DOHA, Qatar – Syria's main opposition group in exile elected a left-wing veteran dissident born into a Christian family as its new president on Friday, a choice that could help counter Western concerns about possible Islamist influence over the group.
George Sabra, a Communist-turned-social-democrat and former high school teacher who once wrote for the Arabic version of Sesame Street, said his election as head of the Syrian National Council is proof that Syrians are not beholden to sectarianism.
"This day is a victory of the Syrian people to prove all over the world the reality of the Syrians ... as young people shouted in the streets, 'Syrian people are one, one, one,'" he said moments after his victory was announced at a conference in Doha, Qatar.
Sabra's election came on the eve of a crucial decision for the SNC.
The Istanbul-based group, widely seen as out of touch with activists fighting the regime of President Bashar Assad, must decide Saturday whether to join a broader opposition leadership, an idea promoted by Western and Arab backers of those trying to oust President Bashar Assad.
Under the plan, the new group would form a transitional government in rebel-held areas of Syria and presumably serve as a conduit for foreign aid to the opposition. The rebels' Western backers have declined to send weapons to the rebels, for fear they will fall into the wrong hands.
Syria's opposition says it needs weapons to break the military stalemate in Syria and defeat Assad. Asked Friday what he wants from the international community, Sabra said: "Weapons, weapons, weapons."
Meanwhile, SNC members have expressed reservations about the new leadership group, fearing that the SNC's influence would be diluted. The SNC, still the largest political opposition group, would get only about one third of some 60 seats in the new group to make room for activists inside Syria.
The SNC was to give its answer on Friday, but asked for more time after its own leadership elections dragged on and divisions arose among the members over whether to join the internationally backed initiative.
The SNC had promised its Qatari hosts and the author of the new plan, Syrian dissident Riad Seif, to decide quickly whether to accept the idea in principle. However, Sabra suggested Friday that negotiations over an acceptable formula could continue beyond the weekend.
"The problem is, there is no answer by yes or no," said Sabra, a 65-year-old father of three. "This is politics," he added with a laugh.
The gray-haired, jovial Sabra said earlier this week that he and Seif are longtime friends, and even shared a jail cell at one point. Sabra, a veteran dissident and leftist activist, said he was jailed for eight years starting in 1987 and for two brief stretches in the summer and fall of 2011, under Assad and his father and predecessor Hafez.
He said he was a leading member of Syria's Communist party, but in 2005 his group became social democrat.
Sabra left Syria several months after the uprising against Bashar Assad erupted in March 2011 and moved to Paris. Sabra said he is a former geography teacher and writer for children's television, including for the Arabic version of Sesame Street produced in Kuwait.
The SNC's new vice president chosen Friday was Mohammed Farouk Taifur, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, a region-wide Islamist movement that has risen to power in several countries in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings.
Sabra's won the top spot against difficult odds.
On Thursday, he failed to win a place in the 41-member general secretariat, the body that chooses the president. On Friday, Sabra was appointed to the secretariat retroactively after a member resigned to make room for him.
Sabra was president by 28 out of 41 votes, replacing Abdelbaset Sieda, a representative of Syria's Kurdish community.