Bassam Alkadi is President of the Syrian Women Observatory, Syria’s main women’s rights organization. A relentless fighter for human rights in Syria, he has been fired from his job, arrested, jailed, and forbidden from traveling, but he continues to be driven by logic and not revenge. He rejects dialogue for the sake of dialogue. Instead, he calls for dialogue following prerequisite implementations of at least some of the reforms announced by the Syrian government. In this interview he shares with us his concerns and fears about the conflict in Syria as well as his hopes for a new democratic, secular Syria.
Q1. In your view, if free parliamentary elections were to be held later this year, which of the parties would win popular support? Would it be the Baath, the Syrian National Socialist Party, the Communist Party, new parties . . . ?
Bassam Alkadi: This proposition is flawed from the get-go. We can’t talk about “free parliamentary elections” as of today. For elections to be “free,” all necessary tools and mechanisms must have been made available for all parties for an adequate period of time prior to holding any such elections. How can the vast media and propaganda machines of both the ruling party and the Islamists be effectively countered? Any such elections will not be “free” in a meaningful way until the anticipated new democratic laws (Party Law, Media Law, and Free Assembly Law) have been in effect for at least a full year. Anything less and elections would be limited to only the blindly pro-regime and the blindly anti-regime camps.
Q2. What would be a reasonable time frame for the anticipated reforms presented by President Assad in his third speech? And do you support the President’s preference of involving representatives of the people in formulating these reforms, as part of a National Dialog initiative? Or do you have a different model that you would prefer?
Bassam Alkadi: Absolutely, I support the regime’s declared intention of involving true representatives of the Syrian people. Elitists and opposition figures have proven themselves to be failures and irrelevant for quite some time now, but especially so during the current crisis. Proving this particular point may require its own article, though evidence is easily available.
But this involvement can be true and real and useful only if the regime is quick to adopt all the mechanisms that allow the street to organize itself and elect its own representatives. The first condition for that is to provide effective guarantees for the security of all of them, that they won’t be charged and prosecuted. The real street leaders (loyalists and opposition) are the ones that count, when it comes to National Dialog.
Further, the reforms that have been launched since the lifting of the State of Emergency really need years to be fully realized and implemented, and any talk otherwise by Western leaders can only be interpreted as pushing the country toward more and more tension. Let those who are doing the pushing present a workable plan to implement even a quarter of the promised reforms in a full year, if they think they can.
Having said that, significant effects and results of those reforms, even if incomplete, can be made visible before too long. This would be very important as a confidence-building measure.
Q3. As president of the Syrian Women Observatory which monitors and promotes women’s rights in Syria, and which is dedicated to non-violence, and as someone who used to meet with Western NGOs and diplomats, you recently wrote a letter expressing your anger and distrust of the real motives behind the close monitoring by the US and the EU of events in Syria. You are also a critic of Turkish intervention in Syria’s affairs. Do you believe that Syria today is still capable of maintaining its independent foreign policies, and how?
Bassam Alkadi: I object to describing what the West (especially the US, French, British, and German governments) is doing as “close monitoring.” On the contrary, their intervention is a deliberate provocation of the crisis with one goal, and that is to coerce the Syrian people to adopt the Libyan scenario, or to force the regime to surrender to the West’s political agenda. They [the West] have not only ignored facts on the ground, but have recently started exerting open pressure on the Syrian people, by punishing state-owned institutions and companies that tens of thousands of Syrian families depend on for their livelihood.
Yes, Syria is capable of maintaining its independence. The regime today has to conduct critical surgery at its most fundamental levels. This, in a way, is the beginning of its demise as the regime that once was — the end of it as a system, though not necessarily the end of any individuals. One problem which the regime seems to have recently recognized is its need to employ public and open diplomacy, instead of its previously preferred secrecy and non-transparency. Public opinion is now more important than ever before and can only be addressed through open and public diplomacy.
Q4. Can Syria remain (or become) a secular country even if the Middle East (including Israel) witnesses a continued strengthening of extremist religious influence in political decision making as well as in society?
Bassam Alkadi: Syria has never been a secular country. And it has never been a religious state in traditional perceptions either.
The Syrian street today, aside from the manifestation of the anger that drives some to shout extreme sectarian slogans, is more aware than ever of the danger of the religious extremists.
More importantly, any country cannot ignore the forces of civil society. If the Syrian civil society previously used the state of emergency and other issues as an excuse to avoid involvement, after this crisis it doesn’t have any excuse not to get involved. Let civil society (the truly civil one) face the religious extremists; then any system will be forced to take that into account.
The relationship between leadership and people in any country does not turn into a regime and its herd unless the civil society and its organizations relinquish their responsibilities, whatever the reasons and justifications.
Camille Otrakji is a Syrian political blogger based in Montreal. The text above is excerpted and adapted from the English translation of the interview with Bassam Alkadi published by Otrakji in Syria Comment on 3 July 2011, for non-profit educational purposes. The original interview in Arabic is also available on the same page of Syria Comment; it is also available on Alkadi’s own Web site: <www.bassam-alkadi.com/content/view/611/44/>. Follow Alkadi at <twitter.com/#!/bassamalkadi>.