In mid-2014, I was in Beirut, visiting a doctor. This was in the midst of the “elections” for the Syrian presidency. A French journalist asked me: “Why not nominate yourself now that Asad has allowed political pluralism; even a Christian has been nominated for the presidency.” I responded saying: “The Christian candidate for the presidency is a sham meant to be convince people that these elections are real; the third article in the 2012 constitution states that “the president’s religion must be Islam.” The text is crystal clear and forbids a Muslim from choosing a non-Muslim as president before the Christian is deprived of his own right to run for president.”
The following is the ridicule I faced when I put my name forward as prime minister upon my summons to the information security branch of al-Malki in Damascus in July 2011. I received a phone call from someone who identified himself as belonging to the security branch. He invited me for a "cup of coffee", by myself, at around 7pm. I told my wife I was going to go at their request. I grabbed a taxi, informed my colleague Khalil Maʿtuk, and arrived half an hour later.
The head of the branch welcomed me with a Cuban cigar larger than he was, in hand, and introduced himself as brigadier general Zafer Yusuf.
Brigadier General Zafer Yusuf: Do you know who I am?
Michel Shammas: No, I’m sorry, I don’t, please excuse me.
(Shocked) Impossible! You didn’t see me on TV? I’m the one who went to Vienna and was interrogated in the case of Hariri’s assassination.
Mr. General, I’m sorry but unfortunately I have never heard your name. Frankly, I don’t care who killed Hariri, what I care about is Syria now...
(Interrupting) Good for you, Syria is important to you and us, and that’s why we’ve brought you in! Please sit here, what would you like for us to serve you? Coffee or tea? Or would you like some zuhurat [herbal extract --Ed.]?
Zuhurat is fine, I do not want to bother you all.
(Smiling) You know, sir, I have to be honest with you. Weren't you supposed to be arrested in 2007?
(The blood in my veins froze when I heard the word “arrest”).
Why, Mr. General? Was there something levied against me at that time?
You wrote an article attacking the former prime minister, Naji al-ʿOtari and you called him a scoundrel?
(I got the impression that he was actually impressed by the article).
I wrote three articles, not one, about him. Any state that respects itself and its institutions would not put Naji al-ʿOtari as its prime minister, who was dismissed from duty in the 1970s and then imprisoned for eight months by the military police on charges of corruption. He was then released without trial and became prime minister. Do you not find that corrupt?
Well, we replaced him with Dr. ʿAdel Safar, and of course you are aware that two days ago we had a delegation of lawyers led by the head of the Damascus Lawyer’s Guild. We listened to their opinion on how to solve the problem in Syria. As you know, we listen to everyone’s ideas without exception (during this period, the security services would arrange for delegations composed of family and clan elders to meet with the president with the pretext of finding a solution for the situation in Syria).
Yes, I heard about this. But if I understood correctly, you didn’t like the lawyers' opinions? You wanted to hear a different opinion which is why you called me over.
Not exactly… But we heard that you’ve suggested some solutions to end the current crisis, so we contacted you to hear your suggestions.
Yes. I have a vision but it differs from yours and excludes the military and security apparatus methods that may lead the country to destruction...
(Interrupting) Khilset ["it's over", in a reference to the uprising --Ed.] sir.
Ok, it seems you don’t care what my opinion is as long as it's over.
Well, it's over but your suggestions might be useful for Syria’s future or do you not want to help Syria?
No, on the contrary, you did a good thing by exempting Naji al-ʿOtari, but to appoint other corrupt Baʿthist ministers will only exacerbate the problem in the country. Mr. General, the problem in the country is great and the first part of the solution is to be transparent with all; to include the opposition to deal with its share of responsibility and involve them in the solution. This means an opposition figure must be chosen as prime minister, and not a Baʿathist.
Dr. ʿAref Dalila, a renowned economic expert, appreciated and respected by the majority of Syrians. The broad powers of such a role suit him and will help the country out of the crisis.
Dr. ʿAref? No...no, that would not work at all.
And why not? There is guaranteed approval from the “Sunnis” if this is a concern [Dalila is an ʿAlawi dissident --Ed.].
(Mockingly) Who are you that the "Sunnis" would listen to you?
Assign Dr. ʿAref to this position and leave the rest to me.
You’re speaking like you’re the ʿAntar of your times… Let’s hear another one then.
Well, there’s another person named Michel Shammas…
Who is he?
Me, Mr. General. Is there a problem with my name?
(Laughing out loud) What are you, crazy?! You want to become prime minister?!
Yeah, what’s wrong with me? What am I missing in order to become prime minister? I reassure you again that the “Sunnis” would also approve of me [Shammas is a Christian --Ed.]. As far as I know, the religion of the prime minister isn’t specified by the Syrian constitution, unlike for the president. May God bless Fares al-Khuri and bless the 1950s in which a Sunni parliamentary majority elected a Christian as president of the parliament three times and four times as prime minister.
(Laughing sarcastically) Who do you think you are?
(At this point, the brigadier general began to play with the TV which was airing an interview with a “terrorist” who was admitting to planting bombs. Then he looked over at me).
So what do you think of the terrorist’s confessions?
Do you want my professional opinion or my civilian opinion?
Of course, your professional opinion.
To be frank, these confessions are not worth a penny nor are they credible in a court of law. You can kill me now and I will admit to you, immediately, who was the one to hand over the Golan Heights to Israel or the Sanjak of Alexandretta to Turkey [ironic reference to Hafez al-Asad --Ed.].
(The brigadier general here paused with a grim look on his face, as though he wanted to end the meeting. He told me to come closer, and put his hand on my shoulder).
Oh Mr. Michel, the president has issued directives regarding the situation in Syria and of course, you love the president, and understand that we have to work according to his instructions.
(I grabbed his hand and pushed it off of my shoulders).
Mr. General, it is not demanded of me to love my president but to respect presidential authority, and perhaps I love him and perhaps I don’t, and honestly I do not love him. For what concerns his directives, that is your business, while I am not an employee of the state.
At this point, the brigadier general asked to return me using the branch’s cars. I told him, jokingly: “I don’t like to ride your car. Please pay me a taxi, it cost me 150 Syrian pounds to come here today.” He apologized and stressed the need to deliver me in one of their cars. He then gave me his card to keep in touch and I exited the branch.
The air outside was nice, mixed with the scent of damascene jasmine. I walked in Damascus’s streets for more than half an hour and let my wife know that I was on my way back. I was thinking back to what took place in the security branch for more than three hours. I thought to myself that the country was at a dangerous crossroads, and that the regime was still thinking in terms of total domination, and was still fearful of Dr. ʿAref Dalila after his imprisonment for 10 years and of my nomination for a powerless premiership.
[Main picture: Poster for the “Bury Us Together” campaign which called for equality amongst all Syrian people - 16-5-2014 ("Bury Us Together" Facebook page)].