Al-Ahram Weekly Online   22 - 28 June 2006
Issue No. 800
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Silent farewell

Surprisingly little attention is paid as one Syrian opposition figure chooses exile in Jordan, reports Sami Moubayed

Maamoun Al-Homsi, former deputy for Damascus of the People's Party, fled to Jordan last week to continue a life of opposition in exile. Loudly and clearly, he said that he does not plan to return before the regime's attitude changes towards the opposition in Syria. "I have left Syria" he said, and "I am carrying with me the call for freedom for prisoners of conscience and opinion."

Homsi's exodus to Amman, and his promise to increase pressure on Damascus for the release of political prisoners, was, surprisingly, very mildly covered in the Arab and Western press. It was also mildly covered in Syrian opposition sites on the Internet. Homsi, who is not a veteran of the opposition nor greatly respected among its ranks, said that he would meet with parliamentarians from the European Union to discuss ways of securing protection for Syrian intellectuals to express their views. This gesture, he claimed, was in response to the arrest of several Syrian intellectuals, including the writer Michel Kilo and human rights activist Anwar Al-Bunni in May. They were apprehended for drafting a declaration calling on Syria to mend its relations with Lebanon, addressed in a tone that struck a raw nerve in the Syrian capital because it blamed Syria for the ills Lebanon was facing.

Homsi added: "The EU is responsible for the deterioration of basic human rights in Syria, and EU parliamentarians should act now to help Kilo, Bunni and others." He said that authorities in Syria had "arrested more than 500 people in recent months for their views and beliefs. The EU has remained a mere spectator, watching the regime crush the opposition."

The reasons why Homsi's action was so scantily covered is that Homsi has few friends in the opposition, and none in the regime, although he was very close to the Baathists through the 1980s. Homsi's climb to fame came in the 1990s as an independent deputy for Damascus. He was popular among the youth of Damascus for sponsoring the city's basketball team Al-Wihda. He made a lot of money through his career as a businessman, as agent for Sangyoung Motors in Syria, and used it to create a patronage network and power base for himself in Damascus, investing in his family roots in the Old City, and placing a picture of former Syrian President Shukri Al-Quwatli, who was from Damascus, in his office.

After President Bashar Al-Assad came to power in 2000, Homsi amplified his criticism of the Syrian regime, calling on the new president to make changes. On 7 August 2001, Homsi started a one-week hunger strike at his office in Damascus. He called on the regime to grant greater political freedoms to journalists and parliamentarians, close down security offices, combat corruption and favouritism for regime officials, and lower taxes. He was arrested 9 August 2001, brought to court for his views and for abusing his parliamentary post, and sentenced to five years in prison. He was released November 2005, before his prison term was due to end August 2006.

Back in 2001, the regime smeared Homsi's reputation in the state-run daily Tishreen. It said: "His declaration (in reference to the demands made from his office), or should we say 'ultimatum' was similar to the one presented by General Gouraud before the occupation of Damascus (in 1920)." Tishreen drew a resemblance between Homsi's calls and the French mandate, claiming that both wanted to "abuse Syria". The article wondered how Homsi could "ignore the reform and anti- corruption campaign that is progressing satisfactorily?" Tishreen asked, "Is a campaign for freedom of speech and human rights enough to transform a crook, smuggler and thief into justice- seeker and struggler?" It added, "Democracy advocates are in need of a calibre that is certainly not present in Maamoun Al-Homsi."

The article recounted old stories from Homsi's past, "unknown to those who defend him". Two accusations were made: first, of Homsi having killed two children due to speed driving; second, having stolen cars from Lebanon. The article then addressed "Homsi's audience" which it claimed are "the diplomats and our brothers in Lebanon" saying: "Homsi and his associates are the ones who have denigrated the image and reputation of Syria in Lebanon." It added that during the early civil war years, Homsi headed a car stealing gang composed of three Syrians and one Lebanese. The Lebanese citizen, whose name was not mentioned, would locate brand new cars in Beirut, help steal them at night, change their colour and license plates, and hand them over to the Syrians, who would drive them back to Damascus.

Tishreen alleged that the Syrian MP used to personally drive the cars at night and, the article added, clash frequently with customs officials. At one point, Tishreen claims, Homsi was arrested on charges of theft, confessed to his deeds, and served a sentence behind bars. In court in 2001, Homsi was deliberately seated next to men charged with homosexuality and car theft, not political dissidents like himself. This might explain why Riyad Sayf, the other arrested parliamentarian in 2001-2005, whose name has closely been tied to that of Homsi since, refused, during his tenure in parliament, to be associated with Homsi.

Many who knew Homsi in the 1980s and early 1990s confirm that he was not an honest man. Others claim that his financial past, and former alliance with the regime, is irrelevant, arguing that his imprisonment for the past five years has washed away his sins and made him an honourable member of the "national opposition" that is neither loyal to nor funded by any foreign power.

Meanwhile, back in Damascus, people were busy with other updates on the Syrian opposition. Kamal Labwani, jailed in 2005, was brought to court in Damascus 19 June. Labwani -- who was also arrested with Homsi in 2001 -- was arrested in 2005 after returning from a high profile visit to the United States where he met with officials from the Bush administration in Washington DC to drum up support against the Syrian regime. He currently stands trial on charges of treason and collaboration with a hostile foreign power -- a charge that carries the possibility of capital punishment.

In the background, Prime Minister Mohamed Naji Al-Otari fired a number of Syrian state officials who signed, or expressed support for, the Damascus-Beirut Declaration. This declaration, authorities had said, was badly timed, especially in that its call for Damascus to open an embassy in Lebanon coincided with a UN resolution calling on Syria to do exactly that.

Far away in London and Washington, the US- based Farid Al-Ghadry harshly criticised the National Salvation Front of former Vice-President Abdul-Halim Khaddam and Ali Sadr Al-Din Al-Baynouni, leader of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Front threatens to push Ghadry's US-backed Reform Party into oblivion.

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