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Middle east

Exiled dissidents strive to bridge generation gap

Text by Perrine MOUTERDE

Latest update : 2011-08-13

Exiled Syrian activists meet in Berlin on Saturday in an effort to shape a practical programme to fight Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s regime, as young and veteran opposition activists have been struggling to find common ground.

Young dissidents in Syria and abroad are becoming increasingly frustrated. Almost five months after they first took to the streets in protest of Syrian President Bashar al Assad and his regime, they say their elder counterparts have failed to provide them with a political programme. The hoped-for revolution has “no leader and no set policy”, they say.

“Right now there are too many contradictory positions,” says Hozan Ibrahim, 28, a Berlin-based spokesperson of the Local Coordination Committees of Syria. The organisation, which monitors the crackdown from abroad, is one of countless opposition outfits that have sprung up in the past few months. “We’re still waiting for our elders to talk to each other, unite, and take decisions,” he told FRANCE 24.
 
Some young opposition activists describe this disparity as a veritable “generational rift” . They blame a lack of contact, dialogue and even support from their elders. “The established opposition needs to listen to the people on the street”, says Abdulsattar Attar, from the influential Syrian Revolution 2011 movement. “Those protesting have the right to decide on the future of their country,” he added.
 
‘Living in a political tomb’
 
According to Burhan Ghalioune, 65-year-old intellectual and exiled opposition member based in Paris, decades of political stalemate are to blame. “The established opposition is old now; we’re having trouble keeping up to date with this new revolution,” he told FRANCE 24.
 
The Syrian opposition is a loosely organised group of Kurds, communists, Islamists, tribal leaders and exiled intellectuals. Repressed for over half a century by Syrian authorities, this eclectic mix last managed to come to an agreement in 2005, when they signed the “Damascus Declaration”, calling for ‘democratic and radical” change in Syria.
 
However the opposition has failed to take a united stance to tackle the current situation despite numerous meetings in Turkey in recent months. During July’s “National Salvation Congress”, as the meetings were called, the Kurdish delegation walked out, saying they felt marginalised and were concerned about future autonomy.
 
“For the time being, older opposition members are fighting between themselves, for ideological reasons and ego, while the young are cooperating,” says Radwan Ziadeh, director of the Washington-based Damascus Centre for Human Rights Studies.
 
Haytham Manna, the Paris-based spokesperson for the Arab Commission for Human Rights and Syrian opposition ‘elder’, has dismissed criticism of the gatherings in Turkey, calling them a poor example because they ‘did not represent either political parties or new movements”.
 
Biggest Syrian opposition gathering yet
 
On Saturday, hundreds of Syrian oppositions members will once again try to reach a consensus in a meeting in Berlin which Manna describes as one of the “the biggest Syrian democratic gatherings" in recent months.
 
Founded on June 30 this year, the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change is made up of leftwing groups such as the Socialist, Communist and Workers’ parties, 11 Kurdish parties, and some 30 intellectuals, young activists and independents. “Anyone who’s for a democratic, secular state, is welcome,” says Manna.
 
The committee has drafted a “political declaration”, which is pending ratification. The initial objectives are the release of all political prisoners and the setting up of a commission to judge those responsible for the deaths of protesters (the UN believes at least 2,000 people have been killed in the crackdown so far). The document also lays the foundations for a transitional government, along with a new constitution which would require multi-party politics and the separation of powers.
 
The committee has also ruled that at least a third of representatives must be of the “new generation”. “They’re doing an excellent job,” says Manaa “I hope to see many of them join in this movement,” he added.
 
‘Exceptional job but lack of political experience’
 
For Burhan Ghalioune, who directs the Centre for Contemporary Oriental Studies in Paris, there is no “generational rift” between young and old, insisting that established opposition members like him are readily collaborating with activists on the ground.
 
“We openly support the youths of revolution,” he said.
 
While young activists on the ground have strong influence on protests, the established opposition says it has a role to play in the political and diplomatic side of the uprising.
 
“These young people don’t have any experience,” says Manna. “They have made some mistakes, like when they said that three million protesters had taken to the streets, which was a hugely exaggerated figure. They’re doing an exceptional job, but they must be realistic. They need the experience of activists who have been fighting for years.”
 
Young activists say they are not averse to guidance from their elders however, but stress their own importance too. “Most of us were already active before the start of the revolution, we know who the opposition leaders are and we respect them,” says Hozan Ibrahim. “During talks with foreign politicians or diplomats, they support our movement; they know that they need us – if they didn’t, they would have already had a revolution!”
 
“We’re not looking to replace these opposition members, or become political parties after the revolution,” says Damas Amer al-Sadeq, spokesperson of another young group, the Syrian Revolution Coordinators’ Union. “We simply want to bring down the regime and create an entirely free political arena. But we’ll always be there to keep an eye on the actions of those in power.”

Date created : 2011-08-13

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