Hassan Abdul Azim: Syria’s Homegrown Dissident

Decades of dedicated political activism have earned Hassan Abdul Azim the trust of friend and foe alike.  The old-time Nasserite may be uniquely positioned to mediate the country out of its deepening crisis.

There were high expectation early on in the Syrian uprising when it seemed that Hassan Abdul Azim may assume a prominent role in the reform process announced by Syrian President Bashar al-Asad.  The regime’s brutal crackdown on the protests, however, dashed any such hopes.  Abdul Azim was arrested on April 30, becoming the only leading opposition figure to be arrested along with thousands of activists.  Why was Abdul Azim nominated for this role in the first place and what could he have done had the regime been serious about its reform project?

Three factors made Abdul Azim uniquely qualified to play a leading in any transitional period from dictatorship to democracy in Syria.  The first is simply that he lives in Syria and is well known and trusted by both the protesters and the regime.

Second, he espouses a moderate vision of reform, reluctant to adopt the slogan of toppling the regime.  He insists that dialogue between the two sides is the only solution despite the fact that his political party is deeply involved in the work of the local coordination committees which organize protests.  That he has managed to rally many opposition figures to his point of view was clearly on display at the opposition conference held at the Semiramis Hotel on June 27.  Abdul Azim was chosen by the conference to head its National Coordination Committee.  Its work has been well received by many in the opposition inside and outside Syria and supported by the local coordination committees.

The third factor has to do with the regime’s reluctance to open any lines of communication with organized Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood.  The regime’s hostility towards the Muslim Brotherhood is due to a variety of reasons.  In the late 1970s and early 1980s, there were bloody confrontations between the two sides that resulted in tens of thousands of deaths.  Now, the Muslim Brotherhood is trying to ride the wave of change in the Arab world with the support of Turkey, the US, and the Arab Gulf states.  The Syrian regime is convinced that opening the door to the Muslim Brotherhood means the beginning of the end of its rule.

Other opposition forces do not pose a similar threat to the regime.  On the contrary, they could be a bridge between the government and large segments of the Syrian population.  Only one man could take on this role and that is Abdul Azim, the moderate opposition figure who advocates for reform and a smooth transition to democracy.  Some observers see that there is still a chance for a person like him to play a prominent role in laying the foundations for genuine change, because he continues to enjoy the opposition’s support while not unsettling the regimes.

Abdul Azim has been a political dissident for a long time and is known to work quietly and without much fanfare.  He became known in the 1960s when he participated with Dr. Jamal al-Atassi in forming the Democratic Arab Socialist Union Party whose goal was to reestablish the union between Egypt and Syria.  The party gained a lot of momentum and popular support because of al-Atassi’s charismatic personality.  A well-known psychologist, al-Atassi was one of the founders of the Baath Party who later distanced himself from it.  He resigned from his position as Minister of Culture in 1964 and came to express a new vision of Arab nationalism and Nasserism.  He espoused nationalist thought that is open to Marxism and was influenced by the two prominent thinkers, Yasin al-Hafiz and Elias Murqus.

Al-Atassi’s withdrawal from the National Progressive Front in 1973 was a clear expression of his opposition to the Baath Party’s political monopoly, which tended to reduce the opposition into mere political ornamentation.  He worked hard to make the opposition more effective and developed a close relationship with Communist Party leader Riad al-Turk.  In 1979, al-Turk and Abdul Azim established the National Democratic Rally which consisted of six Arab nationalist and progressive political parties.

Abdul Azim was born in Halboun, al-Tal district in 1932.  He studied law at Damascus University and was among the first group of lawyers to practice in Syria in 1957.  He was active in the Arab nationalist movement and he opposed Syria’s secession from the union with Egypt in 1961.  He remained active in left-wing nationalist movements until he joined the movement of the Socialist Unionists led by Fayiz Ismail.  He left that group when the Arab Socialist Union, which included several Arab nationalist movements under the leadership of al-Atassi, was established in July 1964.

Abdul Azim remained a prominent member of the Arab Socialist Union, holding several senior positions in the party.  After the Seventh Conference of the Arab Socialist Union in 1985, he became deputy secretary-general.  He was then elected assistant secretary-general at the following conference held in 2000.  After al-Atassi died, Abdul Azim was elected secretary-general and became the official spokesperson of the opposition National Democratic Rally in May 2000.  He participated with al-Turk in the 2005 Damascus Declaration, which was meant to revive opposition activism but was suppressed by a wave of arrests that landed most of its key figures in jail.

Abdul Azim’s name re-emerged after eruption of the Syrian uprising earlier this year.  He is credited with playing a prominent role in igniting and directing the protest movement in the suburbs of Damascus, a key flash point of struggle.  Sources familiar with the area say that Abdul Azim’s National Democratic Rally is quite active in the local coordination committees.

Abdul Azim has formulated the most comprehensive position among opposition groups regarding dialogue with the regime and the relationship between the opposition inside and outside Syria.  On the eve of the Semiramis Hotel conference, Abdul Azim proposed a roadmap for an exit strategy out of the Syrian impasse.  His proposals were incorporated into National Coordination Committees’ statement, which declared that the regime must provide the right environment and favorable conditions before convening a national conference for dialogue.

These conditions included withdrawing the military and security forces from cities and towns; ending the violent crackdown and arrest of protesters; changing the discourse of the official media; releasing all political prisoners arrested before and after the start of the uprising; conceding that there is a crisis which needs to be resolved; and finally convening a national conference that would propose constitutional and legislative reforms aimed at ending the crisis.

Abdul Azim insists that what the regime is calling for is not dialogue but rather a cover for the security solution it has opted for.  He argues that dialogue cannot exist in the shadow of mass arrests, military assaults on cities like Hama, and the shooting and killing of protesters.  The first step must be a cessation of the government’s violent crackdown.  Abdul Azim insists that the goal of the opposition must be comprehensive, democratic change on the political, economic, social, cultural, and constitutional levels.  To end this crisis, the government has to recognize the opposition and treat it as an equal in future negotiations.

As for the conferences being held by opposition forces outside Syria, Abdul Azim has repeatedly affirmed that the internal opposition is the base of the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change and that external opposition forces must follow the internal opposition and are part of it.  He says the opposition is doing its best to unite the two agendas by coordinating their work nationally and democratically.

The National Coordination Committee has managed to keep up with the fast-paced and complex events taking place in Syria over the past six months.  Despite logistical difficulties, the Committee held its second meeting in Halboun, near Damascus, earlier this week.  About 200 people attended, including prominent figures like Abdul Azim , Michel Kilo, Hussein al-Awdat, and Fayez Sara.  They put forward three guiding principles to opposition activity: no to sectarianism, no to foreign intervention, and no to violence.  Abdul Azim affirmed once again the vision of the National Coordination Committee, which seeks to bring about national and democratic change by dismantling the totalitarian and authoritarian regime, in order to build a democratic system and a modern and civil state.

This article was first published in Al-Akhbar English on 21 September 2011.  Read it in Arabic at <www.al-akhbar.com/node/21504>.  See, also, Xinhua, “Syrian Opposition in Damascus: ‘No to International Intervention, No to Sectarianism, and No to Violence'” (18 September 2011); Kusai Kedri, “Syrian Opposition for Democratic Change Meets in Damascus, without Muslim Brotherhood” (18 September 2011). 

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