The greatest heroes are made of courage and wisdom built through years of overcoming struggle. Riad Seif is one of the many valiant heroes who have dedicated their lives to confronting the repressive Syrian regime. Literally living each day as if it might be his last, the cancer afflicted Seif continues to sacrifice for human rights and the wellbeing of his country.
Born in Syria on the 25th of November 1946, Riad Seif developed his leadership skills while working in a small shirt factory at the age of 17. Twenty years later his business skills paid off when he acquired a franchise opportunity to produce Adidas products. After building a factory, hiring 1,600 workers and expanding exports to Europe and beyond, Seif decided he could put his business skills to better use helping improve his country’s economic stagnation.
In 1994 Seif was elected into the Syrian parliament and later re-elected in 1998 with outstanding support. During his tenure, Riad Seif pushed for economic transparency and fiscal reform despite great resistance from Hafez al-Assad’s regime. Shortly after Hafez died in 2000, Assad’s son Bashar and the Ba’ath party granted a cellular telephone monopoly to Hafez’s wife. Riad spoke out against the monopoly calling it “a big scandal that would cost Syria millions of dollars” and called for an investigation. When his criticism fell on deaf ears Seif published a research study on Syria’s failing economy. As a punishment for his outspoken confrontation, Seif’s was stripped of his parliamentary immunity and his factory was forced into bankruptcy after being fined $2 million by the Ministry of Finance.
“Syria should belong to the Syrians not to the Assad family.” -Riad Seif
Rather than giving up, Seif opened his house to Syria’s leading intellectuals and independent figures to debate the Syrian political system, human rights issues, academic freedoms and other matters of civil society. The meetings became known as the Forum for National Dialogue and paved the way for the Damascus Spring movement that called for the release of political prisoners, the political rights (such as the ability to form civic organizations and alternative political parties) and the abolition of martial law in Syria.
In 2001, Riad Seif decided to challenge the 54 year rule of the Ba’ath party by forming his own political party. Seif, along with the other intellectuals began a campaign of civil disobedience demanding democratic elections and political reform. During a high profile meeting, Seif and nine other party members were arrested and charged with “inciting racial and sectarian strife and attempting to change the constitution.” Seif and Ma’mun al-Homsi were sentenced to five years in jail. The others were issued various sentences from two to ten years.
“Many people have lost everything, but they do not feel sorry for what has happened. They say, ‘That is the price of freedom and dignity’.” -Riad Seif
In January of 2006, Riad Seif was released from prison but continued to be subject to political persecution. The government frequently would withhold supplies en-route to his factories, denied his right to leave the country for treatment of his cancer and harassed him and his family members.
In 2008 Seif was arrested and imprisoned for two and a half years for participating in a meeting for democratic reforms. Upon his release, the 64 year old stated that he would retire from politics and his push for democracy.
Eight months later democracy movements begun to sweep the region in what became known as the Arab Spring of 2011. Riad Seif knew this was the moment he had been waiting for for two over a decade. He immediately began supporting the movement in Syria and joined the first protesters on the March 16th rally in front of the Interior Ministry. In subsequent protests he was beaten badly, bruised and bloodied, spent more time in jail and had his arm fractured in multiple locations. Later that fall Seif was attacked by government security officers during the middle of the day after leaving his Mosque. The public beating left Riad Seif barely conscious with multiple wounds and killed fellow opposition leader Mashaal Tammo. Committed to the cause, Seif remained in the Syrian capital of Damascus as the only representative of the internationally recognized Syrian National Council. The bold Seif stated that the only thing that would stop him from being on the front lines of democratic change is his ailing health or dying from his cancer.
“We were humiliated for 40 years. When the time came, and the Syrians could get rid of their fear, they made their miracle. Syrians are not going back to being humiliated by this (regime) again.” –Riad Seif
Despite all of the intimidation tactics, abuse and incarceration, Riad Seif continued as the Damascus figurehead of the efforts of Syrians. This summer Seif traveled to Germany for emergency heart surgery and used his time away from Syria to travel to Moscow to speak with Russian leaders about changing their policy of support for Assad. The following week Russia and China changed their stance on a key U.N. sanction if Syria continues to use heavy weaponry in residential neighborhoods. To this day Riad Seif continues to build a heroic legacy by using his charisma, wisdom and physical presence to stand with Syrians seeking human rights and better lives.
Riad Seif Profile