Samir Nashar was born in Aleppo in 1945. Like many of his generation, he says he was influenced by the romantic socialist ideas that prevailed in the 1960s.
Samir joined the Arab Socialist Movement while studying commerce at the University of Aleppo, from which he graduated in 1969. He then wanted to work as a university instructor, so traveled to Egypt to pursue higher education in Cairo University. However, he returned one year later as his father could no longer afford to pay his tuition fees due to a financial crisis.
Samir quit political activity after the Arab Socialist Movement split into two factions. One was pro-Hafez al-Assad and one of the National Progressive Front parties, while the other remained in opposition but weakened and couldn’t hold out against the regime.
Samir worked in the public sector for about four years, then resigned and went to work in the private sector. "I was being pressured at work because I wasn’t a member of the Ba'ath Party,” he says. “There was a general tendency to give Ba’athists leadership positions, so they forced me, under security pressures, to resign from my leadership position at the institution."
Samir considered moving in Saudi Arabia after receiving a good offer of work, but his friend convinced him to join his newly-established trading company that dealt with industrial and agricultural equipment. So, Samir worked with him as an executive director for 25 years.
“The company’s business developed considerably with time, and so did my ideas,” says Samir. “Having being convinced of socialist principles, I became a liberal, influenced by free trade, competition, markets, supply, demand etc. especially after my disappointing experience in the public sector. I noticed a huge difference between the public and private sectors in terms of employee loyalty. In the latter, employees were more productive, and in return we tried to motivate them by offering monetary rewards depending on their personal efforts. This is what the public sector lacks.”
Samir describes the commercial and industrial reality of Aleppo: “Aleppo is an ancient city and has long been an economic capital of the region. The Palestinian cause or the Palestine War and the subsequent events of 1956 and 1967 played a major role in the emigration of most Jews, who were a dynamic and vital part of the economy, from Aleppo. As for the Aleppo Christians, their strong trade relations with Europe formed a bridge between European countries and the region. However, the socialist decisions and nationalization laws that were implemented during President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s rule led a significant number of merchants and businessmen, both Christians and Muslims, to emigrate, mostly to Lebanon. Despite all the above, Aleppo remained Syria’s financial capital.”
Most of the state’s economic decisions were bureaucratic. Consequently, all those who worked in commerce and industry tried to circumvent them by corruption via public employees who faced difficult living conditions. “In all bureaucratic states controlled by autocratic mechanisms, corruption is a major and important factor in conducting business, whereby many are forced to resort to corruption to get their work done. So, there is always economic activity outside government procedures,” says Samir.
After about 25 years of working in the commercial sector, and after Bashar al-Assad had delivered his speech on the need for democracy to the People's Council in early 2000, Samir assumed that gradual democratic change was welcome and could lead to openness at all levels. “At the beginning of his mandate, Bashar al-Assad released detainees and allowed freedom of expression within certain limits. Consequently, many political forums were organized, and a spontaneous civil movement was created among political and cultural classes and elites, forming the Damascus Spring,” he says. “At the time, I thought that I could mobilize the stagnant situation in Aleppo and bring back dialogue between Syrians after an absence of about 30 years.”
Through his interaction and contacts with some figures, Samir decided to establish a political forum in Aleppo. He turned his trade office into the headquarters of the forum, which was named "Abdul Rahman al-Kawakibi Forum for Democratic Dialogue" and lasted until 2003. “I used to host cultural and political figures from all over Syria to give daily lectures on various issues, such as corruption, freedom, and dialogue between different nationalities and religions," he says.
Samir experienced harassment and security pressures, with the intention of forcing him to close the office. Eventually, he was arrested in the spring of 2003 and was referred for trial with several people, which aroused a huge outcry in Syria. More than 250 lawyers from various Syrian governorates volunteered to defend detainees who were arrested in Samir's office. The trial sessions were attended by delegates of all foreign embassies in Syria, in addition to activists, intellectuals, and university students from all governorates, stirring a citywide movement in Aleppo.
Samir was released and continued his activities having won a lawsuit that allowed him to unseal and reopen his office. However, he was forbidden from holding gatherings and working under the name of the former forum, which had previously brought together up to 100 activists.
In 2005, Samir co-signed the Damascus Declaration that called for gradual democratic change and the abolition of martial law, among other demands. “The regime was confused about which path to follow, whether to open up or maintain the current stalemate, but the decision was made to keep the situation as it was. After a conference on the Damascus Declaration attended by more than 160 opposing figures was held in Riad Seif’s house in 2007, the security services were shocked at being excluded from such a huge event. This led them to conduct an arrest campaign and imprison 10 of the most prominent opposition members,” he says.
Samir continued his activities and formed the Free Patriotic Movement. He then tried to form an agreement with members of renowned and well-off families in Aleppo in order to establish a large movement supporting the urban community and aiming to revive the role of this class, which was marginalized during the rule of Hafez al-Assad. However, members of this community were subjected to security pressures and forced to stay away from Samir, which put an end to the possibility of forming a movement.