“My Experience in the People’s Assembly,” by Riyadh Sayf

Parliamentary elections will be held in Syria on April 22-23. The public takes little interest in the elections because parliament does not write or modify legislation, merely ratifying it. Voter turnout is expected to be between 4 and 10 percent, according to unofficial estimates. "Only one third of the 250 parliamentary seats are actually up for grabs. The other two thirds (167 seats) are automatically allocated to the Nationalist Progressive Front (NPF), a coalition of the Baath party and nine other parties that has ruled Syria since 1972. NPF candidates are selected for their loyalty to the party line and clean record with Syrian security services. The only real competition is among thousands of independent candidates for the remaining 83 seats. Independents have been allowed to run for parliament since 1990, a step that was intended to add a gloss of legitimacy and representation to the People's Assembly." Read the informative article by Omayma Abdel Latif, "Syria: Elections without Politics," published in the Arab Reform Bulettin.

The Project on Middle East Democracy Blog alerts us to this Economist article: "Baath Party Unchallenged in Syria". The Economist predicts that turnout will be high, either through economic incentive or intimidation and this will pave the way for Bashar Assad's re-election in May to another seven year term as president. The briefing also notes that any opposition movement has ostensibly been crushed and that the Baath party and its allies operate in the country unopposed.
The Economist also reviews how government statistics for the economy have been revised upword bringing all Syrian statistics into doubt. It states:
These have included bumping up real GDP growth in 2004 from 4% to 8.5%, changing the current-account balance for 2005 into a large surplus, rather than a deficit, as reported by the IMF, and changing the inflation figure for 2006 to 10.5% from 17.9%. The high level of growth claimed by the government appears to be at variance with the evidence pointing to a steady decline in oil production, with the finance minister, Mohammed al-Hussein, recently stating that in 2006 Syria became a net oil importer. 

Riyad Sayf, an ex MP in Syria's parliament who was jailed for five years because of his activities as one of the leading activists of the Damascus Spring movement of 2001 has published a very long article in As-Safir, describing his experience in the People's Assembly or parliament.

This translation of only the first bit of the article is thanks to mideastwire.com. The parts that were not translated relate how the leaders of parliament and government that Saif criticized took their revenge on him by taxing him to death, threatening him and ultimately jailing him. The main conclusion is that it is impossible to fight corruption without democracy. He writes, "Corruption is a natural result of tyranny and its legitimate offspring."

My experience in people’s assembly: delusions of democracy under tyranny

Riyadh Sayf – ex MP in the Syrian People’s Assembly,
As Safir on April 18:

“On the margins of the elections which will take place in Syria soon, I found it necessary and useful to publish my personal experience in the People’s Assembly[Syrian parliament] and what I went through and suffered because of my attempts to defend the rights of the people and the concept of a developed, flourishing country free of oppression and corruption in the hope that this might help all those wishing to take on public office… Success in my experience in industry was the primary and most important motive for entering the field of politics and running in the elections for the parliament in 1994.”

Sayf added: “This success in industry started with a workshop for manufacturing shirts in 1963 to building the New Adidas Company in 1993 after I got the franchise from the international Adidas Corporation which was the first of its kind in Syria. The production of this factory covered the needs of the market in Syria and was exported to all over the world, especially the European Union carrying the international Adidas trademark with the term “made in Syria”. This industrial activity provided more than 1600 hundred jobs. I made sure that operations went on smoothly in a developed atmosphere permeated with the spirit of teamwork and cooperation as the company provided its employees with top salaries as well as excellent services including meals, social care, children care, healthcare, swimming pools, and entertainment through plays…”

Sayf continued: “My hope was that if I managed to become an MP, I would generalize this experience throughout the productive and service segments in Syria through the legislative authority which is supposed to unite all the patriots and supervise the workings of the government and state institutions. I was encouraged by the wishes of some of my friends and those knowledgeable about my industrial experience especially as the authorities had launched a campaign back then full of promises of implementing reform which would start after the parliamentary elections in the knowledge that I had never before paid any attention to the elections because of my belief that they were only for appearance’s sake and their results were known beforehand…On the election day, 2000 young men and women volunteers from the company, family, and friends spread across the electoral centers proving their enthusiasm…”

Sayf added: “I was woken the day following the elections by the noise of those coming to congratulate me and tell me that I got the highest result among the independent candidates. That moment was the most important turning point in my life and I pledged to myself that I would remain loyal to the trust given to me by the sons of Damascus. I started preparing for my mission by dedicating my main office in downtown Damascus for the activities related to my new job helped by a cadre that would aid me in gathering information and preparing reports. My efforts throughout the first period as a member of the people’s council in 1994-1998 were focused on calling for economic and financial reform, removing the obstacles hindering the revival of national industry, and restoring the balance between salaries and costs, and focusing on fighting corruption which I consider to be the source of all evils and the number one cause for all the failures and catastrophes that befell and are still afflicting the Syrian people.”

Sayf added: “Back then, I hadn’t discovered the truth that corruption is a natural result of tyranny and its legitimate offspring. Thus I entered into a Don-Quixotic and completely unequal battle with the government and the mafias of corruption which ended naturally in my defeat and my exit from my position at the end of the term having lost all that I had earned throughout my life and laden with taxes and debts, some of them artificial and some exuberant, as well as my extreme loss with the death of my son Iyad (21 years old) in mysterious and suspicious circumstances on August 2, 1996. My four year experience in the parliament taught me that here this authority is not linked to legislating or monitoring the executive branch or holding it accountable as any legislative authority is supposed to do or as is the case in the parliaments of the civilized world.”

Sayf continued: “This parliament’s role was restricted to the formalities or adding a cosmetic touch to the whole process that would make the regime appear in a democratic guise to the Syrian public and the world especially in the presence of the 1973 constitution which gives the president the right to issue legislation whenever he wants. All the laws suggested by the government were passed routinely after allowing some space for the MPs to discuss it for appearance’s sake without allowing them to introduce any amendment to their content. More often than not, the discussions were prefabricated by the speaker as if we were in a theatre rehearsing a play with a crew of talented speech makers experienced in deluding the media all coming from the Ba’th party or the parties of the national progressive front thus robbing the vote of any true meaning.”

Sayf added: “If any of the new members wanted to fly outside the flock and insisted on going against the flow, he would be brought back to the “correct” path either through incentives if available or through terrorization and punishments if necessary. Here was my problem with the assembly and the government. My suffering started with the protests by the finance ministry against my first ever participation on the 15th of November 1994 and continued with repeated interruptions by the speaker and ministers of most of my participations which I presented until the finance minister started imposing exuberant taxes on me. I accepted back then an invitation by the head of the finance department in Damascus who told me on the phone that he has news that will please me a lot. In that meeting, he started talking by reminding me that we were from the same neighbourhood and then announced that he wanted to help me by mediating with the finance minister “so he would get off my back”. He ad ded: “some criticism is ok and I will alert you to the points that you can criticize as I did with you colleagues in the council; then after the end of the budgetary session I will arrange a meeting for you with the minister”…” – As Safir, Lebanon

Comments (32)


1. Observer said:

I would re confirm my previous post that there is no such thing as a true idea of Syria as a nation state. There is on the other hand a significant place for family and clan politics just as it is in Lebanon. Today, the major players in Lebanon are inheritors of the political roles of their ancestors except for the Sunni families of Yafi and Salam both of which have been replaced by the Hariri Inc. group. Elswhere positions are also distributed according to family politics and clan power play and that goes for the ministeries and for the governorates. In Iraq today, the Sadr clan is playing against the Hakim clan and both are against the Allawi clan.
The axis of fear as described by Pepe Escobar which comprises the moderates in the region afraid of the Iranina hegemony have a huge handicap. They have no Sunni population that can be mobilized effectively as they have been marginalized for generations now. What they have left is the role of the secret services to play. Unfortunately, there will always be willing fools to carry out the destructive policies of the big and not so big players.

The recent book by Ali Allawi about the fiasco in Iraq claims that the expatriate community was delusional in its assessment of the situation in the country having only a memory of the Iraq they once knew and confusing it for the current reality. I would say that the many commentators on this site have an idea of the Syria they knew from the past and have no understanding of the current situation. THis is a situation where the disappearence of the middle class and the presence of a super rich segment does not seem to be obvious to them. The current boom in construction is due to the fact that the super rich do not know where to invest their money having lost confidence in the international banking system, in the Lebanese bank secrecy, and wanting to put it in concrete.

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April 18th, 2007, 7:18 pm

 

2. ausamaa said:

Riyadh Seif says above: “and I pledged to myself that I would remain loyal to the trust given to me by the sons of Damascus”

“DAMASCUS” ???? trallaa…!

He just blew it. I would have taken his point more seriously if he had said “Syria” not “Damascus”. So much for so called “independent” candidates. “Independent” from whome?

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April 18th, 2007, 7:43 pm

 

3. Atassi said:

ausamaa,
This man was MP for Damascus NOT Syria !!!

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April 18th, 2007, 8:07 pm

 

4. ausamaa said:

Aahhh, and is there a difference?

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April 18th, 2007, 8:11 pm

 

5. Atassi said:

Kind of .. He was the MP for the citizen of Syria form the CITY of Damascus!!
Try to find another one to attack him. This is a none issue 🙂
Alex,
Do you believe that Bashar Assad was forced to adapt the rule of “DO NOT tolerate the opposition”? Is he a truly and deeply believer of this idea?

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April 18th, 2007, 8:24 pm

 

6. ausamaa said:

Attasi,

First, it was Parlimentary Election not Municipal elections. Right? Maybe I am Paranoid, and maybe my antena is over sensetive. But when an MP starts using the City or the Clan or the Trib or the Family, it just does not go down well in my book. Because they simply appear to miss the all too important notion that Syria needs progress at the national level and not at the City, Tribe or Famillial level. And if for the purpose of gaining votes they opt -by design or ignorance- to give rise to sentiments favoring the smaller entity at the expense of the nation, then they are on the wrong path altogether.

Sorry, but in my book, new and independent candidates who call for change should be grilled a thousand times more than anything we already have.

If they want us to give them our TRUST; they should EARN it hundred percent. We are not going to jump and cheer for CHANGE just because it is CHANGE. No Sir. They better be ready and up to it.

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April 18th, 2007, 8:26 pm

 

7. Atassi said:

You are looking @ the wrong county Parliamentary Election my good friend. When is the last time you seen the list of the MP’s. Bedouin tribe’s chiefs, Smugglers, newly established shadowy businessmen; corrupted people like Kalthoum, Kadora and others

Distinguished national personalities similar to “Farris AlKouriy” are nonexistence’s my friend. The Syrian Parliament has been mocked, shamed and sidestepped long time ago.

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April 18th, 2007, 8:41 pm

 

8. Jamal said:

Great material! Thank you and congratulations for publishing this. Here’s a plea for Syria Comment to return to the realities of Syria instead if the endless circular ruminations of various observers about what other observers think about others’ theoretical relations with Syria.

Having just returned from Syria I saw the absurd wallpapering of the country with candidates’ posters and the cynical dismissal of the election exercise by Syrians.

The posters were a bit odd. Many of the candidates were pictured gazing away to the side as if unable to face the camera. One banner I saw in a regional centre featured a smiling Assad giving the thumbs up to one hopeful.

But it’s no joke to many Syrians, as one friend said to me: “Look at these dreadful fools they are now pushing at us. Criminals and rubbish. They have threatened or arrested so many competent, decent people who tried to do something in politics there is hardly anyone left to speak.”

Keep it coming, Dr Landis.

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April 18th, 2007, 8:44 pm

 

9. ausamaa said:

Atasi,

Sorry, but for God’s sake, do you see any “serious” opposition around? Independents are nice decorations but nothing more in our case. Especially when they can not in their state of weakness be smart enough to understand and appreciate the sensetivities of the System and its red lines especially during the then evolving hectic anti-Syria era. Mr. Saif said it himself; he used the term Don-Quixotic. A noisance for the System but no more. You need critical mass, grassroot effort, organization and support. Which is not there.

And if Syria does not have a serious opposition at the moment we should not cling to any “opposing” voice and try to convince ourselves that we do have an “opposition”.

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April 18th, 2007, 8:44 pm

 

10. ausamaa said:

Anyway, if some independets have the best interest of the nation at heart, then God Bless them. At least they are trying to do some good. Beats commenting on blogs only!!!

What can we say..

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April 18th, 2007, 8:56 pm

 
 

12. EHSANI2 said:

Dr. Landis,

First, thank you for publishing this article. I would encourage the many who regularly criticize you to come out of their closets and also drop you a thank you note. They are quick to attack you when you publish a so-called leadership friendly regime articles but they seem to go in hibernation when you allow posts that are leadership unfriendly to appear on your site.

Having watched and read some of Mr. Sayf’s writings in the past, one cannot but feel a sense of respect for the man. Everything he said in this article is impossible to argue with. His words on corruption are particularly noteworthy. If I recall correctly, he was the only man to criticize the Syriatel deal when it was struck.

The level of corruption in Syria is truly astounding. The amount of money that has been made, siphoned out and then siphoned back into the country over the past three years is spectacular.

Business ventures are now measured in hundred of millions of Dollars. How was this money made? What taxes were paid on such wealth?

When I was growing up in Syria, the Baath party die-hards once came up with the slogan of “Min Ayna Laka Haza” or “From Where did you get this”? Armed with that slogan they went after a number of merchants who they deemed as evil and exploitive.

There are very few Baath-inspired ideas that I have supported in the past. I will make an exception this time:

How about a modern day “Min Ayna Laka Haza” drive?

How about starting from the top down?

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April 18th, 2007, 9:30 pm

 

13. Ford Prefect said:

Democracy. As if it is a commodity that we are all racing to acquire at our neighborhood’s Best Buy. Let’s think rationally and keep our passions and emotions aside for a little while we look at the bigger picture. How is democracy is going to take root in a country one out of four is out of work? A true liberal democracy must be stable and deeply rooted. That mirage of a liberal democracy can only be realized when the aspiration of the Syrian people and their underlying desire to be free can be turned into meaningful political institutions.

Unfortunately, most Syrian politicians today, including the honorable Mr. Seif, think that they speak for the people of Syria. The fact of the matter is that no one speaks for the people of Syria. No one is even close to know what the Syrian people want, because, ready for this, the people themselves are still clueless. Admiring the Swiss democracy is one thing. Importing it is another.

I am not undermining the great Syrian people and the their genuine desire to be free and democratic; but I am trying to underscore that democracy will be born naturally when it becomes the only logical outcome of certain conditions. These conditions are still in the oven. I know someone will ask, should we wait forever until democracy is baked? Should we endure the rule of an authoritarian government indefinitely? Yes, if that is what it takes to have a stable and peaceful democracy.

Atassi and Alex, cheers dudes! I had a great two weeks in Beirut, Damascus, and Italy. The airline almost charged me for the extra weight in my belly!

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April 18th, 2007, 9:37 pm

 

14. Ford Prefect said:

Ehsani,
Well said. Indeed Joshua is to be commended not only for publishing this article by the amazing Riyad Sayf – who risked it all for what he believed in – but also for keeping this fabulous blog alive. Joshua’s endurance and intellect is to be commended as well.

Your point is well taken about the deeply rooted corruption in Syria. It is everywhere. On the corruption index of Transparency International (TI) for 2006, Syria is number 93 out of 163. Syria’s inmates in cell number 93 are Argentina, Armenia, Bosnia, Eritrea, and Tanzania!

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April 18th, 2007, 9:54 pm

 

15. Alex said:

Atassi,

If you want my opinion … I think Bashar agrees with his security chiefs who decide sometimes to jail some opposition leaders.

Maybe he does not support all cases, but some at least.

If you see something done by everybody in your neighborhood (the Arab world in this case), then it is probably going to continue to be done.

In the case of opposition members jailed … the regime will tell you that as long as they are staying in power, there are red lines to be respected. Those who cross them will be jailed (or warned repeatedly then jailed).

To be honest, at this stage in Syria (and the rst of the Middle East) where we all know there will be no regime change or “democracy” … being in the opposition is not the most constructive thing to do. Being a strong critic is more useful. The only option is to seriously reform the current system (not only the regime).

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April 18th, 2007, 10:22 pm

 

16. Enlightened said:

In the previous thread I asked “Why is no one talking about the elections”

One commentator rebuked it is an insult to one’s intelligence to even mention them.

This is an excellent thread and post. To outsiders in the diaspora, this is an eye opener, commendations to Josh for writing this, this is not pro regime and the article is well balanced and written.

Ford Prefect writes:

“Should we endure the rule of an authoritarian government indefinitely? Yes, if that is what it takes to have a stable and peaceful democracy.”

This unfortunately and succintly is the crux of the issue at stake here, how long would a people endure this stability, with its institutionalised corruption, repression and underlying poverty?
Unfortunately maintaining the staus quo here is not the ideal situation, change through stability is ideal, however in the mid east, it is only through forced change will the staus quo be altered.

I wonder how long it will take the Syrian populace to wake from its slumber?

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April 18th, 2007, 10:36 pm

 

17. Jamal said:

Alex wrote:

“If you want my opinion … I think Bashar agrees with his security chiefs who decide sometimes to jail some opposition leaders. Maybe he does not support all cases, but some at least.”

I say:

And what’s your opinion, Alex, on what would happen to Bashar (whom you are comically portraying as a normal leader, not a thug) if he was not in total agreement with his security chiefs?

Please let’s try to return to the cold steel of reality. This topic and Sayf’s article present information and discussion points that have been too long absent from this site.

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April 18th, 2007, 10:45 pm

 

18. Samir said:

All my respect to assafir for publishing syrian opposition members writings.

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April 19th, 2007, 12:06 am

 

19. majedkhaldoun said:

Ehsani;
you are right,as usual,syria comment would not be interesting if it is one sided,good job Josh.

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April 19th, 2007, 12:22 am

 

20. Samir said:

In Syria the corruption at the bottom is not the biggest problem,the civil servants are forced to be corrupt because of poor salaries ….but the most disastrous stealing are from the head of the pyramid ,amongst the many asads and the many makhloufs and the syrian army officers.

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April 19th, 2007, 12:30 am

 

21. Zenobia said:

It is a great post.
Much appreciated and I am very happy that Joshua put it out for us. I wish there was more in translation from Saif’s interview.

Ausamaa wrote: Mr. Saif said it himself; he used the term Don-Quixotic. A nuisance for the System but no more. You need critical mass, grassroots effort, organization and support. Which is not there.
Hey! stop being so harsh you. The man was even criticizing himself. And…. of course you are correct that Syria needs all of the above ‘critical mass’ on the grassroots level to effect any changes, but still – Saif seems very genuine in his description of what he had aspired to and his ideals which he could not succeed in realizing. He deserves a lot of credit for that, no matter whether he represents Damascus… Syria… or his neighborhood for that matter.

Ford Prefect said : The fact of the matter is that no one speaks for the people of Syria. No one is even close to know what the Syrian people want, because, ready for this, the people themselves are still clueless.

Very very well said. I tried to suggest a similar idea the other day – that there are serious problems with the people themselves….. The majority of the population is without a political consciousness to activate and catalyze. They are without clear vision or the will above all at this point to bring about dramatic shifts in the System. And the system as a whole demands altering. It is far bigger a challenge than a simple change in the ruling families. It is bigger than simply more clean elections.
it is no less than the development of the populace towards a place certainly beyond lip service about the famed ‘democracy’ and hopefully beyond even the basic understanding of ‘democracy’. No less than LIVING it… that is the experience of a participation in living in a civic capacity out of a necessity- through organic change will be needed to bring about a shift.

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April 19th, 2007, 2:18 am

 

22. majedkhaldoun said:

in Alnahar newspaper,today there is a picture of Walid Al Muallem talking to Saud Al Feisal, Saud is holding something in his hand, can someone look at that picture and tell me what is it that Saud is holding in his hand, or was it he was in a hurry to go to the restroom

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April 19th, 2007, 2:42 am

 

23. majedkhaldoun said:

Zenobia said:

It is a great post.
Much appreciated and I am very happy that Joshua put it out for us. I wish there was more in translation from Saif’s interview.

Zenobia,there is, you can read it in Levant news,
the Safir newspaper was banned from entering Syria because of this article

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April 19th, 2007, 3:15 am

 

24. trustquest said:

Opposition in Syria has no voice till now, they are outlawed and their playground is outside the country. The inside civil society played two rules. The first is as a barometer for the level of tolerance of change, and the second rule played the soft challenge with the regime. The regime took the bait very well; he missed the train big time and could not use the civil society for the regime and the country’s benefits. The real opposition is outside the country are getting stronger with everyday the Syrian economy go south and with the increase of the masses of the outsiders against the depressed backward, fragmented and disparate insiders. From here I would say we should not discard any of the major players.
One note on what has been said that the “Being a strong critic is more useful. The only option is to seriously reform the current system”. I think the principal of disfranchising others should be rejected as a chauvinist principal. You would expect the recent turmoil of events in Iraq have taught other regimes something, however it seems they are sticking to their ways like they can not get out the box, in my view.
Great respect to Ford Pefect thought, I would say even if Syria is not number 1 on the scale of corruption, still in each country this factor is played differently. In Syria what we are seeing now that population is loosing its economical balance by getting poorer.
Thank to Josh and Mr. Seif on his great timely post.
One word to Ausama, I still after 30 years in Diaspora, prefer to take about my local damascene economic and domestic difficulties for one more reason never mentioned here, because if you talk about the whole country the regime usually makes you feel that you are stepping one their toes, and who we are to speak about Gordaha fro example, we know nothing about the whole we should stick to our caves. Before leaving the country when I used to attend lectures, we used to leave criticism to Alawite’s friends because they are kind of immune from the regime retaliation.

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April 19th, 2007, 3:23 am

 

25. ausamaa said:

Zenobia,

Ok, you are right. Meanwhile, and in the absence of a credible and serious Syrian opposition, I guess I should start developing better taste for minor league opposition. Especially the struggling and deprived nieghberhood petty capitalists who export made-in-Syria Adidas shose to the whole world. We gotta have some opposition to support even if we have to creat it in our minds. Right.

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April 19th, 2007, 3:23 am

 

26. Fares said:

Aussamaa, you can look for your opposition in jails if you really cared about them.

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April 19th, 2007, 4:07 am

 

27. Zenobia said:

ha ha ha – your concession sounds so genuine -!…mr sarcasm. “petty capitalist”…please….that is a pretty sad capitalist in the end. I happen to like adidas……
He seems admirable not for ‘opposing’ for its own sake but for the original activity – as someone interested in creating something progressive – especially in the economic sphere where syrians are desperate. thats what i heard him saying. It isn’t the ‘opposition’ I support…..it is anyone with some balls and guts and heart. He spent five years in prison….(this time!) ..he must have been doing something…noble..

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April 19th, 2007, 4:12 am

 

28. ausamaa said:

Ok, Ok, twenty inches above I said:

“Anyway, if some independets have the best interest of the nation at heart, then God Bless them. At least they are trying to do some good. Beats commenting on blogs only!!!”

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April 19th, 2007, 5:03 am

 

29. K said:

Thanks Prof Landis.

I enjoyed the post and all the linked articles. Props to As-Safir for the rare act of publishing Syrian dissidence (traditionally An-Nahar’s domain).

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April 19th, 2007, 5:10 am

 

30. K said:

Ausamaa,

You’re a bit loony. Thankfully, you stand apart from the rest of the regime-tolerant crowd around here, who are saner than you. But I enjoy your contributions; *someone* has to play the “regime deadender” 🙂

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April 19th, 2007, 5:10 am

 

31. Zenobia said:

He is ‘loony’. Lovable loony.

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April 19th, 2007, 5:16 am

 

32. ausamaa said:

Only a “bit” loony?? Can’t complain. Beats a full-fledged loony I guess!

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April 19th, 2007, 5:43 am

 

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