DAMASCUS, Syria —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 U.S.-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 Assad has had his opponents carefully vetted, and it is a foregone conclusion that the vote on Tuesday will deliver him a third seven-year term.
Still, Nouri’s face — little-known until relatively recently outside Damascus business circles — is now a familiar sight on billboards across Syria as the country forges ahead with an election widely dismissed in the West as a parody of democracy. And a chat with Nouri in the five-star hotel suite that has become his temporary campaign base quickly 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 as he reclined on a sofa while young assistants in a nearby room updated his social-media pages. “Different, very intellectual, grabbing different cultures, different mentalities.”
Members of the Syrian opposition have denounced Nouri and his fellow challenger, Maher Hajjar, a lawmaker 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, Nouri, a onetime minister of administrative development, notes that his attractiveness as a candidate proves that the election is not a setup.
“Why do they need to bring a monster like me to this election?” he said, referring to the Assad government. “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.”
Nouri, who says he is funding his campaign himself, 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, Nouri’s campaign focuses on the less controversial topics of economic reform and fighting corruption, areas in which he says he differs from the government. 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.
Nouri, a father of five, lived in Wisconsin for 10 years and said he is a fan of the Green Bay Packers and is a Wisconsin Badger. He was careful, however, to characterize himself as “a hundred percent American-educated but not Americanized,” and he accused the United States of supporting the wrong side in the Syrian war.
Washington has criticized elections as merely a vehicle to legitimize Assad, he said, and he described the Syrian president as “very smart” in ignoring such attempts to derail the process — just one of several statements that sound surprising coming from a supposed electoral opponent.
In fact, Nouri does not say he opposes the government, although he says he disagreed with its handling of the unfolding crisis during the first six months of the Syrian uprising.
“I’m not opposition, a hundred percent,” he said. “But I’m not part of the regime. I’m leading the third party. Millions of Syrians are silent majority. They don’t give a damn who is the president. They want food on the table, they want peace, they want security.”
But on the question of how he would provide security, amid a war that threatens to tear Syria apart, Nouri is vague. “I’d probably go very aggressively with peaceful dialogue,” he said. “I’d go probably with a cease-fire sometimes and opening dialogue, and the area that doesn’t accept to get involved in direct peaceful dialogue, then we will decide about what to do with it.”
He held up Homs, where the government negotiated a rebel withdrawal last month after bombarding the city for nearly two years, as an example of a successful approach. But when asked if he would pursue similar siege tactics, he was unsure.
“Really, I don’t know yet,” Nouri said. “I’m still building my thoughts about it, because this is really a difficult question.”
He suggested a “day of open dialogue” with members of the opposition in Syria to establish what they want. But “forget about asking any president to step down,” he added, “because a winner will never step down.”
In the end, the country’s first multiparty elections are “historic,” he said. “Probably I will not win, but at least Syria is winning.”