The Assad dictatorship had “spoiled the outside” appearance of Syria, “but he didn’t go deep in our culture,” he said. “We were humiliated for 40 years. When the time came, and the Syrians could get rid of their fear, they made their miracle. Syrians are not going back to being humiliated by this (regime) again.”
Seif said the movement is growing. He said that businessmen in Damascus and Aleppo, the country’s two biggest cities, who were not involved in the anti-government movement at the beginning are now. He predicted that Syrian tribal leaders will back Assad’s overthrow and also Syria’s Kurds, many of whom have sat on the fence.
He said with the shifting balance of power, Russia holds the key to the survival of the regime. “Without the Russians, it’s not possible, in my opinion.”
Seif served two separate prison terms under Assad, stemming from his time as a member of Parliament from Damascus. First elected in 1994, as one of a small number of members who didn’t belong to the ruling Baath party, he began a campaign against corruption, enraging what he said was the Syrian “mafia” but delighting the public, and he was re-elected in 1998 with one of the highest totals for any member of Parliament.
When Hafez Assad died and his ophthalmologist son Bashar succeeded him, many Syrians celebrated the introduction of reforms in the economy and in politics. Seif and others set up debate clubs around the country to talk about Syria’s political future, but hard-liners said the clubs had crossed the line and were challenging the legitimacy of the government.
Seif kept his going, protected by parliamentary immunity, and Assad’s government decided to remove him from the scene. They went after his apparel business by imposing taxes that forced him out of business, and the Baath majority lifted his parliamentary immunity. He went to prison in September 2001 for trying “to change the constitution by force,” and didn’t get out until January 2006.
“What force?” he quipped. “I have no tanks.”
He immediately returned to political activism, and hosted a meeting of dissidents who drafted the “Damascus Declaration” in December 2007. He went to prison a month later and served 2-1/2 years, getting out in July 2010.
At that point, Seif said, he decided to retire from politics. Then came the Arab Spring. “The day that Mubarak gave up power, I said, ‘OK, I’m back.’ And now I’m totally involved,” he said, referring to the toppling in February 2011 of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
He was out with the first protesters on March 16, 2011 in front of the interior ministry. At a later protest on May 7, he was beaten badly, his head bloodied, and taken to prison, where he was held for 10 days. Seif returned to the fray in July of 2011, and this time, when security forces aimed at his head, he put up his arms, sustaining multiple fractures in his left arm.
Seif is not one to abandon protest, but he fears his health will stop him. When he went into prison in 2007, he was diagnosed with an advanced case of prostate cancer. But the regime would not allow him to seek treatment abroad, and he relied instead on hormone treatment, which he thinks made the condition worse.
It’s a cause of great frustration for Seif, who with better health might be a candidate to be Syria’s first post-Assad president. He said he doesn’t seek political office and that younger people should be the first to serve. But he wants to see democracy in Syria. “I feel very, very responsible. I feel my duty” toward Syrians, he said. “I hate my illness. Everybody hates an illness. I hate it because now is not the time. I have to do something.”