Lee Smith has just published a very interesting portrait of Syrian liberal Ammar Abdulhamid in The New York Times Magazine. Alas, the piece was layed out too early for the news that Ammar is now laboring under travel restrictions in Syria, with the Political Security Directorate (effectively controlled by Interior Minister Ghazi Kanaan) asking that he get permission every time he seeks to leave Syria. As a result, Ammar has been compelled to suspend all travel.
I've had the pleasure of publishing a number of Ammar's pieces in the Daily Star, and this selection will show that he's indeed moved well beyond the "red lines" set by the Syrian authorities. That should have been clear, however, when he started the Tharwa Project, which looks at how minorities are faring in the Middle East. Because Syria is dominated by the minority Alawite community, minority issues were always taboo, with the regime keeping alive the myth that all Syrians had somehow blended into a vast, non-sectarian Arab Nationalist vat.
The fact that Ammar was not thrown into jail shows that things are indeed changing in Syria; but also that the authorities are being particularly careful with a high-profile figure who is the son of a popular Syrian actress. That said, he has decided to stick this one out, and for that alone merits interest from those in the West who support Arab liberalism (no matter how anemic it might be in some parts of the Middle East).
Addendum: Ammar has just started a blog, and this entry suggests more than average courage:
Oh, of all the stupid things they could do? Did they really think they can put me on a leash? Did they think that I'd accept, that I'd cooperate? Well, they have another thing coming. I happen to be very much fond of the idea of staying at home at this stage and cutting down on travel time. I Have proposals and articles to write, a team to enlarge, conferences to plan and people to hassle. This is going to be a productive year, a very productive year for all of us here.
(Blog information thanks to the website of Martin Kramer, who wrote this entry on Ammar)