ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
More now on Syria. Ammar Abdulhamid is a Syrian democracy activist who lives near Washington D.C. He has served as an informal spokesman for activists who were demonstrating in Syria.
Mr. Abdulhamid joins us now. Welcome to the program.
Mr. AMMAR ABDULHAMID (Executive Director, The Tharwa Foundation): Thank you very much for having me.
SIEGEL: Now, I want to ask you first, do you see a potential outcome of these protests that leads to democratic reform in Syria but leaves Bashar al-Assad in power for the time being, or is that impossible?
Mr. ABDULHAMID: I think it's impossible, especially after today's violence. It's, obviously, what Bashar promises is not really serious at all, and every time he is given a chance to earn our trust and gain some credibility back and some legitimacy back, he wastes that opportunity.
He promises reforms and delivers mayhem. We have seen nothing positive from him in the last 10 years in office. In fact, since he came to office, from the manner he was selected to be a president to the manner he manipulated elections and referendums to remain in power, to the manner he carried out the crackdowns ever since he reached office really, there is nothing that gives him any legitimacy anymore.
And for this reason, the idea that he could be part of the transformation, of the democratic transformation of Syria is simply unrealistic.
SIEGEL: So for you and you would say for people who are out in the streets in Syria, Bashar al-Assad is synonymous with the government. You couldn't change a Cabinet, get a new prime minister, reshuffle people and satisfy the demands of demonstrators.
Mr. ABDULHAMID: You know, he had that chance, and in fact, he kept the government almost intact. All of the major positions, you know, remained. The only new faces that emerged were actually not new at all. They were, you know, former people who had held office before and were despised. We ended up with a prime minister that no one likes and ministers all of whom are corrupt.
So, you know, the problem is not only in the emergency law that was lifted. The problem is in the faces, the people who are supposed to follow the law and apply the law and instead they really behave as if they are above the law.
SIEGEL: The Assad regime is very much associated with the Alawite minority. Alawites are an offshoot of Shiite Islam. They run the military and the security services, I gather. Doesn't that fact pose the risk of a sectarian conflict in Syria in which Alawites try to hold onto power, and, in fact, they possess the weapons to prevail?
Mr. ABDULHAMID: Well, the sectarian card is something that the regime has tried to play, in fact, since the beginning of this conflict, but to their surprise, in fact, a lot of the people in key areas, in Latakia and Banias and elsewhere, who are joining the protests are also Alawite.
You know, the idea that the Alawites are all standing behind the Assad family is really not factual at all. Indeed, there are some hardliners within the Alawite community who think Bashar is their protector, but the reality is we have a lot of corruption in Syria, and it's not restricted to the Alawite community.
We have - the regime relies a lot on Sunni and Christian and Jews to help them control the country, and we all realize that the sectarian card can be defused by further dialogue with leaders from across the communal divide, and we're hoping that this would facilitate the process of transition in Syria.
SIEGEL: This has been going on for several weeks now. Have there been any leading figures from either within the regime or, say, within the Alawite community or the Baath Party, who've come over to your side? Are there any significant defections that you can cite of people who are now on the side of the opposition?
Mr. ABDULHAMID: Significant defections, no. We have seen some army sort of troops and soldiers and officers sort of defect and join the rank of protesters, and some of them were shot for, indeed, refusing to fire at protesters. But I'm not really sure if, you know, the next few days will not bring change to this because, frankly, the level of violence today is very significant.
So the reality is today might actually be a turning point in this, and you might end up beginning to see some major defections from the higher echelon of the regime.
SIEGEL: And, Mr. Abdulhamid, do you expect that next Friday, there will be still more Syrians out in the streets, hundreds of thousands next week? Or has this peaked? What do you think?
Mr. ABDULHAMID: Probably next week, tomorrow and the day after, I think, over the last few days, we've noticed that the protests have become a fact of daily life, and I think this is going to continue to be the case, despite the fact that a lot of violence took place today. But the reality is we cannot simply stop now.
The ante has been upped. Our demands are very clear, and the regime needs to understand that we are not going to be cowed by violence, and we are not going to return to the past. This means the end of the regime, and we will bring it about peacefully on our end.
SIEGEL: Mr. Abdulhamid, thank you very much for talking with us today.
Mr. ABDULHAMID: Thank you.
SIEGEL: Ammar Abdulhamid is a Syrian democracy activist, lives just outside Washington, D.C.
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