In an interview with the Wall Street Journal in January, Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, said that his main objective was to address his people’s «closed-mindedness». He made it clear that this alone impeded reform, and it might be another generation before Syria is ready for real change.
Dictators (including Assad’s father, Hafez) have long presented themselves as suppressors of extremism in the region generally, and Syria in particular. They said democracy would usher in fundamentalists inherently opposed to modernity, civil dialogue, international community legitimacy and civilised human political and economic relations.
Perhaps because of this fear, the whole world was silent when Syria was passed from father to son; there were even some approving statements about the new «young and modern» president. This led to a feeling of hopelessness among the Syrian people.
There had in fact been a fairly successful democratic state in Syria prior to the «revolutionary governments» that took over in the second half of the 20th century. Syria was ruled by national coalition governments, and a parliament that reflected the country’s ethnic and cultural mix; moderation and openness prevailed. Islamist parties met, negotiated and collaborated with secular parties from left and right. The Muslim Brotherhood won some rounds and lost others, and accepted each outcome. There was no terrorism or extremism, and it was unimaginable that a law as brutal as the infamous 49/1980 – under which those accused of being Brotherhood members were sentenced to death – would have been passed.
The international community was deaf to the appeals of Assad’s victims. In the 1980s, as a result of the shutdown of all channels of expression, the absence of democracy and the consistent and institutional violation of basic human rights, a few individuals resorted to violence – not unheard of in societies existing in similar circumstances. Syria’s dictator turned these events into a catastrophe that engulfed the Syrian people, plunging the country into a state of virtual civil war. Around 500 people had been victims of the initial acts of violence; 50,000 were killed in response during the infamous massacres of Hama and elsewhere. Many others were displaced and, 30 years on, more than 17,000 people remain unaccounted for after being arrested.
As a result, the entire Syrian people were disenfranchised. Social, economic and political activists as well as political opponents were accused by the regime of being «Camp David agents», in reference to the peace agreement between Israel and Egypt – though the major disagreement between the regime and the main opposition parties is not over foreign policy, but focuses on internal affairs and the lack of democracy.
When Assad Jr first came to power, the Muslim Brotherhood and others were conciliatory, stating that he was not to be held responsible for the crimes of his father. As recently as two years ago the Muslim Brotherhood ended its opposition activities in solidarity with the regime’s support for the Palestinians during the Israeli war on Gaza. But Assad has repeatedly rejected his opponents’ extended hand. The recent brutal sentence against the 18-year-old Tal al-Mallouhi – tried for espionage just because she blogged about her longing for reform – and similar incidents mobilised the Syrian people.
In the last few days the Syrian media have claimed that opposition groups, in particular the Muslim Brotherhood, are behind the protests. The aim is to justify the regime’s violent response to the Syrian people’s peaceful protests. In fact, none of the opposition groups can claim ownership of this youthful revolution. We, along with many others from across the political spectrum, called for the formation of a national coalition to support the youth, but in no way do we claim ownership of these historic events.
We are committed to peaceful means, and we endorse the aims of the revolution to build a civil state committed to rule of law, governed by a new constitution that emerges from the will of the people through a transparent and free vote. It is time that all Syrians – men and women alike, regardless of ethnicity or religion – enjoy equal citizenship.
The dictator is not to be believed. Syrians are a civilised and progressive people; we come from a long line of poets who wrote about love and peace. These protests call for nothing more than the recapture of the people’s collective sense of dignity, citizenship and freedom. Let’s hope they are met by a changed attitude from the international community, which for so long has let them down. To date hundreds have fallen as a result of live fire from the regime’s security forces, and many more will undoubtedly fall before the aspirations of the people are met.
By Ali al-Bayanouni, a lawyer and former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria.