Middle East Intelligence Bulletin
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  Vol. 3   No. 3 Table of Contents
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March 2001 


dossier Riyad Sayf
Syrian member of parliament

by Raed al-Kharrat

Riyad Sayf
Riyad Sayf
Syrian industrialist and parliament member Riyad Sayf, one of the country's leading liberal reformers, has spearheaded political opposition to the Assad regime in recent months. His critiques of the state, which began in the halls of Syria's own parliament and culminated in the establishment of an independent political party, have been enthusiastically received, both by intellectuals who advocate an end to state restrictions on freedom of expression and commercial entrepreneurs who yearn for economic liberalization. His indictment last month on charges of violating the Syrian constitution was clearly intended by the Assad regime as a warning to the country's resurgent civil society.

Sayf was born in the conservative Midan sector of Damascus in 1946 to a local carpenter. Growing up in a modest family with eight children, he worked while pursuing his schooling, and took a part-time job at a cloth factory in 1959. By all accounts, the wealth he accumulated during his 30-year commercial career was entirely self-made. In 1963, he set up an independent business with his brothers which began manufacturing and exporting men's wear. In 1991, he became an agent for Adidas sportswear in Syria, among the first industrialists to work under license in sportswear.

In 1994, at the peak of his financial success, Sayf was encouraged by friends to go into politics and ran for election to the People's Assembly. Making use of his mercantile connections and the vast number of people in his employment, Sayf won in the elections with ease, earning the greatest number of votes for an independent candidate.

Shortly after his election, Sayf launched an economic debate within the chamber, arguing that Syria's industrial sector needed change. "The argument was warmly received by the people but shunned by the government." he later told a Beirut newspaper. "They mobilized all their forces back then to destroy Riyad Sayf economically. They were able to bankrupt me in every sense of the word through financial constraints and regulations that were unjustified, immoral, and illegal."1 Government authorities began interfering in his business, placing restrictions on his commercial conduct, and imposing heavy taxes on his companies. As a result, he declared partial bankruptcy and began closing down his business. In 1996, his eldest son died in a mysterious drowning accident. Sayf believes he was murdered.

Despite his financial setbacks, he ran for reelection to parliament in 1998, receiving financial assistance from his own employees. After his reelection, he avoided political controversy until after the death of President Hafez Assad and the succession of his son, Bashar, to the helm in Damascus.

In August 2000, Sayf stunned his colleagues by arguing within the chamber that the emergency laws imposed by the ruling Ba'ath party in 1963 should be lifted, since conditions inside the country were stable and war with Israel was not on the horizon. When the authorities ignored his call, Sayf established an informal grouping called the "Friends of Civil Society," which began meeting at his residence for informal political discussions.

At first, these sessions were closed to the public, but by November he had opened its doors to anyone interested in hearing what was being said. These gatherings rapidly gained momentum and were renamed "Forums of National Dialogue." Among the most prominent lecturers was the ex-Dean of Economics at the Syrian University, Aref Dalilah, who was fired from his post in 1998 and went into self-imposed exile in 1998 before being welcomed back by Bashar Assad in August 2000. Dalilah, an academic, managed to attract an audience of thinkers, writers, and journalists, while Sayf appealed to merchants and industrialists interested in reforming the moribund Syrian economy. Both men had served as a team since running for parliament in 1998 on an independent joint ticket.

Realizing that his popularity had rocketed, Sayf began giving press interviews, television appearances, and increasing his demands for change in the existing economic order. He spoke out against corrupt practices, but carefully declined to mention any official by name.

In January 2000, Sayf declared the formation of his own political party, named the Movement for Social Peace (Harakat al-Silm al-Ijtima'i), an informal grouping of thinkers, philosophers, academics and businessmen. The Movement held its initial meeting at Sayf's residence in the suburbs of Damascus, before an audience described by the (non-Syrian) Arab press as massive. "Our political objectives are to achieve social peace between Syrians and their religion, their government, and among themselves. We want to build a firm ground for social peace on all levels," Sayf told the attendees. "Due to many mistakes done in the past, social peace between the state and its citizens has become distorted. Social peace between the 'partners of production' has also been distorted."

Sayf's political program departs from the Ba'ath party's principles in several respects. First, he contradicted the ruling party's pan-Arab doctrine by saying that Syrian identity must be restored. He has criticized, in particular, the ill-fated union with Egypt from 1958-1961.

Second, Sayf declared that socialism and all like-minded leftist ideologies were dead. "We can no longer go on in Syria saying that a working class is struggling against a bourgeoisie of merchants, or 'bloodsuckers' as they prefer to call us. This terminology is unacceptable. Partnership is needed between the economic institutions and those who work in them."2

"I don't think that anybody can deny, after seeing the demoralizing experiences in regimes with centralized economies, that socialism is over," said Sayf in a subsequent interview. "It has been proven that in any country where the state plays the role of the industrialist and merchant, its role was an absolute failure." The Syrian people must liberate themselves from "the slogans of socialism that have lost all their substance." He added that while he believes in "join-ventures between the state and the people, they must be administered in a scientific manner."3

Third, Sayf has attacked the regime's land reform program, calling for the restoration of properties "taken by the Ba'ath Party in the 1960's under Law No. 60, which allocated them for government projects have not gotten past the drawing board." He was careful to point out that "the era of vast land ownings for individuals is over and restoring it would create a grave social problem," emphasizing that he was referring to "middle-class shareholders who had their lifetime savings placed in shares that were nationalized." These families "lived off this limited income, and therefore have a natural right to have them restored. We ask for state compensation out of moral obligation to these families and economic obligation to the national economy."4

This theme of compensation to victims of the Syrian regime also applies to the thousands of political prisoners that have languished in detention centers throughout the country. "We also demand compensation for all those who suffered under state prisons. We want to turn a new page of social peace within society, to compensate them and restore their pride in Syria and in themselves as Syrians," said Sayf. "We want them to feel appreciated after many years in jail, so that they will become, once again, active participants in Syrian public life. This will be done through restoration of their civilian rights and providing them with financial compensation. We want to end the mistakes of the past, turn a new bright page for all - we do not want to deal with unhealed wounds. This is the social peace we strive for."5

Within weeks of establishing his party, Sayf received notice from the public prosecutor in Damascus that he was being charged with violating the constitution. Sayf, who has declared that a new constitution is needed for Syria, clearly upset the authorities, who considered his statements an attack upon Ba'ath party itself and have accused him of being a foreign agent. In a statement to Doha-based TV channel al-Jazeera, Sayf said that he was not exactly sure about the nature of his indictment, but was disturbed by the case, for it was a natural setback towards the move for democracy. He insisted that his actions and his Movement for Social Peace had "raised hopes of the Syrian people and greatly improved Syria's reputation abroad."6

Since then, Sayf's only response has been that he is not afraid and is willing to stand trial since he had done nothing wrong to the state, the party, or the constitution. He continues to hold intellectual forums in his residence, although they have been renamed "gatherings" to avoid a clash with authorities. In his latest meeting, Aref Dalilah, Communist Party activist Adel Jammous, and Damascus MP Maamoun al-Homsi were present in a show of solidarity with Sayf. Sympathetic parliamentary deputies and members of his political coalition are still attending and discussing politics over coffee, though without making official speeches. If Sayf survives and proceeds in his activities, it is a signal that the state has in fact, turned over a new leaf - if not, he will probably come crashing down and his short-lived political career will end in failure.

Notes

  1 The Daily Star (Beirut), 13 February 2001.
  2 Al-Hayat (London), 1 February 2001.
  3 The Daily Star (Beirut), 13 February 2001.
  4 The Daily Star (Beirut), 13 February 2001.
  5 The Daily Star (Beirut), 13 February 2001.
  6 Al-Jazeera TV (Doha), 8 February 2001.


2001 Middle East Intelligence Bulletin. All rights reserved.

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