March 3, 2014
By Abdulrahman al-Masri and Elizabeth Parker-Magyar
AMMAN: A Facebook page that sprung up over the weekend calling for the nomination of former Syrian National Coalition President Moaz al-Khateeb to run in Syria’s June presidential elections against President Bashar al-Assad has sparked an online debate in opposition circles about whether participating in or boycotting Syria’s presidential elections is more harmful to their goal of seeing Assad removed from power.
The topic is a sensitive one for an opposition acutely conscious of its own internal schisms and fractured leadership.
“Proposing a name to run against Bashar al-Assad will give legitimacy to the regime and to Bashar,” said Susan Ahmad, a pro-opposition citizen journalist in Damascus.
“I am surprised we are even discussing this,” said Omar Hamzeh, a spokesman for the Revolutionary Command Council in Outer Damascus. “The people will not vote,” he added, implying that Syrians will boycott the elections this summer.
The Facebook page, called “Together to Nominate Moaz al-Khateeb as President of Syria Against al-Assad,” has garnered 50,000 “likes” in under 24 hours while generating mixed opinions.
“The Popular Campaign to Nominate Moaz al-Khateeb as President of Syria Against Assad,” reads a photo on the Facebook page.
Other pro-opposition pages quickly popped up on Facebook vehemently rejecting the idea of nominating any candidate, including al-Khateeb: “No Legitimacy to Elections with al-Assad’s Barrels,” read one, referring to intensified regime barrel-bomb campaigns in cities and towns across Syria in recent months that have killed hundreds of civilians.
Even if al-Khateeb did run against Assad, activist Ahmed said, “Who will ensure that the elections will be free and fair?”
Bashar al-Assad, as did his father Hafez al-Assad, has always run unopposed, leaving little room for doubt about who would win.
“The election’s results are already known, we are used to them,” Ahmed said. “Bashar wins by 99.9%.”
Ahmed’s estimate is slightly off. In Syria’s last elections in 2007, al-Assad was granted his second seven-year term in a popular referendum after supposedly winning 97% of the vote.
The 2007 elections in Syria were “fundamentally flawed by design” and did “not allow for genuine democratic elections in line with international standards,” the international election watchdog Democracy Reporting International reported that same year.
This past December, Syrian Deputy Prime Minister Feisal al-Miqdad confirmed al-Assad would run for re-election in June.
Meanwhile, the pro-Khateeb page’s unnamed administrators were quick to respond to criticisms. “The campaign’s goal is not to recognize Bashar al-Assad,” not to “accept that Bashar al-Assad nominates himself again,” and not to “condone the war crimes committed by Assad,” they posted.
A Khateeb candidacy would delegitimize the narrative that “the opposition and the rebels are unable to find an alternative,” the admins wrote.
There was no indication that the group’s proposed candidate, Moaz al-Khateeb, was notified of his proposed candidacy before the group was created.
Al-Khateeb deferred a response to dozens of questions on his personal Facebook page. “I will respond to you today, Insha’allah,” he wrote.
A former Imam of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, Al-Khateeb fled Syria in July 2012. In November of that year, he was elected the first president of the Syrian National Coalition, a position he resigned from in April 2012.
As the Coalition’s president, al-Khateeb was known for his pragmatism, inclusiveness and moderation, but cited international meddling and a limited ability to accomplish anything when he resigned from the Coalition.
The seeming grassroots campaign to spark support for a presidential candidacy may have gained such widespread support because of the breadth of al-Khateeb’s popularity with Syrians inside the country.
“Moaz al-Khateeb is a respectful person, and I would not mind him being the president,” said Salim al-Omar, a reporter for pro-opposition Sham News Network in the western coastal province of Latakia.
“But not until we liberate all of Syria, not under the current circumstances.”
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