Hassan al-Nouri admits he has little chance of winning the Syrian presidential election this week. But he appears to be enjoying the attention that comes with trying.
The 54-year-old US-educated businessman is one of the first two candidates ever to run, ostensibly at least, against President Bashar al-Assad. There is little doubt that Mr Assad has had his opponents carefully vetted, and it is a foregone conclusion that tomorrow’s vote will deliver him a third seven-year term.
Still, Mr Nouri’s face is now a familiar sight on billboards across Syria as the country forges ahead with an election dismissed in the West as a parody of democracy. And a chat with Mr Nouri reveals that he is not prone to modesty.
“You are dealing with a unique character here,” the University of Wisconsin MBA graduate said of himself. “Different, very intellectual, grabbing different cultures, different mentalities.”
Members of the Syrian opposition have denounced Mr Nouri and his fellow challenger, Maher Hajjar, a politician from Aleppo, for lending credence to an electoral charade by running.
In the tightly controlled world of Syrian politics, there is little question that the men are approved by the government. However, Mr Nouri, a former minister of administrative development, notes that his attractiveness as a candidate proves that the election is not a set-up.
“Why do they need to bring a monster like me to this election?” he said. “Why do they need to bring someone very popular in Syria? I come from a very rich family, a very big family, a very known family.”
Mr Nouri said he was asked to spell out his “real intentions” for running during a meeting with officials four months ago.
“It was a very polite request, trust me. No one forced me,” he said. “It was not a discussion. It was like, ‘Are you willing to go for the election?’ I said, ‘Yes,’ and they said ‘Thank you very much.’”
Asked whether officials offered him political incentives to participate in the vote, the business-school owner said he doesn’t need them. “Ten ministers would not be able to reach my salary,” he said. “Position is not for me an incentive.”
The election paraphernalia that festoons the capital takes on a surreal edge as the government’s artillery blasts out toward the war-torn suburbs. Amid the strife, Mr Nouri’s campaign focuses on the less controversial topic of economic reform.
He calls for a free-market economy and less state interference in business, and he says he would work to revive the middle class, which has been hard-hit by the war.
Mr Nouri, a father of five, lived in Wisconsin for 10 years. He is careful, however, to characterise himself as “100 per cent American-educated but not Americanised,” and he accuses the US of supporting the wrong side in the Syrian war.
Washington has criticised elections as a vehicle to legitimise Assad, he said, and he described the Syrian president as “very smart” in ignoring such attempts to derail the process – a statement that sounds surprising coming from a supposed opponent.
Mr Nouri does not say he opposes the government, although he disagrees with its handling of the first six months of the Syrian uprising. “I’m not opposition,” he said. “But I’m not part of the regime.”
© The Washington Post