One of the great weaknesses of the protest movement sweeping Syria has been the absence of any recognizable leadership. Syrians have been asking, “Shoo al-Badiil? – What is the alternative [to Bashar al-Assad]?” Today, one of the faces behind the extraordinary revolutionary movement sweeping the Middle East and driving the social media protest movement has emerged in an extended profile by Eli Lake in the Washington Times.
The Syrian regime has stated that the protest movement centered in Deraa is driven by Islamists, an accusation that scares the moderate middle of Syrian society. No one in Syria wants to see a return to the dark days of the early 1980s, when the Muslim Brotherhood led an insurgency movement in Syria that nearly dragged the country into civil war and ended with the regime’s brutal suppression of an Islamist uprising centered in the city of Hama. Thousands were killed.
Ammar Abdulhamid is no Islamist. He did flirt with Islam and the notion of going to Afghanistan during a difficult period of introspection after dropping out of University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, but pulled away from the lures of fundamentalism. “It gave my life structure, but it enslaved the hell out of me,” he told the Washington Post’s Nora Boustany. Eventually he abandoned Islam for atheism and ultimately became an “agnostic.”
The son of Syria’s greatest actress, Mona Wassif, he is secular, liberal, handsome and represents the qualities cherished in the West. He was appointed a visiting fellow at the Saban Center of the Brookings Institute in Washington DC, shortly after he had established the Tharwa Project, which I wrote about on Syria Comment in June 2004. Here is a 2004 bio in the Washington Post by Nora Boustany. He is the author of a prize winning novel, Menstruation: A Novel, that depicts how the culture of Islam in Syria is sexually and morally repressive.
In 2005, Ammar was expelled from Syria for, among other things, calling President Assad a “moron” in a number of interviews nad arguing that he was behind the Harriri assassination in a Daily Star article. He successfully appealed for political refugee status in the US and has become an American citizen along with his wife and two children.
Like a number of other liberal critics of the Syrian regime, Ammar has built up an impressive web presence and has employed a number of researchers and assistants both in and out of Syria to help him.
Following the 2005 defection of Syria’s long time Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam, who founded the National Salvation Front in cooperation with the long-time leader of Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood, Bayanuni, Ammar decided to join opposition politics directly. Abdulhamid worked to gain the NSF a place in Washington and recognition from the Bush administration. It was successful in opening an office in Washington DC, largely thanks to Ammar’s connections and support, despite considerable reluctance on the part of US lawmakers to support any organization associated to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Ammar quite the National Salvation Front in 2007 shortly before it was dissolved at the time the Obama administration took office.
Corrections: My novel “Menstruation” did not win any prizes, and I have not become an American citizen yet.