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SYRIA: Prominent dissident writer says country is ripe for change

April 21, 2011 |  3:58 am

Gamlsa vänner 010Protests continue to convulse the streets of Syria, and the demonstrations that erupted last month have come to pose the greatest challenge to President Bashar Assad's 11-year rule.

Yassin Haj Saleh, a prominent Syrian writer who spent 16 years in prison as a political dissident, has attended demonstrations in violence- and protest-stricken Syrian cities and feels that the country is absolutely "ripe" for change.

He recently left his home in fear of reprisals by the Syrian authorities and says he is ready to pay "perhaps everything" for a free Syria. So far he's been living like a hunted man. 

"I've left home for a fortnight now," he told Babylon & Beyond. "I’m living here and there and trying to be more careful in my movements. But I am speaking to satellite TV and my number is known, and this is a source of anxiety but I can't change it. Only in the streets I use my phone. TV channels will speak to me at any time. And that is why I left home -- to speak freely about the situation in the country."

The rest of the interview follows.

From where do you get information about what is happening in the country?

We have a big and trustworthy network of friends. Facebook and email. Of course TV channels. But the most important and precious information I get from my friends in the hot spots.

You’ve already paid a high price. What are you ready to do this time?

Well, I feel that I am at a crucial point of my life. The country is at a crucial point. We have either to win this battle and to face the difficulties of building a free country, and this will take a long time and be difficult. If the regime won this battle, I think we will see a new wave of fascism in the country.

What is your assessment of the mood in the country today? Is the majority saying: I would rather live with the pain that I know than plunge into the unknown?

It is very difficult to answer this question. Nobody expected what happened in the last four weeks in Syria, and week by week the protests are getting larger. So I think protests will broaden, but the problem is that there is a kind of stalemate in the country. People are afraid of what will happen.

I cannot predict what will happen, but I hope that this will lead to change, perhaps not radical change, like what happened in Egypt and Tunisia. But I hope the regime will recognize the legitimacy of the uprising and that our political system will be built on this. In Syria maybe it is dangerous to think of toppling the regime completely. I hope we can reach a … historic compromise, but the problem is that we have the most violent and brutal regime in the region. All depends on what will happen in the Intifada.

Have you gone to any protests yourself?

Yes, in Homs and in Duma at the funeral of martyrs. Every Friday I would move and explore what is happening.

Do you think the Syrian regime can survive?

They (the authorities) never dealt with people in a human way. What is happening now in Baniyas and al Beida -- and the invented story about armed groups. Most Syrians will not believe this. It is time for change and the country is ripe for this. The problem is what will be the price? What will be the pace for this? But we are in the process of change and they will not go on ruling us in the same way.

Are you afraid?

I am anxious for the country and myself. Syria will pass through hard times. This may take a long time.

What did you feel when things started happening here?

Hope -- trust, and respect to our people. We are still alive, we can do great and respected things. We are equal to other people in the world. I think we regained respect and this is very important to me. I was always indignant that we were not respected in the world. We became the villain in the world -- Arabs and Muslims -- there is a spiritual element here -- we regained our respect of ourselves and respect to the world. We paid heavily and we can pay again and we want freedom.

What are you ready to pay?

Perhaps everything. The stakes are high and I am here. I will try to save myself of course; I will not let them take me easily, but if it comes to the last word -- so yeah. I think the last word will be mine, not theirs.

--Alexandra Sandels in Damascus

Photo: Yassin Haj Saleh. Credit: Cecilia Udden