Monday, May 22, 2006

Effecting Change from Afar: Reality or Illusion?

Several weeks ago I saw an announcement on a Canadian-Syrian news website for the First Annual Meeting of the Syrian American Congress (SAC) to be held in Chicago on May 20th. SAC is a recently formed organization whose mission statement outlines three goals:
  • Promote friendly relations between the peoples of the USA and Syria
  • Advance human rights, civil liberties, and democracy in Syria
  • Encourage international cooperation, based on international law and justice

These were laudable goals, I thought, and the program looked interesting, so I decided to attend.

There were between 75-100 attendees. The organizers stated that the goal was to find ways in which Syrian-Americans can help promote reform in Syria but hoped to do achieve that in a non-confrontational way. The invited speakers were to include a spectrum of viewpoints but was most notable by those who were absent. Neither ambassador Imad Moustapha nor Bouthaina Shaaban made (scheduling conflict was the given reason; yeah, right!). Opposition member Riad Seif, with his passport confiscated could not attend and fearing his safety, understandably declined to address the meeting by phone. For similar reason neither could Jad al-Kareem al-Jibai, a human rights activists though he addressed the conference by phone from Damascus speaking fearlessly about the situation in Syria. There was a lively point counterpoint between Najib Ghadban, a fierce critic of the Syrian government and Muhammad Habash, an ostensibly independent member of parliament. The latter's glass half-full view of the Syrian regime led him to make inane justifications for the regime's behavior. Both Habash and David Lesch, author of The New Lion of Damascus, in response to a pointed question, seem to be smitten with Bashar (is he such a charmer? or is it Asma?). Lesch's presentation still left me wondering about the real Bashar. Perhaps I am making too much of Bashar the "enigma". I should take him at face value. After all, to be enigmatic implies a certain cleverness not evident in Bashar's disastrous serial political blunders. The most compelling presentation was that of Radwan Ziadah, director of the Damascus Center for Human Rights. A small and unassuming man, Radwan gave a very perceptive analysis of the state of human rights in Syria. Having recently signed the Beirut-Damascus declaration, he came to this meeting at great risk to himself.

So, what can Syrians, living so far actually do? SAC does not want to be viewed as part of the political opposition but nevertheless wants to promote change and reform. So, by necessity, it is limiting its work to only "non-controversial" issues such as economic and institutional reform, things that even a Baathist can comfortably pay lip service to. This greatly diminishes the second stated goal of its mission statement (promotion of human rights and democracy). SAC also needs a partner within Syria to assist in promoting change. NGOs would have been the appropriate partners but the regime has made it difficult for many NGOs to function properly. So who is left to partner with? Perhaps selected, reform minded, non-Baathist technocrats and independent members of parliament. Are there enough such people to work with? I am not certain.

Despite all these difficulties, perhaps SAC's Achilles heel is the fact that no matter how careful it is in its message, it will always perceived as foreign and therefore in the paranoid mindset of the regime, suspicious. It is after all the Syrian AMERICAN Congress. The absence of Moustapha and Shaaban from the proceedings is an early indication of the regime's disinterest.

Whether political change happens slowly and painfully or rapidly (and painfully), Syria is in need of reform in all aspects of its public life. I therefore fully support the intentions of the SAC although I am skeptical that, in the current climate, anyone can, from the outside, assist in reforming the system from within.

One thing I am certain about after this meeting, though, is that there are righteous people working within such as Jad al-Jibai and Radwan Ziadah whose tenacity and courage astound me. These are the true Lions of Damascus and they deserve our full support.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Free Michel & Anwar & Nidal & Mahmoud & ...

The swift "Free Alaa" campaign mounted by fellow bloggers was admirable and seems to have garnered much media attention. Whether this campaign will lead to his release remains to be seen but such attention is important as it makes even jaded authoritarian governments uncomfortable. I would like to see such attention directed towards the ongoing campaign of intimidation and arrests the Syrian government is mounting against democratic reformists and human rights activists. Making noise about these arrests serves two purposes. One is to increase international pressure on the Syrian government. The other, perhaps more important, is to show the cowed people of Syria that this is not "business as usual", that the regime's modus operandi is no longer acceptable to the world and should not be acceptable to the people of Syria.

The "crime" of those recently arrested is to have signed the recent Beirut-Damascus declaration penned by intellectuals from both countries. This is not a revolutionary memorandum authored by trigger happy radicals itching for a fight. It is for the most part a mild-mannered, balanced and reasoned declaration replete with politically correct pan-Arabist lingo. Yet the Baathist regime in its downward spiral back into the suffocating repression of the 1980s has found this declaration intolerable.

I had promised in a previous post to do my best to publicize the names of all those wrongfully detained by the regime. Many people know about Kilo and al-Bunni, the others are less known but equally important in my mind and I admire them for their courage and perseverance. The following are the regime's latest victims:
  • Michel Kilo: Journalist, political and human rights activist
  • Anwar al-Bunni: Lawyer and human rights activist
  • Mohammed Mahfouz
  • Nidal Darwish: Human rights lawyer
  • Mahmood Issa: Communist activist
  • Safwan Tayfour: Activist
  • Khalil Hussein: Kurdish Future Current
  • Khaled Khalifeh
  • Suleiman al-Shammar: political activist
  • Kamal Sheikho: human rights activist
  • Mahmoud Mer'i: Secretary to the Arab organization of Human Rights

Friday, May 12, 2006

A Thousand Words...

A picture is worth a thousand words it is said and these three still pictures of the recent demonstrations in Egypt say plenty. They are emblematic of all that is broken in our part of the world: The insolence and brutality of those in power, the absence of freedom of speech, the absence of freedom of assembly and the absence of the rule of law.

Above all, the photographs show the utter contempt with which rulers deal with their citizenry. To the rulers, citizens are pawns, not breathing, living individuals but a protoplasmic mass that can be trimmed, cut, disposed off and sacrificed at the convenience of the rulers. Apologists for these regimes claim that we Middle Easterners are like unruly children in need of paternalistic authoritarian regimes. Trouble is, implicit in a paternalistic relationship is the presence of a certain affinity between the ruler father figure and the ruled. No such affinity exists. This is more akin to an abusive family relationship where the child is slapped even before they open their mouth.

As offensive as these images are, they represent the tip of the iceberg. If this is what the regime, without a hint of shame or embarrassment, is willing to do to its people in public, just imagine what happens when the cameras are not present. I am not singling out Egypt; at least in Cairo, there were enough journalists to actually capture the images. No such demonstration would be allowed to even start in Syria, except of course, if the intention is to burn down a foreign embassy.

These images not only offend me but they also anger me and trigger a schizophrenic personality shift in me from a cautious believer in gradual change from within to one who wants to see someone, ANYONE, come in guns blazing to get the bums out. But then I see Iraq.