Syria's Best-Known Dissident Reflects On Uprising Michel Kilo has spent decades criticizing what he calls a military dictatorship run by one family. He even spent time in jail. Now, a younger generation has sparked a civil rebellion in Syria. "What the youth have managed to do is really enormous," he says.
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Syria's Best-Known Dissident Reflects On Uprising

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Syria's Best-Known Dissident Reflects On Uprising

Syria's Best-Known Dissident Reflects On Uprising

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Communications are a big part of the story in Syria, where we'll go next. President Bashar al-Assad has proposed a national dialogue to end the crisis in that country, but many in the opposition are deeply skeptical. Syria's most prominent dissident, Michel Kilo, has spent decades criticizing what he calls a military dictatorship run by one family. NPR's Deborah Amos sat down with him in Damascus.

DEBORAH AMOS: This book-lined apartment in a Christian neighborhood of Damascus is far from the noisy streets where protesters demand the end of Syria's repressive regime. But Michel Kilo has never been silenced, despite spending some of his 71 years in jail. He speaks four languages. His English is far from fluent, but he's learning.

Mr. MICHEL KILO: The next time.

AMOS: He describes himself as the spiritual father of a revolution in Syria organized by young dissidents, better than his generation.

Mr. KILO: (Foreign language spoken)

AMOS: Better?

Mr. KILO: Much better.

AMOS: In what way?

Mr. KILO: (Through translator) They have managed to form a popular revolution. This young generation knows what citizenship means.

AMOS: Citizenship is a new idea for a country ruled by autocrats. Kilo entered politics in the 1950s, jailed several times on charges that included inciting civil rebellion. Now, a real civil rebellion is under way.

(Soundbite of people chanting)

AMOS: He's watched the movement grow more confident, with committees that document the protests and verify the names of their dead. Underground clinics treat the wounded. Emerging young leaders discuss concepts such as freedom and civic responsibility in Internet chat rooms late at night - impossible for Kilo's generation. He says the rebellion in the city of Hama has now become the greatest challenge to the regime.

Mr. KILO: (Foreign language spoken)

AMOS: It is so dangerous, he says, because the protests there are the largest in the country. Thirty years ago, the regime crushed an earlier rebellion in Hama, an Islamist uprising that had limited support. Now, says Kilo, this peaceful protest in Hama reflects widespread discontent across the country.

Mr. KILO: (Through translator) And Hama proved that the people are unarmed and they are against the regime. It is a peaceful demonstration.

AMOS: But the government has returned to Hama in force, even as the president has invited opposition figures such as Kilo to talk on Sunday. The government wants a national dialogue, says Kilo, but is not offering to end the violence first. Who will the government talk to?

Mr. KILO: Not the opposition.

AMOS: So, who?

Mr. KILO: I don't know. We, no, we shall not speak with the government.

(Soundbite of applause)

AMOS: Long banned from speaking out, Kilo was heard by the Syrian people for the first time last week in an opposition meeting sanctioned by the government. Kilo sent out tweets of his recommendations. The government must recognize political parties, allow the opposition to publish a newspaper as a trust building measure, but first send the army back to base.

Kilo's tweets drew criticism on Facebook sites. Protest organizers said the meeting was a mistake. It gave credibility to the regime. But Kilo says the protest movement makes mistakes too.

Mr. KILO: (Through translator) I think they make a big mistake when they say that some words are sacred, for example, the people - or the street. They do not represent the whole street.

AMOS: Kilo lives in Damascus, where support for the president is real. But even in the capital the demand for change, for reform, for a new system of governance is strong. The protest movement opened that debate and there's no going back, says Kilo.

So, it's a gentle criticism from an older critic to a new generation?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KILO: (Through translator) And I am telling you, I am old, but mentally I am very young. What the youth have managed to do is really enormous. Maybe they now have the right to criticize all of us.

(Soundbite of people talking)

AMOS: His criticism is focused on the government, a regime, he says, that still does not believe in reforms, but can no longer suppress a whole country.

Deborah Amos, NPR News, Damascus.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: Deb's one of a small number of Western journalists who've made it into Damascus. And you hear her on MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

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