George Sabra: A man for all seasons?
George Sabra is being increasingly touted as a future leader of the Syrian opposition, and potentially, of Syria itself. In this interview, I get to meet the real George Sabra, the fiery left-wing politician who has gained the confidence of diplomats and activists alike.
When he was twelve, George Sabra had an experience that would shape him personally and politically for the rest of his life. It was 1959 and Syria had become part of the United Arabic Republic headed by President Nasser. As part of the terms of the union demanded by Nasser, all political parties in Syria were disbanded, Syria’s parliament was merged with that of Egypt and a Nasserite stooge was placed as head of military intelligence in what became known as “the northern province.” It was not a happy marriage, and its impact was felt more keenly than most by the Sabra family.
“My father was sacked from his government job during the Union [with Egypt] under the false charge that he was a Communist,” Sabra says, “this was the way that the Second Bureau [military intelligence] oppressed people at that time.” Sabra’s mother was forced to enter domestic service in the homes of wealthy Damascenes, and baked bread which she sold for one piaster each. “If she sold one hundred loaves, she would earn one Syrian pound a day. It was a time of hardship and deprivation for us.”
Many factors have shaped the forceful yet understated politician that is George Sabra: disillusionment, as for so many other Syrians communists, with the Soviet brand that forced itself onto them and against which they rebelled; a work ethic that saw him distinguished as a primary school teacher then a Geography student at university, and which, by 1985, made him a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party – Political Bureau at the age of 38; perseverance, having spent two years in solitary detention, and almost a lifetime in a country where, up until very recently, the prospects for democratic change appeared very slim indeed.
As the first anniversary of the Syrian uprising fast approaches, Sabra sits in his Parisian exile feeling increasingly confident about the future, even when that future grows more bloody and uncertain by the day. Perhaps he needs to be – he is being tipped as a future leader of the Syrian National Council, the opposition body working to topple President Bashar Al-Assad. It’s the latest challenge for the working-class Christian boy made good.
The Syrian boiler
On 18th March 2011 a demonstration took place in the southern city of Daraa to protest against the unlawful detention of minors who had scribbled anti-government graffiti on the walls of their school. The heavy-handed response of Assad’s security forces left scores dead, and within days demonstrations broke out in a number of other cities in solidarity with Daraa’s residents.
For Sabra, that was Syria’s “Bouazizi’s moment”, the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, but he claims that the signs of popular resentment had always been there. In a swipe at those in the west who foolishly proclaimed the regime’s immunity from the Arab Spring, he says that “the boiler from inside was at breaking point but from the outside you could hardly see the signs.” He would know; he only left Syria in October last year following a brief spell in detention. He admits though that it was easy to lose heart. “More than half a century of totalitarian dictatorship and repression left a very deep scar in the conscience of Syrians and in their collective memory, so that some people thought that the spirit of the people had died and that there is no hope.” The Egyptian uprising, however, proved decisive. “When the Egyptians came out onto Tahrir Square the road to revolution in Damascus was opened.”
For Sabra, the Syrian uprising began for many of the same legitimate reasons that drove other Arabs to take to the streets. “The repressive and totalitarian regime in Syria created an authoritarian state that left no free space in the state or in society for ordinary Syrians. People felt that they were outsiders.” He argues passionately that it is this alienation of the people, the feeling that Assad’s Syria is not theirs, that is the underlying cause of the uprising, and which drives the people to make unparalleled sacrifices.
The great fear of course is that for all the good intentions, Syria may end up a broken country, an Iraq circa 2005, or even an Afghanistan run by religious extremists and warlords. It is a risk that Sabra recognizes but he is adamant that the vision of Syria that the fires the revolutionaries’ imagination is that of modern Syria’s so-called “golden age”. “Syrians fall back on the democratic experience of 1954-58 whose taste they still find sweet after all these years,” Sabra claims, “they feel nostalgic for that era.” In fairness, it was also an era of weak and unstable coalition governments, of politicians on the make and of regional and superpower meddling, but there were free and fair elections, a multi-party system, a free press and the mukhabarat secret police had not yet made an appearance. After decades of being ruled by the Assads, Syrians may well choose to take a little republican corruption along with a little republican freedom.
Dreaming of Faris Al-Khoury
It has become something of a cliché to talk about a divided Syrian opposition. George Sabra doesn’t argue the case. “The weakness of the opposition explains its pale performance during the revolution.” But equally clichéd, he blames the regime. “Because political life was criminalized in Syria, there emerged two types of politicians: the opportunist, who was bribed into silence by the regime, and the principled, who invariably found himself in prison or in exile.” Sabra undoubtedly is of the latter school, having been incarcerated for a total of eight years.
Nevertheless, can’t the opposition get its act together at this momentous time? On the issue, Sabra is his trademark honest self. “When the street moved, there was a need for a parallel movement on the political level that was not provided by the political parties. Opposition politics became an arena for individual ambition and personal rivalries, even when these individuals lacked capability and genuine intention.”
Could he possibly be referring to Dr. Burhan Ghalioun, the current president of the Syrian National Council (SNC), who is being blamed by activists for much of the opposition’s woes? Sabra is too much of a seasoned politician to begin mud-slinging, but in a meeting in February, he did throw his name into the ring as a replacement for Ghalioun, only one of two other people to do so. Ghalioun survived with a two-month extension to his term (that runs out on 15th April 2012), allegedly with the help of Qatari lobbying, but little can hide the frustration felt by the experienced hands in the Syrian opposition at the relative newcomers who lack the experience to manage broad-based political coalitions yet, for better or for worse, find themselves in the driving seat.
Managing broad-based political coalitions is what George Sabra has been doing for the past seven years. He is a founder-member of the Damascus Declaration for National Democratic Change, which first attempted to create a national council in 2008 to unite the opposition around a pro-democracy agenda. True to form however, Assad jailed its key leaders and the organization as a whole stagnated. The SNC took the Damascus Declaration model and expanded it to a wider membership, yet the same problems persist: policy and personality differences, lack of strategic communication and an inability to keep pace with events. “How can old politics and ageing politicians keep up with a revolution this deep, this fundamental and with this level of sacrifice?” He can ask the question, but does he have an answer?
Sabra is by no means a spring chicken, but he does appear to enjoy the support of the younger crowd. In May 2011 he addressed a gathering of mourners at a funeral of an activist in his home town of Qatana (30km south west of Damascus) which stands as one of the finest pieces of oratory made by any opposition politician that anyone can remember (Watch YouTube video above.) His appearances on television are similarly impressive for their clarity of ideas and forthright views.
On a more subtle and perhaps more significant level, his popularity stems from the fact that he is “George”. Sabra may have a point about nostalgia for Syria of the 1950s; one of its enduring icons was Faris Al-Khoury, a Presbyterian who served as prime minister in several cabinets and was Syria’s representative at the inauguration of the United Nations. Al-Khoury’s political success is hailed by Sunni Muslims as proof of their willingness to accept members of religious minorities as equal citizens; certainly there is something satisfying about a Christian heading up the opposition at a time when Assad is stoking up fears of sectarian civil war. True to his secularist credentials however, Sabra plays down his Christian background, which, ironically, may prove to be an asset as Syrians dream of a new Faris Al-Khoury to unite the opposition and heal confessional wounds.
Dilemma of the Left
To understand Sabra is to understand the dilemma of the left-wing Arab intellectual. He grew up as a leftist “because of class affiliation and the life of poverty”, indeed, he joined the Communist Party – Political Bureau at the age of 23 and rapidly became one of its rising stars. After Perestroika and the fall of the Soviet Union, was he still a communist? Sabra is unequivocal: “I stopped being a communist since I left prison in 1995, and the party too left communism following its sixth congress in 2005.”
The party that he belongs to was formed after a significant number of members led by veteran left-winger Riad Al-Turk broke away from the Communist Party of Syria in protest at its slavish dependence on Moscow. It is now no longer called the Communist Party – Political Bureau but the People’s Democratic Party, and Sabra now firmly identifies himself as a social democrat. It is a trend happening across the Arab world as leftists have, to their credit, re-branded and re-adjusted.
The challenge now facing “the Left” in the Arab world is daunting. It has to remain relevant and keep the flag of secularism and modernity flying at a time when power seems to be increasingly in the hands of Islamists. Sabra is unfazed. “There will always be a meaning to being a leftist today, and every day. How else would you explain the success of the Left in Sweden, Switzerland and other advanced European countries?”
Perhaps. But Syria is not Sweden or Switzerland, and the Left was not entirely at the forefront of the Arab Spring. Was there not a risk that it will become marginalized at the ballot box? “The Left is not all the same” replies Sabra, “those who have fought for democracy for more than four decades, and who have joined the ranks of the revolution from day one will not feel alien to what is happening now or what will happen in the future. Those who have sowed the seeds will see the rewards in the future.”
It is in his outlook on the future that Sabra displays an unassuming pragmatism and an aversion to dogma and ideology that can rarely be found among members of his generation. He is very much a secularist progressive, but in a nod to Islam he says he “respects the culture of the Arab nation and its belief and history.”
He is a leading member of the Syrian National Council but is quite forthright about its future prospects. “Most likely the [SNC] coalition will end when the regime falls and a democratic transition takes place.” He expects some parties to die out and new coalitions to be formed, but warns against parties based on cults of personality that he expects will make their presence felt on the Syrian political scene.
What does Sabra think of the Free Syrian Army and its potential role in bringing down Assad through force of arms? He is matter-of-fact about the “militarization of the revolution”, regarding it as a natural consequence of the regime’s brutal crackdown. Crucially, he does not feel threatened by the boys with Kalashnikovs. “When the military solution takes centre stage there will need to be political solutions to accompany it. Guns eventually will fall silent and will be put aside while politics continues.” Guerilla fighters may join the ranks of the unemployed but never the politicians.
It is not difficult to pin down the appeal of George Sabra. With his thick-framed glasses, full head of white hair and owlish countenance he does not come across as sinister or threatening as many politicians do. Beyond the physical, he encapsulates in his words and deeds the spirit of the Syrian uprising: liberal, pro-democratic, non-sectarian and manifestly rural and working class. Above all, he reflects a vision of Syrian identity that is far more compelling than the card-board cut out offered by the Assads. It’s a vision deeply-rooted in history; the essence of what it is to be a Syrian.
“You are talking about Syria which is the cradle of civilization for the past six thousand years,” Sabra tells me, “it is the pathway of religions to the world, the country where the first letter was written, the capital of the word “Read.” It is Damascus, which sleeps but will never die.”