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Why is the Syrian regime afraid of Louay Hussein?

We need to refocus our view on Syria: 200,000 people dead, millions wounded and displaced, and still a man can be arrested for an opinion he published in a newspaper.

Through Syrian eyes begins a new series: 'They can put some of us in prison, but they will not be able to take away our voices'.

Photo of Louay Hussein Photo of Louay Hussein“Syrians do not feel they need a state” was the title of an eloquent short opinion piece written by Louay Hussein, a prominent Syrian dissident, and published in an Arabic newspaper in June 2014. On Wednesday 12 November 2014, the security forces in Damascus arrested Mr. Hussein at the Syrian-Lebanese border. Using the above-mentioned article as evidence, the regime accused Mr. Hussein of “weakening national sentiment and the morale of the nation”; a canned accusation used routinely by the regime to suppress freedom of expression.

This is Louay Hussein’s third time as a prisoner of conscience. In his first arrest, when he was a philosophy student at the University of Damascus, he was stripped of his civil rights, including the right to a trial, and spent seven years under arbitrary arrest between 1984 and 1991. His second arrest was just after the beginning of the uprising in March 2011, when he was subjected to brutal torture. He was among the first prominent figures to dare speak openly, in the Syrian capital, in support of the people's demands and the uprising.

After his release in April 2011, he publicly continued his struggle against regime despotism, from the heart of Damascus. He insisted on staying inside the country and on opening up Syrian politics; he considered it an act in the public interest of all Syrians.

Louay and other colleagues later went on to establish the movement Building the Syrian State (BSS). During the past three years, BSS tried to open up the public sphere in Syria on political and civil levels, to promote the principles of democracy and citizenship, and to act as a platform for networks of young Syrians. BSS believes that only a political solution based on international and regional consensus, as well as Syrian will and self-determination, can gradually lead to an end to the violent conflict and keep Syria united and free, both from despotism and extremism.

Some may argue that Mr. Hussein’s vision is utopian. But a quick examination of the timeline of events and developments over the last four years in Syrian indicates that his views were not based only on ethical principles, but also on a pragmatic analysis; one that predicted and tried to curb the negative direction of events.

This inevitably meant that Louay, and the BSS, were in confrontation both with the regime and with the dominant opposition discourse that glorified, and pushed for, the militarisation of the uprising and for foreign intervention. These groups did not believe in politics, nor did they hesitate to enter into Faustian bargains with any force considered capable of catapulting them to power.

The regime's decision to detain Louay Hussein now raises many questions. I personally read his arrest as an attempt to take BSS out of the new political equation: ultimately a plan to reproduce the current regime with new faces, which the BSS refused, as it will not lead to any real solution.

The current arrest was not a surprise to BSS members, or to any close observer. Louay, not being naïve, always expected his arrest (or even his murder) at any time--the price of being politically active in Syria. His decision was one that I consider awe-inspiring and very brave; his fearless insistence on expressing his views from Damascus, ignoring all offers to leave Syria despite the potential risk.

Sadly, instead of becoming a respected figure for his sacrifices and work on opening up the public sphere politically, Mr. Hussein’s attitude was misunderstood, and attacked by many populist dissidents who believe in ready-made, non-political, solutions; who set the mediated trend of 'all or nothing' from comfortable positions outside of Syria.

It is impossible to know whether the Syrian regime will prosecute Louay Hussein, arbitrarily detain him for a long period, release him after withdrawing his passport and civil rights, or just send him and the BSS a message through this detention. In all cases, and according to a statement by Mr. Hussein from his cell, he and the BSS will not change their attitudes: always peaceful, always against violence and bloodshed, and always believing that Syria needs a complete change from the current despotic regime.

Since the current prevailing news on Syria focuses on men with guns and beards, the western public has probably never heard of Louay Hussein and the BSS. Few still talk about Syrians who struggle for their fundamental rights. We need to refocus our view on Syria: 200,000 people dead, millions wounded and displaced, and still a man can be arrested for an opinion he published in a newspaper!

We at BSS firmly believe in the overused saying, which dictators still find difficult to comprehend, 'you can arrest a man but you cannot arrest an idea'.

Louay, my dear friend, we are waiting for you. We are strong because all of us, your friends, family and fellow activists, learned the meaning of steadfastness from you.

Freedom to Louay Hussein, and to all prisoners of conscience in Syria and everywhere.

About the author

Talal Al-Mayhani is a Syrian medical doctor and academic researcher based in the UK. He writes on public and cultural issues in Syria and the Middle East. In 2011, he co-founded the Building the Syrian State (BSS) movement, and currently manages the BSS office in Europe. In addition to his professional and political activities he acts as the director of the Centre for Thought and Public Affairs, and the Editor-in-Chief of its journal Delta-N.


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