Former reformist MP Ma'moun al-Homsi, who recently left Syria to campaign for the release of political prisoners and increased international pressure on the Syrian regime, was interviewed by Middle East Transparent (Arabic. 6/29/06). Here are translated excerpts from the interview.
MET - Let's begin with the circumstances of your leaving Syria.
MH - My leaving Syria was a result of the escalation of the security crackdown by the regime and its arrest of prominent politicians, intellectuals and human rights activists in Syria under the pretext of their signing the Beirut-Damascus Declaration. These arrests were done in a deliberately insulting and humiliating fashion, in the open, for people and diplomats to see. ... Naturally, I expected to be included in the arrests as I was a signatory of the Declaration and I was with many of the brothers in the opposition and several choice lawyers at the side of the detainees for nearly a week during the interrogation phase. I did not leave out of fear of returning to prison. Rather, I found myself after a long experience in politics, since I began raising the banner of reform along with many of my colleagues inside and outside Parliament in order to save the country and return as much as possible of the stolen rights of the Syrian people, and after our initiatives and pleadings failed, we found ourselves in the ranks of our brothers in the opposition, whose stand with us in the Damascus Spring was honorable and encouraging. I realized after hitting against the intransigence of the regime and its rejection of all calls for reform and the repeated calls, domestic and foreign, for the release of prisoners of opinion and conscience, that it was my duty to go around the world and its free parliaments and carry the message of the Syrian people, urging the international community to take responsible action... and by that I mean action that goes beyond condemnation and urging and begging for the release of prisoners. These measures have become worthless facing an intransigent regime that has broken every treaty and international charter on human rights. It has also broken the country's constitution, whose principles go against the mentality of political detention, despite the fact that this constitution was formulated during the period of emergency laws and thus certainly does not meet the aspirations of the Syrian people. Nevertheless, the regime did not hesitate to violate even that narrow margin of freedom allowed by the constitution. The regime has deepened our misery and we no longer know whether it is defying the Syrian people with its behavior, or whether it goes beyond that to defying the international community. With this behavior, it has also raised important questions about whether the rights of the Syrians to freedom, democracy, and justice would be subject to narrow deals between the regime and the international community. Isn't the intention of the international community to move forward on securing that people stand shoulder to shoulder in the fight against the danger of extremism and hatred which are caused by many factors, most important of which is the state of authoritarianism that threatens misery to everyone?
MET - How did you find the economic, political, and security situation in Syria during the time period between your release from prison and your exit from the country?
MH - After getting out from prison, where I spent close to five years, I noticed a marked increase in corruption, and a growing neglect towards the state of poverty which has befalled many Syrians. In fact, the Syrian economy has become a monopoly of a limited number of people at the expense of the vast majority. I watched with sadness the connection between the increase in the repression and terrorizing of people and the increase in the political and social weakness of the reigme.
MET - How do you evaluate your time in prison?
MH - I had the privilege to be jailed. I have always considered my journey a single path to honestly represent the people who elected me, and I have made sure to voice their concerns and problems in parliament for ten years... I was determined to take this message to the government and the regime, but after several tries, over a long period of time, I realized that my duty is to take it beyond the government and the regime, to the entire world. This has instilled in me a strength and determination not to back down, and to accept the sacrifice that is much less than that of many honorable Syrians, who have paid with long years of their lives.
MET - Your colleague Riad Seif said after his release that at this stage, the calls for reform are no longer useful and that the demand is for change. What has made reform unworkable and has made change the primary demand?
MH - The msitakes of the regime have accumulated to such an extent that the situation became very complicated. Also, the international community has been lenient with regimes that have had a free hand with their people, and that have made fortunes from exploiting their people without any accountability or deterrence, so the complicated situation became even more complicated. Therefore, it seemed that there needs to be an effective cooperation that would lead these exploited countries to safety. Saving Syria and properly rebuilding it so as to avoid all the threats brought about by the authoritarian regime requires such cooperation. On the other hand, the Syrian regime has squandered all opportunities for reform, and has kept on breaking the extended hand of the opposition by increasing repression. And since the dangers are stark and the stakes high, it was necessary to declare the priority of peaceful rotation in power. The Damascus Declaration is a good expression of this priority.
MET - It seems that you're counting on an active international role. What if international changes fail to affect substantial change in Syria?
MH - The atmosphere of the region does not tolerate that. Every day things get worse and more complicated. The danger of extremism and the insanity of rooted hatred keep on rising. There is a general feeling that the painful situation from which the people are suffering today is partially the responsibility of the international community, particularly the West. The reality is painful and there is no other choice but salvation, and I'm hopeful that the hour of salvation is coming.
MET - Some Syrians look at you with the traditional view of businessmen who have entered politics to increase their gains. How do you comment on this point?
MH - The regime puts people who have worked hard to carry the message, concerns, and problems of the citizens before a rough choice. Some, not all, fall in the trap of this choice, because they too are part of the people who are suffering from low living standards. The choice is between small gains and simple financial incentives, or pressure, slander and false accusations, which often lead to imprisonment. The aim of the trade-off is clear: both choices lead to the silencing of those people and then to start parroting the views of the regime to the people, serving the regime's interests. ... I have not made a fortune, and I have suffered with the rest from the economic situation and the bad laws and legislation. Not once did I want or try to make money through the regime's exceptions. I have never sought the privileges normally offered to people close to the regime who have gained the regime's approval as a result of their parroting of the official line and their heaping of false praise on the regime.
MET - May I remind you that you too were once one of those who heaped praise on the regime.
MH - Indeed, I did sometimes praise it, because I was convinced then that reform is the goal. And I was praising points that I imagined we could use, in partnership with the regime, as building blocks. We wagered in the beginning that we could achieve reform, which I was calling for, and I was honest and with good intentions towards any move that I perceived as reformist. But I found myself like someone diving in the ocean. The closer I got to the bottom, the clearer the depths became. The praise which you criticized in your question was employed to encourage the regime to undertake more reformist steps. I quickly realized that it was a dead end. In fact, I have begun to pay for going down that road willingly and gullibly. I know the tax of this path. I used stress at the end of all my heated debates, and they are on the record, that I will pay the tax, quite simply, with conviction and honor, and nobody can change that truth. I know that all the topics I raised were tied intimately to the concerns of the Syrian citizens and their livelihood, be it the abuse of their rights by the sons and fathers of the officials, the violation of their freedom by the security apapratuses, or the demand of the establishment of a human rights committee in parliament, or standing up to corrupt deals. Every issue that touched on the concerns and interest of the people.
MET - The authorities accuse you of corruption and illegal practice in your business and tax evasion, how do you respond to these charges?
MH - I am ready to stand before the Syrian judiciary once it recovers. I know full well that these accusations were thrown at me in sync with my demands in parliaments. This is because slander and defamation always were tools viciously used by the regime against all those who protest its behavior and abuses. Suffice it to say that these various slanderous campaigns, which have not a shred of truth, once came after I received a large number of Damascene votes in the legistlative elections, when I spent half of my term in jail. ...
MET - Allow us to move to another topic. There have been remarkable contrasts in the way Syrians have responded to the National Salvation Front. How do you look to this Front?
MH - I respect everyone, and I hope they all cooperate, each from their angle and according to their vision. I have not defamed anyone nor will I attack anyone's patriotism. I am certain that the removal of tyranny will bring a free state and an honest judiciary, which I have known in Syria in previous eras. This judiciary could hold accountable those who have harmed the country and the people. Under democratic elections and an independent judiciary, no one will have immunity, and everyone will get their rights, and the corrupt and the despots will get their just punishment. An honest judiciary will decide. It's not up to me or anyone else to incriminate anyone or to call them traitors.
MET - What do you think of Law 49 which calls for the death penalty for anyone proven to belong to the Muslim Brotherhood. Do you agree to sign a petition calling for the revoking of this law?
MH - Of course I agree to sign it. I think everyone should have the right to peaceful expression of political opinions. Let me say that there were painful periods which Syria has experienced. There were mutual accusations about many abuses, for which the Syrian people paid a high price. The Syrians must face the facts, and this will not happen except through an independent judicial inquiry, which would define everyone's responsibility in what happened. Everyone who committed a crime against Syria and the Syrians should be held accountable.
MET - Mr. Ma'moun, what [message] are you carrying now? What are your priorities for the next stage?
MH - First, I'm carrying the call of freedom, to release and save the lives of the prisoners of opinion and conscience in Syria. I think it is the duty of the international community to apply effective pressure to save them from their misery. Many of them are old and suffer from various illnesses. Second, I will work with my Syrian brethren, Arabs and Kurds, and I will ask all the free people of the world to support us, to find new and peaceful ways to apply constant pressure in order to finally hold accountable those who have abused and continue to abuse the rights of the Syrian citizen, and so that this regime will know that Syria and its people are not the property of individulas, or a family.
MET - Any final words, Mr. Ma'moun?
MH - In all the elections I ran in for close to 20 years, my electoral motto was that I will remain faithful to my promise. Now, in these hard times I say, despite the fact that the regime is targeting me and insisting that the Arab brothers not host me, and to the last moment of my life, I will remain faithful to my promise, until, God willing, we reach freedom.