The Syrian National Council Is "Semi-Democratic"

Burhan Ghaliounm, head of the Syrian National Council resigned recently. He held the leading post within the Syrian National Council three consecutive times: twice by appointment and once by a vote of appointed figures. Al-Taher Ibrahim says this election method reflects the SNC’s skewed decision-making structures.

al-monitor Syrian National Council leader Burhan Ghalioun gives a speech during a Syrian opposition rally in Vienna 08/12/2011. Photo by REUTERS/Herwig Prammer.

Topics covered

general secretariat, executive council, syrian revolution, syrian national council, syrian, burhan ghalioun

May 30, 2012

I was not surprised by the resignation of Dr. Burhan Ghalioun. Neither were many of the Syrian dissidents who witnessed the storm stirred by his ascension to the Head of the Syrian National Council (SNC) for the third time. This time, he won the post in a "semi-democratic" way, i.e. through elections, but was appointed the two times prior.

It is well known that many within the SNC complain about the decision making processes within the body, deploring the concentration of power in the hands of few. Therefore, the objections to Ghalioun’s election were like a sound bomb, timed to explode in his face.

What I mean by "semi-democratic" is that members of the Secretariat who voted Ghalioun into office were undemocratically appointed themselves. The members of the SNC Executive Office were also not elected.

Ghalioun’s opponents expressed a lack of surprise when he was renamed to the post of Head of the SNC. This can be explained by the fact that the council lacks many of the aspects that might make it truly representative of the Syrian people in the first place. It is also particularly lacking in transparency, and its members are often restricted in the choices they make.

It should be noted that we are not questioning the patriotism of the current SNC members; rather, we are questioning the merit of most of its current leadership, especially the Executive Office.

Some veteran opponents to the Assad regime are involuntarily absent from the SNC. These individuals have displayed the wisdom and experience that many SNC members lack. What's more, the SNC’s avoidance of electoral mechanisms and its use of consensus building and appointments within its institutions is a major source of its problems. These choices have led it to take bad, seemingly improvised, decisions. As soon as the SNC resolves a problem, it slips into another. Thus, inefficiency characterized most of the Council's institutions.

Syrian citizens revolted against Bashar al-Assad because of how he monopolized power and displayed open contempt for his people by barring them from participating in Syria’s present and future affairs.

It is important that these citizens refrain from accepting that any opposition front be formed through selections and appointments. The first Syrian National Council was announced from Istanbul on September 15, 2011 in an undemocratic way. It was proclaimed by the National Action Group, which appointed all of its members to the new body. The group was previously unknown among the opposition, except for the few among its members that gained fame through their commentary on satellite channels.

Prior to the announcement [of its formation], the Group launched a sweeping attack on another opposition group that had been announced by Diaa Al-Deen Dughmoch in Ankara on August 29, 2011. By doing so, the National Action Group committed mistakes that would have serious consequences on the formation of the SNC.

First: the group declared the formation of the SNC unilaterally, although talks included other opposition parties in Doha and Istanbul. It seemed as if the group wanted to present other parties with a fait-accompli that would allow it to impose its own terms.

Second: the Group chose its own members to be members of the SNC. However, it is widely known that it is impermissible to appoint oneself to such posts, or bind others with these appointments. In fact, Egypt's Administrative Court has recently decided to annul the Constituent Assembly because it included members of the Shura council and the People's Assembly, both entrusted with appointing members to the body tasked with drafting the Constitution.

Third: the group declared that those who wanted to apply for SNC membership must be over 60 years of age (the majority of opponents to the Syrian regime that left Syria are now over 60). It was as if the group wanted to monopolize council membership and exclude other veteran opponents.

Fourth: In the SNC’s founding documents, the Group included the following statement: 60 percent of the  members shall be from the domestic opposition, and 40 percent shall be from the foreign-based opposition. 52 percent of the members shall represent the revolutionary movement and the revolutionary youth.

From the early moments of the Council’s formation on September 15, it was in breach of both these conditions. The SNC did not include any member affiliated with the domestic opposition and no one represented the revolutionary movement.

The National Action Group was surprised when its newly formed Council was ignored in the Syrian protests, as happened previously with the council established by Diya'a Daghmash in Ankara. There were no signs that read: "The Syrian National Council represents me."

In order to get out of this predicament, the leaders of the September 15 council rushed to contact the Muslim Brotherhood, Burhan Ghalioun and some Kurdish figures. They agreed upon the share that each faction would be awarded within the body, and the SNC was declared in its new form on October 3, 2011. However, the council remained weak and vulnerable.

The inclusion of the Muslim Brotherhood within the SNC was enough to win over many protesters, due to the Brotherhood’s long reputation of opposing the Syrian regime. SNC members then divided up key decision making centers within the body, particularly the Executive Office and the General Secretariat. From time to time, the SNC would declare that new opposition members had joined its ranks. However, these additions were subject to quotas which regulated the council’s composition and balance, which the members of the Executive Office were keen to preserve. Following these declarations, members of the Executive Office were supposed to expand the council to incorporate as many opposition members as possible, at least those opponents of the regime based abroad. They failed to incorporate a domestic revolutionary faction within their ranks.

In the meantime, the members of the Executive Office sought to gain international recognition, something much-needed given that those countries supporting the Syrian revolution wanted it to be represented by a body capable of addressing the international community. However, given its many rifts, the SNC gained international recognition, but not by way of merit. Instead, the SNC was content to represent itself as the legitimate, but not sole, representative of the Syrian people.

Nearly two months ago, the Council’s executive members established a committee to restructure and expand the body. Ghalioun declared that the SNC must adopt electoral processes when it comes to choosing members for the General Secretariat and the Executive Office. He also stressed that the council must include members from across the opposition spectrum. This committee resigned shortly after the Executive Office rejected its vision for restructuring the SNC.

The Executive Office nevertheless convened on May 21 and reiterated the need to restructure and expand the council. Yet, no one knows when such measures will actually take place, since many in the Executive Office oppose the democratic principles that have been recently endorsed. However, in a statement to the Al-Arabiya channel, Ghalioun confirmed that General Secretariat and Executive Office members would now be elected instead of appointed.

The Secretary-General of the Arab League, Nabil al-Arabi called upon the Syrian dignitaries to attend the Syrian opposition conference that took place in Cairo on May 16 and May 17. However, this invitation was rejected by members of the SNC.

Al-Arabi expressed that many from the Syrian opposition were not represented within the SNC. A conference that does not include all opposition factions should not be perceived as a conference of the opposition.

Notes: Many prominent figures within the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood have yet to join the SNC. The last four general supervisor for the Muslim Brotherhood, including Riad Shaqfa, the current observer, were not invited to join the council. Those who claim that the SNC Executive Office includes a representative of the Muslim Brotherhood should know that this Islamic group cannot be limited to one general observer in the Executive Office.

Where are the representatives of the civil society who signed the statement of 99 in 2001? Why aren't they represented in the SNC? What about those who signed the statement of 1000 in Damascus in 2001? Where are the 200 intellectuals of the Semiramis hotel who held their own conference in a small room in Damascus on June 28, 2011? Where are the writers, journalists, the union members — whether, doctors, engineers, pharmacists or lawyers — arrested in the 1980's? Why are none of them represented in the SNC?

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