Michel Kilo has spent decades in the opposition, dedicated to politics despite his prison experiences. Naturally he raised his voice for the Syrian intifada, and yet he has remained independent, distancing himself from many opposition parties and especially from the external opposition fronts formed abroad.
Michel Kilo stands out in Syrian politics for his unfailing visibility over many decades. Glancing through the history of Syrian political movements since the 1960s, one notes his exceptional integrity in addressing public concerns and the unflagging energy that has allowed him to persevere, despite the strong winds that have shaken his country over the past half century.
Kilo’s life story crystallizes the political, social, and cultural trajectory of the Syrian opposition as a whole. His path has repeatedly intersected with the currents of Syrian society since the Baath party took power in 1963. Like the rest of the country, he has been Marxist and pan-Arabist, reformist and traditionalist, moderate and extremist, pragmatist and idealist.
Whenever the situation in Syria reaches a crisis point, Kilo’s stance garners wide interest. He is a barometer for both the regime and the opposition. The regime habitually arrests him whenever it feels he has crossed a line. As for him, he is unflinching when he thinks the political moment warrants risky confrontation.
Two events illustrate Kilo’s willingness to put his life on the line. The first is his arrest in the midst of a bloody struggle between the regime and the Muslim Brotherhood in the late 1970s and early 1980s. At that time, the security services went so far as to claim he was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. For those who don’t know the history of this period in detail, Kilo’s chief ‘crime’ was his famous rallying cry: “The nation is in danger!” He held that the original and primary danger to the nation came from the regime itself, for it had engaged in violence against its people. Needless to say, the regime expected him to support it in its assault on the Brotherhood.
His second noteworthy arrest came in 2006. This time, the regime justified his three-year detention by pointing to his signature on the Damascus-Beirut Declaration. This statement, signed by Syrian activists and intellectuals following Rafic Hariri’s 2005 assassination, urged the Syrian regime to fully recognize Lebanon’s independence and sovereignty. In fact, this was not the only reason for Kilo’s arrest, although perhaps it was the proverbial last straw. His arrest was more likely motivated by a statement critical of the regime that he published following the clamp-down ending the ‘Damascus Spring’ — a brief period in 2000 during which the regime loosened its restrictions on free speech.
The regime also reacted to Kilo’s comments in a 2006 article titled “Sectarian Tendencies,” which led to an accusation that he was inciting sectarianism. The worst part of this series of events was that Kilo’s case came before the military courts, well known for their harsh sentences on political activists. In May 2007, he was convicted of “spreading false information, weakening national sentiment, and inciting sectarian divisions,” resulting in the three-year prison sentence.
Kilo, of Christian background, was raised in a Communist/Stalinist household and lived his political and intellectual life among secularists, pan-Arabists, and even moderate and progressive Muslims. Kilo has always been deeply concerned about sectarianism, and he views the problem from the perspective of an intelligent activist and a patriotic and progressive member of the opposition.
Kilo has assumed several distinct political positions during the current political crisis. He penned a detailed rebuttal to a common argument suggesting that Syrian Christians would be endangered should Assad’s regime fall, an argument that presents the regime as a protector of minorities. Consistent with his long-standing concerns about sectarianism in Syria, Kilo debunked the regime’s claim to secularism and simultaneously criticized some Christians in Syria and abroad for distancing themselves from fellow Syrians of other sects. Kilo argued that Christians have not suffered from discrimination during modern Syrian history, despite numerous coups, convulsions, and moments of civil strife. What happened to the Syrian people happened to the Syrian Christians as well.
In another article, Kilo argued that Christians in the Middle East mistakenly separate themselves from the region’s “historic community.” The article called for a “return of Christianity to its rightful position within our society.” Without this, he writes, Christianity will have no future in the region, for the fate of Christians will be like the fate of the regime they support: hanging in the balance — especially if the extremist branches of political Islam do in fact win out. Predictably, the article provoked a cascade of criticism.
Kilo’s third position surfaced in his response to statements made by the Lebanese Maronite Patriarch Bishara al-Rai in Paris. Kilo wrote that the Patriarch put the issue “in the wrong context” and described his stance as “irrational” and “unacceptable.” Kilo stressed that al-Rai, as leader of a minority group within the Levantine Christian community, could not speak for all Christians. “Rai speaks only in the name of his own church, and he does not compel anyone to follow his opinions.” Kilo affirms that Christians are an essential part of Syrian society and therefore must seek a solution to the chronic problems shared by the entire society.
Kilo’s fourth stance was toward political Islam, and the Muslim Brotherhood in particular. He is ambivalent toward the new democratic face of Islamist groups. “If I support civil secular democracy, and they support a Muslim democracy, there is no harm in this as long as it is democracy that is the shared point between us. We will accept Muslims who come to power through elections, as long as they accept the democratic system.”
Kilo has chosen to work from within Syria, along with other Syrian activists, including Hassan Abdel Azim, Hussein al-Awdat, and Fayez Sara. Recently, he helped convene the Semiramis and Halbun conferences and the opposition past its deadlock. These conferences succeeded in rebutting the regime’s narrative that the opposition was weak and divided and that it refused dialogue. Conference participants were drawn from activists living inside Syria who retained a connection with the Syrian street. It was generally assumed that the regime would take the opportunity and enter into serious dialogue with the opposition following the conference.
Kilo has recently taken strong public stances against armed revolt and sectarianism, ideas which have received some support in certain circles. He writes that armed revolt “will lead to a battle that will be won by the side with more weapons, the side that is willing to use the most force. If weapons are used, then the struggle for rights will turn into bloody barbarism with no aim beyond killing the other.”
Kilo is still staunchly opposed to any sectarian tendency within the country: “should it win out, God forbid, popular mobilization will change fundamentally, resulting in a transformation of its aims and its support base, and it will play a big role in the nation’s deterioration.” According to Kilo, the Syrian struggle is not currently nor should it ever become religious or sectarian. “Syria wants freedom, and whoever diverts her from that shared goal betrays her, squandering her sacrifices and her opportunities, no matter what the rationale.”
Kilo is also ambivalent toward the conferences organized by the opposition abroad. He sees them as “a foolish race to establish competing organizations, revolutionary leadership councils, and liberation fronts, while the situation on the ground is full of difficulties and challenges.” Contrary to several voices that have welcomed the Syrian National Council in Istanbul, Kilo insists that the activists within Syria “do not intend to join the Syrian National Council, because this organization was created based on the idea of foreign intervention.”
Kilo has not given up hope that the crisis can be resolved internally. For him, the solution begins when the regime ends its reliance on its security apparatus and begins an open dialogue with its people.