Abu Kareem, but we must praise SAC for beginning such an organization. Syrian Americans need to organize and articulate their views.
Former Political Enemies Join in Exile to Push for Change in Syrian Leadership
Hassan Fattah has a good article on the Muslim Brotherhood - Khaddam link-up in the New York Times of May 23, 2006, "Former Political Enemies Join in Exile to Push for Change in Syrian Leadership." They have planned a general meeting in early June to gather opposition figures and outline their charter.
On the subject of Michel Kilo, the recently arrested civil society leader in Damascus, Carsten Wieland, has an excellent book coming out with Cune Press this July, 2006. It is titled: Syria - Ballots or Bullets? Democracy, Islamism, and Secularism in the Levant
The advertising description reads:
Will Syria emerge as a democracy based on its own internal development and the desire of its people? Or will Syria fail under pressure from the US and descend into the chaos that has engulfed neighboring Iraq?Here are some of the Kilo quotes and commentary included in Carsten's book:
For the time being, only a pluralization of authoritarian power has taken place, coupled with some economic reforms, and a new and more open political atmosphere. “It isn’t anymore the Syria of Hafez al‑Asad,” concludes Kilo. The deep-rooted fear people used to have during the elder Asad’s time has disappeared, or at least diminished. Political discussions have become freer and criticism has become more open. Increasing numbers of people are professing to support the Civil Society Movement.
“The small Asad is a small step towards the great transition,” hopes Kilo.
Michel Kilo of the Civil Society Movement complains that “Bashar has allied himself with the corrupt forces. Thus he has basically renounced reform. […] Bashar is not only unable to act, he does not want to act either.” The president, he laments, wants to circumvent the issue of democracy. “He only wants a reform of power, not of the system.” The regime cannot be reformed in Kilo’s view.
This is true for all authoritarian regimes in the Arab world, says Kilo. “They are not in a situation of stability but in a stable crisis.” The Syrian government has lost the connection to its own ideology. “It does not have the same flexibility or the same unity anymore.” The authorities know that they have to change, but they do not have the means to do it. “This is part of the drama of these regimes,” says Kilo. “When the regime in the Soviet Union wanted to reform itself, the regime was gone. It will happen the same way with the regimes in the Arab world.”i
In September 2000, Syrian opposition members wrote the “Manifesto of the 99” under Michel Kilo’s lead, followed in December by the “Manifesto of the 1000.”
Michel Kilo remains pessimistic all the same. Dakhlalah was very bold, he concedes. But after encouraging the journalists to write freely, he soon called them traitors, criticizing their bluntness and saying that they should write in the Washington Post, but not at home. “I don’t believe that Dakhlalah’s words mean real reforms. They [those in power] utter such diverging statements in order to confuse the opposition. I think Dakhlalah tries to wrap the existing reality in different catchphrases.”ii Moreover, his ministry is a hotspot where the Mukhabarat chiefs reign alongside the conservative Foreign Minister Faruq as-Shar’a and, until his resignation, Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam.
Alluding to the events in Lebanon, Michel Kilo quotes Fadil as having said that “Bashar is a man who does not need advisors, who takes the most dangerous decisions within five minutes, who leads a presidency in which nobody really knows what his responsibilities are.”iii
The opposition journalist Michel Kilo accuses the government of buying entrepreneurs and sectors of the middle class as an “alternative to reform.” Without this strategy, Kilo says, there would be a risk that young members of the bourgeoisie in particular would dissociate themselves from the regime. “This is exactly the reason why the rulers need Iraq and Lebanon as sources of money,” Kilo adds.iv
Bashar had a Mr. Clean image when he took office and put the fight against corruption on his agenda. But as with many other previous initiatives, his promise came to nothing. The resistance inherent in the system is too strong. After the Iraq war, a group of French experts was invited to Syria to inspect the system and make suggestions for improvements. There is little hope that this new attempt will bear fruit. According to Michel Kilo, the chairman of the new institute for administrative reform is himself “one of the most corrupt officials of the Syrian state,” with a counterfeit degree and a record of embezzlement.
Recently, during the Iraq war, pan-Arab ideology has gained support from an unexpected corner. In search of a direction for his foreign policy, Bashar has used the Anglo-American attack on Syria’s neighbor to revive pan-Arab rhetoric. It is debateable whether this has helped or hindered him. Many people wonder how Hafez al‑Asad would have acted in this situation. Many consider Bashar’s policy to be even more ideological than his father’s in this respect, for in the end, most Syrians were glad that Saddam was overthrown.vi Why should Syria have suddenly lent support to its Baathist archrival? <
Michel Kilo usually fills the role of the Civil Society’s spokesman. A Christian, Kilo studied several years in the northern German town of Münster and speaks fluent German. His philosophy of a grassroots democracy stems from that time, and he prefers a plethora of small initiatives to a large party. This idea of de-localization makes its persecution by the state machinery more difficult. The former communist describes himself as a humanist. “The regime has to accept that freedom is the greatest principle in life,” he says. “In a modern society you can no longer separate state and society because the free human being is the central principle.” Kilo is convinced that every ideological party in power will enter a period of crisis because real life is much more complicated than any Weltanschauung.
Hardly had Baghdad fallen when the members of the Civil Society Movement saw their opportunity to turn up the heat in Damascus. Their first action was a petition, designed by Kilo, and presented to the president in May 2003. The text emphasized the new strategic “challenges and perils” for Syria following the occupation of Iraq. As a common denominator with the regime in Damascus, the opposition figures mentioned the “aggressive, racist, egotistical, and evil policies and ideology” of the Bush administration and Israel. “Honorable President,” the petition continues, “our country faces this looming danger without being prepared for it. [Syria] must strengthen itself against [this danger] and enhance its ability to confront it, after having been weakened by cumulative mistakes that distanced the nation from public issues, exhausted the country and society, and exposed them like never before.”
The regime blows hot and cold. At the moment when everybody is holding their breath, the opposition is suddenly given encouragement by the government. Michel Kilo has experienced this several times. In February 2004, a member of the regime close to the president called upon Kilo to publish his critical articles not only in Lebanese newspapers but also in Syrian ones. “He promised me that not a single word would be left out,” rejoiced Kilo. In March 2004, he was allowed to appear on a talk show on Syrian television for the first time. He was filmed live as he criticized the delay in reforms in the presence of a government representative, saying among other things that “Syria needs a different beginning than that of March 8,” referring to the day in 1963 when the Baathists staged the coup and took power.
After the broadcast, Kilo was given a tumultuous welcome in the popular Café Rawda opposite the parliament building in the modern business quarter of Damascus. During countless evenings, the journalist meets there with various acquaintances and whiles away the hours with them at the small tables with the apple-tobacco scent of the waterpipes and the clicking of chess and backgammon pieces on wooden, mosaic game boards. The noise level is so high in the large, covered inner courtyard that a spy could scarcely eavesdrop. “People hugged me, clapped me on the shoulder, and kissed me when I came into the café,” Kilo remembers. “They told me: ‘You said exactly what we think. We would never have thought that one day we would see this on Syrian television.’” The program was not broadcast live, but nothing was cut. Then-Minister of Information Ahmed Hassan had taken full responsibility for the experiment. Kilo was pleased that afterward the state newspapers also jumped on the bandwagon and praised the critical discussion that had taken place on the talk show.
Kilo gets angry when he speaks of the US-based Syrian opposition. “They want the same as we do, only under American patronage,” he says tersely. Kilo would have preferred it if the Europeans had adopted this role.
Pragmatism is nothing new for the Muslim Brothers. In the struggle against Hafez al Asad, the Islamists had already displayed contradictions and breaches in their ideology, although Asad himself was no more consistent. In the 1940s and 1950s, the Muslim Brotherhood sympathized with socialist ideas, even with secular elements of socialism, and later with a capitalist economic system coupled with the call for political liberties and human rights. It had the quite worldly objective of getting rid of a dictatorship in the interest of the bourgeoisie. Their arguments were influenced by the overall political mood of the time, and for strategic considerations. Nowadays, the Muslim Brothers, not only in Syria but in almost all authoritarian Arab states, have discovered popular issues, most of which are commonly associated with Western-style democracy. They converge with the secularist opposition movements on four key issues: the call for human rights, emphasis on encompassing humanist elements in Islam, respect for an ideological and political pluralism, and the guarantee of freedom of speech.
This pragmatism has made the new Islamists acceptable to the rest of the opposition. The Christian Kilo even compares some of them to European Christian Democrats, or the ruling moderate Islamist party in Turkey, AKP (Party for Justice and Development), under Prime Minister Erdogan. “I believe they are a moderate force with a strong democratic tendency,” says Kilo. “Therefore we won’t give the regime the chance to play us off against each other.” The readiness for dialogue “is a basis for the time being to challenge the power of these people [the rulers].” Political change is the first priority. “If my opinion is the expression of a civil and secular democracy and theirs is an Islamic one, this is all right as long as we have democracy as a common denominator. We will accept the Muslims coming to power through elections, provided that they accept the democratic system.”
Islamic currents in Syria have traditionally rejected the radicals in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. Especially after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, Kilo is convinced that “Saudi Arabia has no more credibility in the Islamic world.” Sadiq al Azm agrees. “Radical Islam has been in decline worldwide since September 11.” This holds true for Syria as well. “If there were a regime change, a moderate Islam of the merchant middle class would prevail,” Azm says. But only a strong civil society could act as a “shock-absorber” against conservative Islam and dampen the possible fears of religious minorities against oppression by the Islamic majority.
The pragmatist lawyer Anwar al Bounni shares this view. “Of course, there is a danger when Islamists are allowed to return to the country. But the Syrians will not put up with a second dictatorship, with a transition from a nationalist to an Islamist one. Syrians don’t want to become a second Afghanistan. I’m not afraid of the Muslim Brothers. Syrians have always had a loyal relationship among each other. Even if the Muslim Brothers came to power, they would not be as radical as in Egypt.”
Naturally, there is also disagreement within the Civil Society Movement about the question of how to assess the Muslim Brothers. Not everybody follows Kilo’s strategy of chumming up with them.
Of course, Syria hopes to appease the United States with this stance. It is unclear whether Washington will recognize these signals. Interestingly, the government in Damascus has adopted a less ideological stance than some of the opposition, who wrote a letter of protest over Allawi’s first visit to Syria, saying that Iraq was the tool of an occupying power, controlled by the Americans, the Israelis, and foreign secret services. Michel Kilo and Haitham Maleh were among the signatories.
Apart from tightening the screws on this front, the United States has also used Lebanon as a tool for eroding the regime in Damascus. For a long time, the Syrian regime underestimated the seriousness of the situation, failing to recognize the U-turn in US policy. The demand to withdraw from Lebanon could have been made years ago. At times, a Syrian military presence in this fragile state has been in American and even Israel’s interests. “Better a politically administered Lebanon than an unhindered point of crystallization for terrorists,” as the opposition figure Kilo puts the argument (although he and other Civil Society activists were in favor of a withdrawal and reiterated this stand in a press communiqué about one week after Hariri’s assassination).
Instead of supporting Islamic moderates, secularists, and reformists, a surprising new development is emerging. Of all the groups, the United States is entertaining contacts with the Muslim Brotherhood. This is a dangerous déjà vu. “The Americans want to build on popularity,” says a confidant of Bashar’s. “Good people who have clever ideas, such as Michel Kilo, don’t serve their purpose because they have no mass basis.” Other people outside the government have also observed that the Washington-London-Damascus triangle is beginning to work. It remains to be seen if the Baathist call for national unity against an American agenda will appeal more strongly to the courted Muslim Brothers than Washington’s effort to rope them in as a counterbalance to the Baathists. This could also cause a rift between the two wings within the Brotherhood itself. Apart from the Islamists, Washington bets on shady opposition figures in exile like Farid al Ghadry.