Seif is one of one of few former Syrian lawmakers to have openly criticised Assad government and its economic policies
The National Coalition, a leading Syrian opposition body, elected prominent dissident Riad Seif as its new head on Saturday, the body's media office said.
Seventy-year-old Seif, who hails from Damascus, won 58 votes from the Istanbul-based National Coalition's 102 members, beating out the younger Khaled Khoja.
Seif, a secular human rights advocate, was previously elected as one of the two vice presidents for the Syrian National Coalition, Al-Arabiya said. He is now the opposition group’s sixth president.
Born into a family of modest means in Damascus, he began working in a textiles factory at the age of 12, before eventually opening his own workshop, which later became a profitable factory.
In 2001, Riad Seif was arrested by the regime, one day after hosting a political seminar where calls for democratic elections were made. #pt
— kristyan benedict (@KreaseChan) May 6, 2017
Seif served as a parliamentarian under both Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his father Hafez before him, and is one of the few lawmakers to have openly criticised the Assad government and its economic policies.
In January 2001, Seif expressed his desire to create a new political party in a country that was long dominated by the ruling Baath Party, Al-Arabiya said. One of his seminars drew several hundred people on 5 September 2001, urging reforms and change, including a call for civil disobedience.
The businessman-turned-dissident faced the wrath of the Syrian government amid his political activism when he was accused of “attempting to change the constitution by illegal means,” and “inciting racial and sectarian strife,” Human Rights Watch said.
This led to his conviction and sentence to five years in prison. He was released in early 2006. He left Syria in June 2012.
When the National Coalition was formed later that year, Seif served as a vice president.
In his new role, he will replace current head Anas al-Abdeh, who was elected in March 2016.
National Coalition members also elected Abdulrahman Mustafa and Salwa Ktaw as vice presidents.
Syria's war began in 2011 with widespread demonstrations against the Assad government, which responded with a brutal crackdown.