Is Burhan Ghalioun Syria’s new hero?


In Syria, the death toll mounts. The embattled president, Bashar al-Assad, has shown relentless force in his crackdown on civilian protesters, brushed off international condemnation, and gone back on an agreement with the Arab bloc last week to withdraw military forces from the streets. Sadly, this bloody episode is only getting bloodier, and the uprising only growing in intensity.

But in what initially started out as a mass revolt, steered by no particular opposition individual or group, Syria could now be in need of a “hero”; someone to remedy the country’s revolutionary scars, rebuild a ruptured society and, ultimately, stand up to the regime.

Seeking to articulate the voice of Assad’s opposition, the head of the Syria National Council (SNC), Burhan Ghalioun, spoke from Turkey on the eve of the Muslim feast of Eid al-Adha on Saturday, addressing the prospect of a post-Assad Syria and the reforms that should be made.

“Syria will have a new judicial, legislative, and executive system which will be held accountable by the people.” Ghalioun said in a televised speech.
“The power of government will be limited, and the people will choose who governs them through the ballot box. Syrians will enjoy the rule of law, where everyone is equal before an independent judiciary, and all Syrians have equal rights to form organizations, political parties, associations, and participate in decision-making,” he said, in a speech reminiscent of those of Libya’s National Transitional Council leader, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, during the uprising in that country.

But who is Ghalioun? And can he really become the face or the “father figure” of Syria’s uprising?

Ghalioun is not new to Syrian uprisings; in fact he is now returning to the scene and picking up from where he left off. Ten years ago, he participated in the Damascus Spring, a period of intense political debate after the death of President Hafez al-Assad, in June 2000, and which continued to some degree until autumn 2001, when most of the activities associated with it were suppressed by the government.

He once gave a lecture, and 10 of the people who attended were arrested and sentenced to between two and 10 years in prison. The banning of emergent political forums was then ordered by the governing Baath party.

“The Baath authority was shocked that over 700 people attended my lecture, news of which spread by word of mouth with no advertisement or organization,” Ghalioun told the Arab Studies Institute's online magazine, Jadaliyya.

“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 Baathist, 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.”

“Since 1963, it was obvious that the Baath intended to strip all sides from a voice. It was moving towards a single-party rule that was authoritarian, military, and ‘mukhabarati’ [spy-like].”

The Homs-born Ghalioun, now in his 60s, left Syria three months before the elder Assad officially became president, in 1971, because he knew there was no possibility for any kind of political activity.

And after his forum was shut down towards the end of the Damascus Spring, when he had briefly returned to Syria, he resumed his original role as writer and commentator. He remained a prominent human rights advocate, and in 2011 returned as leader of the SNC, the main opposition body.

“The Syrian National Council is fighting a political battle with you, and on your behalf, at home and abroad. It is your Council, your voice heard by the world to defend your cause,” he said in his speech on Saturday.

“With each passing day, and with every drop of blood shed, we are one step closer to freedom … The days of tyranny are numbered, and the demise of the current regime is inevitable. History has taught us that regimes based on corruption, oppression, and slavery are bound to fail. All unjust rulers who detain its youth, steal the wealth of the country, and kill its people inevitably come to an end.”

The speech also sought to allay the fears of Syria’s minorities.
“From this day onward, Syria is home to freedom and dignity, free of all discrimination, injustice and exclusion. Syria is one nation for a united Syrian people with no reference to majorities and minorities, religion, sect, or regional affiliation,” Ghalioun said.

After the speech, many will choose to define Ghalioun as the face, or one the most recognized faces, of Syria’s 2011 revolution. But fears linger over the future of the country’s political opposition, the main being that there are many branches of anti-Assad sentiment and not one, collective cluster of resistance. Onlookers say that the inability of the opposition to unite has only been to Assad’s sheer advantage.

Ultimately, it is the diversity of Syria’s society that has led to a broken opposition, with an array of religions, tribes, sects and ethnicities. But can Ghalioun bundle this all together into one cause?

“The inability for Arabs to create a united nucleus is one of the reasons we are living in crisis today,” he told Jadaliyya last month, referring to Syria’s failure to create “an economic and political axis of development.”

Perhaps he’s right.