Burhan Ghalioun: Opposition from Exile or at Home?
By: Basheer al-Baker
Published Tuesday, September 13, 2011
Several Syrian opposition groups see Paris-based intellectual Burhan Ghalioun as a consensus figure capable of heading a unified opposition coalition or council. But there is little consensus over Ghalioun’s straddling of local and foreign platforms of dissent.
Many Syrians first heard of internationally renowned intellectual Burhan Ghalioun back in the late 1970s when his treatise A Manifesto for Democracy was published as a pamphlet. The Manifesto argued that state power in the Arab world had become the enemy of society. It called for states to implement reforms that restored full democratic political participation to their peoples. Ghalioun, who is director of the Centre d'Etudes sur l'Orient Contemporain (CEOC) in Paris and a professor of political sociology at the Université de Paris III (Sorbonne Nouvelle), made these statements when then President Hafez Assad was consolidating his hold on power and faced formidable opposition at home, and with Syria engaged in a conflict in Lebanon.
The book established Ghalioun’s reputation as a critical and engaged thinker. In his book, he drew on the European Enlightenment as an inspiration for a new Arab renaissance. Although he shunned party politics during the 1980s and concentrated on intellectual pursuits, his political outlook was broadly opposed to the Syrian regime and highly supportive of the Palestinian cause.
With political activity in Syria severely constrained after the 1982 Hama massacre, Ghalioun devoted most of his public time to two organizations. For several years, he headed the Syrian Cultural and Social Forum, effectively an association of anti-regime Syrian expatriates. He was also one of the founders and active members of the Arab Organization for Human Rights established in 1983.
Ghalioun always viewed democracy as a panacea for the Arab world, terming it a “historical necessity.” The Arab regimes emerging from Arab nationalist movements failed to build modern states or successful economies and turned their states into “personalized” power structures. He argued that in Syria and other countries, the opposition could be most effective by uniting around the demand for democracy and rejecting all pretexts cited by regimes to postpone political or economic reform.
Along with other Syrian advocates of change, Ghalioun was an active participant in the Damascus Spring — the brief political opening that followed Bashar Assad’s assumption of power in 2000. He visited Syria frequently during that period. But after the banning of emergent political forums, he returned to his role as writer and commentator and remained a prominent human rights advocate.
In 2005, he became more politically active during the Damascus Declaration and became increasingly associated with the political opposition. But he opposed calls to make common cause with the West in pressuring the Syrian regime. He continued to travel to Syria despite regular harassment by Syrian security agencies.
In the course of his political activity, Ghalioun avoided association with any particular group – whether communist, Nasserist, or Islamist – despite his close personal friendship with the veteran leftist dissident Riad al-Turk. He has also been able to establish and maintain links with local and exiled opposition alike, and his non-partisan credentials have made him popular among all sections of the opposition.
When the wave of popular protests began in Syria on March 15 of this year, Ghalioun quickly voiced his support. He made a number of media appearances and was heavily engaged, along with other Europe-based dissidents, in efforts to unite exiled Syrian opposition groups.
But he took a dim view of the opposition gathering convened in Antalya in May. Ghalioun described the event as “serving foreign agendas,” prompting one of the organizers, writer Abdul Razzaq Eid, to accuse Ghalioun of attempting to appease the regime.
This did not prevent Ghalioun from attending (as an observer) the subsequent National Salvation Conference held in Istanbul in June, which was dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood. This conference called for setting up a 25-member transitional national council. Ghalioun expressed opposition to the move, arguing that a national council needed to include all strands of the opposition. He elaborated on this in a paper published on September 2. The paper was a response to his nomination among more than 90 unsolicited nominations by opposition activists in late August as members of such a body.
Ghalioun expressed his views about the tasks facing the Syrian protest movement and the question of dialogue with the regime in June. “The regime is not interested in or willing to meet the requirements of a meaningful dialogue,” Ghalioun wrote. The opposition cannot join dialogue with “officials who contributed to or ordered the killing of defenseless children, women, and young people.” He went on to say that such dialogue would be fruitless unless their clear objective was “to dismantle the regime of repression, oppression, and tyranny and replace it with a democratic order in which the people alone have the final say and the government is fully empowered and answerable to elected representatives of the people.”
Ghalioun believes that “dialogue should not mean a deal with the regime. It must not be about broadening the circle of participation” to members of the regime; rather “it must be about a timetable for a transition to democracy by peaceful means, in the hope of avoiding more human casualties and material losses, and creating the necessary conditions for new institutions to be built and function properly.” To Ghalioun, the regime’s current leaders “lost their legitimacy” when they unleashed bloody violence against peaceful protesters.
Ghalioun believes that given the regime’s persistent repressive policies and its “refusal to reach an understanding with its people,” Syrians have only two alternatives. They can either unite and cooperate to bring about “a pluralist, civil, democratic order in which all Syrian citizens are equal,” or else there will be “a certain slide into violence, anarchy, and destruction.”
There is no consensus among groups inside and outside the country on Ghalioun himself as prospective head of a transitional national council. Some of the local opposition think that he should fill a role as coordinator between opposition groups in exile. But others believe that as a leading figure, he would inspire confidence in the opposition at this juncture. Many view him as a sincere patriot, man of integrity. They contrast him with some emerging exiled opposition figures who surfaced after the regime came under pressure. These new figures, mostly businessmen and former loyalists abandoned by the regime in the past, have ridden the current wave of change hoping to land themselves roles in the new Syria. These opportunists are less interested in effecting real change in Syria and more in the possible personal gains to be made from joining the opposition.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.