In the end, after the terror, torture, and murder, the tyrant rules with his face. The people cannot escape it, his image is all-consuming, devouring our streets, our walls, our shops, our screens. His face erases all others. Either you become a reflective surface for his image, or you disappear, literally and figuratively. This series is a response to his face with our own. Each portrait replaces his ruthless image with another of survival, resists his narrative with an untold story, as Syrian faces reclaim their rightful places on the walls of history and memory.
Portrait of a Leader: Burhan Ghalioun
One late summer day in 2001, Burhan Ghalioun was sitting in Damascus with Riad Seif, discussing the political climate in Syria and the heavy cloud of repression and despair that once again hovered over the country just over one year into Bashar al-Assad’s presidency. Ghalioun asked his friend, “Why did you close the forums?” referring to the political and cultural “salons” that had thrived in Damascus and across Syria that spring, representing a new era of civility under the insecure, and in many people’s eyes, illegitimate leader. Seif replied that the regime had threatened the participants with plans to issue a law making the forums illegal. Ghalioun chided, “You made a mistake. You should have let them come and close the forums themselves.” Seif told his friend he was willing to reopen his Forum for National Dialogue if Ghalioun would give the first lecture. Ghalioun agreed. The Sorbonne professor of political sociology returned to France, prepared the lecture, and within a few weeks he came back to Syria. He remembers, “It was the first ticket I bought out of my own pocket to give a lecture. On September 5th, I gave my lecture and stayed a week. Because of that lecture, ten people who attended were arrested, Riad included.” They were all sentenced between two and ten years in prison; the forum was shut down. And that was the end of the Damascus Spring.
Ghalioun believes the regime’s initial leniency towards the Damascus Spring stemmed from the new president’s “search for legitimacy” both from his people and the west which was closely monitoring this new leader, the only son in the region who had inherited the presidency of a republic. The “open” forums and cultural activities were supposed to frame Bashar al-Assad as the civil and modern president with his British education and British (and Sunni) wife; to separate him from his isolated, stubborn father. Bashar was to be a fresh face for the new generation, not the common, old school dictator. His regime expected the forums to be exclusive, limited to a small number of intellectuals. But instead, they watched as the Syrian middle class marched towards these gatherings in droves. Everyone, from every town, class, sect, and religion wanted to start a forum. Within months, more than fifty salons had sprouted across Syria. Ghalioun says, “It was the exceptional thirst of the Syrian middle class for freedom. I believe we cannot understand today’s revolution without understanding its roots in that Spring. I witnessed it myself; there were villages that invited me to give a lecture in spite of the harsh treatment of security forces and mukhabarat towards them. One of those lectures was in Salamiyyeh, in an apartment that was maybe seventy square meters. The three small, connected rooms were packed with over two hundred people. I wept when I saw them, thinking why isn’t there a cultural center for these people to attend a lecture?”
Ghalioun’s September 5th lecture struck a nerve with the regime. He recalls, “The Ba’th authority was shocked that over 700 people attended my lecture, news of which spread by word of mouth with no advertisement or organization. They lost their minds; how could all these people come with no organization? Because when they host a lecture, maybe three people show up who are not Ba’thist, and they are there because of personal interests. This scared them, it made them feel there was a strong, deep wave that may become stronger, more developed, possibly to the point of no return. They decided this was a dangerous tidal wave, and they must oppress the Damascus Spring at any price. And that’s what happened: arresting participants, closing the forums, tracking the intellectuals.”
Ten years later, and today Dr. Burhan Ghalioun is participating in yet another spring, this time as the leader of the Syrian National Counsel (SNC), the main opposition body against Bashar al-Assad and his regime. Ghalioun lives in a modest apartment building in a modest Parisian neighborhood. When I go to meet him there, as I’m standing in front of his closed door just before knocking, I feel nervous, not knowing what to expect. He opens the door and welcomes us in with a smile, as if we already knew each other. He is dressed plainly in an ironed, pale blue shirt with his sleeves rolled-up. His voice is soft but unwavering with a slight, charming Homsi dialect. The contrast between his white hair and his handsome, uncreased face, places him in that comforting yet respectable space between father and grandfather, wise, but not outdated. He was someone to look up to; rare words to describe a politician, even a reluctant one.
We sit in his living room, a long, bright space filled with collected objects from his travels, most with an Arabic motif: two red bedouin-style floor cushions, brass lamps, a round, brass coffee table. There was a distinct Syrian-French-North African hybrid style, a vibe both worldly and comfortable. Before we begin the interview, he insists we must have coffee with him and leaves to make it himself. My friend begins to make gestures with his eyes and eyebrows directing me to ask Dr. Ghalioun if he needs help. I gesture back that is very inappropriate, this is not the home of some uncle or friend, this was the home of the leader of the Syrian opposition! He frantically insists, so I rise and walk back slowly into the dark corridor and ask shyly, “Dr. Ghalioun, do you need any help?” As I peek into his small kitchen, I find him standing in front of the stove, boiling the water in the French press. He smiles, amused, and thanks me but says he is fine. I return to the living room with a smug look for my friend. When he serves us, he realizes he has filled the French press with too much water and jokes, “It’s as if this is the first time I make coffee.” I take the white, handleless Arabic demitasse in my hands, and remember something my father says, the true leader is the one who serves.
Burhan Ghalioun, the son of an Arabian horse breeder, was born in Homs and lived there until he was thirteen, when he moved to Damascus with his friends to complete his high school and university education. As a young boy in Homs, he loved to visit the orchards outside the city when the gardens bloomed in the spring. He remembers jumping on stones to cross the Assi River and riding horses across open vistas to the east of Homs, landscapes that have disappeared today. One place in particular holds special memories, the maqam for the caliph Umar ibn Abd al-Aziz. He would visit the simple structure built on a small hill to contemplate, study, or read his books in its shade, escaping the heat. Later, in Damascus, he was only a five-minute walk away from al-Ghouta, the outskirts of the city, another place he laments, “It doesn’t exist anymore, a place so beautiful. These places were spectacular and soothing.” Looking outside the glass windows, it is obvious that he still cares about nature. His long balcony is filled with carefully-tended plants hanging from the iron railing and thriving pots arranged on the concrete floor.
Like most of his generation, Ghalioun was immersed in politics from a young age. He says, “We lived in the depths of political life, our generation was born into politics. When I was ten in Homs, our interests were more cultural. We used to read and trade books, and write poetry.” But the period of al-wahdeh, the short-lived yet influential union between Egypt and Syria from 1958-61 under the leadership of Gamal Abd al-Nasser, created a politically charged environment. “We spent our time discussing the union, Arab nationalism, marxism, communism, democracy. So we began our adolescent lives arguing about these issues; they truly became part of us. By the time I was thirteen, we were already engaged in political battles.”
Ghalioun still has strong feelings for this period, “I was of course with the union, and I am still with the union. I believe we lost much with al-infisal, the separation. The inability for Arabs to create a united nucleus is one of the reasons we are living in crisis today. We were not able to create an independent center, an economical and political axis of development. I was with al-wahdeh, but not with the politics of al-wahdeh. I used to share sentiments with those who criticized the method of rule, not Abd al-Nasser specifically, but the dominant bureaucratic rule. So I always had a connection with the other side, communists, Ba’thists, Islamists, who were against the regime of the union.”
Since then, Ghalioun intuitively situated himself between political groups especially when there “were differences but not splits.” He felt the Ba’th Party entered a dangerous period when they waged a war on the Nasserites before the separation. He calls this “the beginnings of monopolizing the power. Since 1963, it was obvious that the Ba’th intended to strip all sides from a voice. It was moving towards a single party rule that was authoritarian, military, and mukhabarati.” But he considers that there was still space within the pre-1970, pre-Assad, Ba’th era for debate and discussion between political figures both inside and outside the party, when “there was never a complete denial of the other.” After the military coup of Hafez al-Assad in 1970, the environment turned fascist, with no tolerance for cooperation or dialogue, let alone dissent. The regime was absolute; it depended on the tools of the controlled media, mukhabarat, oppression, and humiliation to enslave and marginalize the people without exception. “It was the end of political life in Syria.”
He left Syria three months before Hafez officially became president, because he knew there was no possibility for any kind of political activity. He moved to France and completed his doctorate in political sociology. In 1974, he returned to Syria, hoping to begin an academic career as a professor at the University of Damascus. He despised the mukhabarat environment that suffocated him, and he was disappointed by his old friends from the liberal opposition who had changed their views and now supported the regime. He was accused of being an enemy of the Ba’th Revolution. He says, “I had to leave, it was impossible for someone like me to be a professor in the university. There was no change in the regime.”
Ghalioun took an academic position in Algeria. There, in 1976, he wrote his Manifesto for Democracy, a response to the situation in Syria and the new war in Lebanon, and Syria’s role in that war. The manifesto argued that the weakness in all Arab societies was the lack of democracy. It was an analysis of the failure of Arab nationalism, placing that failure on the absence of the ideology, traditions, principles, and philosophy of democracy. The nationalism movements had failed because elite powers were functioning separate from the people.
After the publication of the manifesto and Ghalioun’s more visible opposition to the Syrian regime during the late ‘70s and ‘80s, a warrant was issued in Syria for his arrest. Along with his friends, he had openly stood against the intervention in Lebanon, writing reports and leading demonstrations. He was threatened that his Syrian citizenship would be stripped from him if he dared return, and he was informed “he was wanted dead or alive.” But Ghalioun continued his resistance from France, still connected to the dissident figures working on the inside such as Seif and Kilo. He describes the early ‘90s as a period when the political and economical cracks in the regime began to appear. “It became obvious that the regime had no political horizon, it existed to worship the figure. But the figure was diseased and weak. And the regime itself was diseased with its president.”
In 1996, Ghalioun returned to Syria for the first time since 1974. He was granted permission to visit his dying father. A permission that came too late, and when he finally allowed to enter his homeland, his father was already dead and buried. But he reconnected with his old comrades, the ones he knew before, the ones he still works with until today.
When I ask Ghalioun to assess Bashar in relation to his father he replies, “When Assad the elder died, I knew his son was going to be more dangerous than his father. His father was a political figure with political connections. He had struggled to reach his position, irrespective of his methods, but Bashar was born into a qawqa’a, shell, with no political experience. I knew he would not be able to respond to a complex society, and that he would use violence more than his father. People would say he is more open, European-educated, but I viewed him as a young, inexperienced, out-of-touch crown prince, surrounded by bodyguards and an entourage.”
After a pause, he continues, “People talk about corruption in Syria, it is spread across the society. But the pinnacle of corruption is the forgery of the constitution. They changed the constitution in half an hour, clapped and cheered, and placed someone without any reason, without any right, in the presidency. This is corruption, this is where all the corruption starts. Everything else comes after this act. I never had any hope in him.”
During the last decade, in spite of his disappointment in Bashar, Ghalioun and the other activists began to defy the regime. After the devastating setbacks of the Damascus Spring, they were emboldened instead of discouraged, writing the Damascus Declaration in 2005. Ghalioun began to travel back and forth between France and Syria, each time entering and leaving Damascus through the mukhabarat, but he says “it was an acceptable price in order to stay connected to the homeland.”
While I was listening to Ghalioun narrate his version of Syria’s political history of the last forty years, I felt I was on the other side of a wall we had been living behind for that long. Of course, we had heard about declarations, opposition figures, and the Damascus Spring, but the forces behind them were always blurred, it was never clear how they functioned. Even to people like me, who were raised in families who had always opposed the regime from inside our homes, dissidents were ghostly figures, abstract, almost unreal. Burhan Ghalioun may appear to some as weak and not forceful enough, but he is straightforward, honest, serious, with deep loyalty to his country, and an even deeper, fundamental belief in democracy, a concept he is obsessed with. He was real. When was the last time you felt that about a Syrian political figure? For me, the answer is never.
Ghalioun never doubted the revolutions of the Arab Spring would arrive to Syria, In an article written during the Tunisian uprising, he said, “This is a tsunami that will cover the entire region, including Syria, the Gulf, and all the Arab countries. Syria will not be an exception.” When we speak about Ghalioun’s current role as the leader of the SNC, he is adamant that the ultimate goal is to build a democratic, multi-party country that respects all religions, all rights, and demands equality for all citizens.
Ghalioun also had strong words on the role of Syrian expatriates, “The people inside Syria have a central role, the essential role. But the people living in exile are Syrian; most of them are outside Syria because they are politically persecuted, or they have no way to earn a living inside Syria because of the lack of development. These people have rights in Syria and I am against the exaggerated separation between the inside and exile. We are one Syrian people. Our role is to assist the people inside Syria to topple the regime, and help build the new Syria. The Syrian capacities outside Syria are mighty and there is no way to rebuild Syria without them. There are people who have left the homeland half a century ago but their hearts have been pulsing for Syria since the revolution began. I know most Syrians outside Syria are living a better life economically than the ones inside. But none of them has forgotten about Syria. The Syrian people must utilize this irreplaceable economical, technical, cultural, and patriotic capital.”
The conversation turns to the downside of being the leader of this disjointed opposition, facing an almost impossible mission, to unite the Syrian people, “I’ve never been a politician in the true definition of a politician, I was an intellectual, an academic, I entered politics because I felt there was a national responsibility. It is now an exceptional, not an ordinary, mission. We are not in a battle for positions, but we are in a struggle for independence. Everyone needs to enter this battle for freedom. The most important part is to believe in ourselves, the Syrians, as a united people. We are a great people. We need to believe in the future, we need to believe no matter what, we are going to win. I think if we believe this, we will be able to overcome the physiological diseases that oppression planted inside of us: corrosion of trust, doubt, deadly competition. No one will be able to claim any rights, benefits, or positions if we don’t together, as a people, gain our national, social, and political rights. Today we unite against the regime, tomorrow we compete, under freedom and equality, for the power to make things better. Today is not the day for competition.”
Ghalioun has not been immune to the regime’s brutal response to the revolution. His brother has been detained, along with a few other relatives, including his 22-year-old second cousin who was snatched from her parents’ home by security forces. She was returned days later. But when I ask him about this heavy price for his strong actions, he replies, “I consider my family like any other Syrian family of a Syrian citizen. The country’s destiny cannot be tied to the destiny of an arrested relative, no matter how close. Everyone is sacrificing, and they are ready to sacrifice with the Syrian people.”
And the violence has also reached the SNC. On the same day counsel member Mashaal Tammo was killed, another counsel member, Riad Seif, who had been imprisoned for five years for his Forum for National Dialogue, was beaten on the streets of Damascus. It is almost unbearable to watch this video, to look at his bruised, marked back and his swollen, broken arm, to hear the physical pain inflicted on a man who has repeatedly sacrificed everything for us. He wanted to initiate a true dialogue ten years before the regime would beg for a “dialogue,” before the blood spilled into our streets and was now soaking the ground of Ghalioun’s Homs and the rest of Syria.
It seems we are still waging the same battles of that fateful Damascus Spring, this time on a national, inclusive level. What was so threatening about allowing a few intellectuals to gather together and speak openly in 2001? Why didn’t the regime listen then? Why didn’t they implement their precious “dialogue” then? Ghalioun says in the forums they never spoke about regime change, instead they discussed expanding freedom for the people who lived under a regime that has executed people’s freedom. But they must have known, as the regime did, eventually, the latter will lead to the former.
Before our conversation ends, I ask Dr. Ghalioun, “What is your hope for Syria?” For the first time in the last hour, his strong, unwavering tone softens, and he says, “My hope is for Syria to be liberated from these oppressive forces. My hope and goal is to spare the most sacrifices we can, because the number of sacrificed has become too great, too heavy. We want to enter history as a free and liberated Syria.”
[Based on an interview conducted in Paris on October 11, 2011]