In October 2022, three of Sweden political parties announced to form a minority government with the unprecedented parliamentary support of the far-right Sweden Democrats (SD). Having won 62 seats in the last elections, SD was able to impose its conditions on the coalition. As a result, the Scandinavian country will no doubt see immigration being restricted, especially from Muslim countries.
Mohamed Balout, a Swedish citizen of Syrian descent, had long warned against the rise of the radical right and tried to mobilize people to prevent it. He ran for parliament and even announced his ambition to become prime minister. Yet, one day before the elections he suddenly withdrew his candidacy.
So, who is Mohamed Balout? And what happened?
From Syria to Libya
Born in 1990 in Hirak, a town of some 27,000 inhabitants in the southern Syrian Governorate of Daraa, Balout in 2008 moved to Homs to study English literature at the Al-Baath University. The city in central Syria, the burial place of the great Muslim general Khalid-bin-Waleed, proved a peaceful haven for the devout Balout.
Ever since childhood, he had been keen to perform the “azan” (call to prayer) in Hirak’s mosques, something he still did whenever he visited. In Homs too, he continued to perform his religious duties. Here he also attended the matches of Al-Karamah football club, one of the reasons he failed his first year at university.
In 2003, Al-Jazeera’s coverage of the US invasion of Iraq and the execution of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, deeply impacted the young man. To work for Al-Jazeera one day became his ultimate dream.
Following the outbreak of the 2011 uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the country’s security forces intensified their inspections of Syrians in transit. Especially for people from Daraa, where the revolution had started, it became very hard to move around.
Therefore, Balout in 2011 moved to Damascus University. As a third-year English literature student, he stayed away from any political activities that might have dire consequences, although he was greatly saddened by the killing and torture of protesters across Syria.
The idea of having to do military service, which is compulsory in Syria, terrified him. While his military service was postponed due to his studies, he fled across the border to Lebanon in September 2011. From there, he traveled to Libya, where his father had worked in the 1990s.
Here he pursued his dream of becoming a journalist, despite the “bad omen” that occurred upon arrival when his Lebanese namesake, BBC correspondent Mohamed Ballout, was wounded while covering a battle.
Balout’s will was only strengthened by the bitterness that befell upon him in November 2012 when his father died and his mother was wounded by the Syrian army. It was a bitterness only aggravated by being far from home and the global media’s neglect of the tragedy that befell his home country.
Chasing his dream of becoming a journalist, he started working for the Al-Nabaa TV channel, which at the time was linked to the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), an Al-Qaida affiliate. Al-Nabaa was shut down in March 2015 for inciting and supporting terrorism.
Balout had already left Libya by then. He had reached Italy on a fishing boat in 2014. From there he had continued his journey to Sweden, where he decided to stay and shed a light on the massacres in Syria. However, to gain credibility, he invented stories about his “journalistic and political activities in 2011.” Swedish media failed to verify his claims and the young man enjoyed his moment of fame.
He introduced himself as “a former reporter for Human Rights Magazine in Syria and Lebanon.” That is what he told Swedish investigative journalism magazine ETC. He even showed a press card to back up his claim. Yet, Daraj did not find any media outlet under such a name in either country.
Ballout also claimed he had been a correspondent for Al-Quds Al-Arabi, which the London-based newspaper denied in an email to Daraj.
While studying Swedish, Arbetsformedlingen (Sweden’s public employment service) in May 2015 arranged an internship for him at Swedish Television (SVT) in the city of Malmö. Here he learned that “in Western media, it is not allowed to publish a video or photo without searching for its ownership, and without obtaining permission to publish or use it.”
Balout continued to explain the Syrian tragedy and talked about his difficult journey from Libya to Italy, showing video images he claimed he had filmed. The “exclusive” images impressed SVT, which broadcast them without verifying their authenticity.
One day later it became clear that the footage had been filmed by people who had previously posted it on YouTube. That same day SVT fired Balout and withdrew the report.
Ballout admitted what had happened, blaming his “lack of Swedish.” However, he could easily have asked his Arab colleagues at SVT for help. He could also have spoken English, a language in which he is supposedly fluent, as he told both Arab and Swedish he holds bachelor degrees in English Literature and Media Studies from Damascus University.
Each of these studies would have taken four years to conclude. He even provided Syrian newspaper Sada al-Sham with a copy of his graduation certificate from Damascus University.
However, the latter denied all of this. It confirmed by email that Balout in 2011 moved to Damascus University as a third-year English literature student. Yet, he had dropped out and never graduated. The university does not have any record of him being enrolled in media studies as well.
Balout later became a member of the Swedish Union of Journalists. In 2016, he co-founded the Swedish Arabic language newspaper Mosaik, which has been severely criticized.
“The horrible linguistic errors cannot be committed by an Arab pupil in elementary school,” Swedish newspaper Norra Skåne wrote in June 2016. “Not to mention the wording, which lacks the lowest levels of professionalism (…), which reveals the shallowness of the one who wrote it and his unfamiliarity with the simplest rules of language and journalism.”
Balout left Mosaik within a year after its establishment, as it “did not meet his ambitions.” He did continue to seek journalistic work.
“Media ethics require a journalist to remain far from political and religious affiliations,” Balout wrote in a 2017 Sada al-Sham article which the newspaper has since removed. However, Balout became a “muezzin” reciting the call to prayer at the Khadija Mosque, Scandinavia’s largest, which was built by Qatar at a cost of over $3 million euro.
It seems that, as Balout’s journalistic dream started to fade, he decided to move into politics. In early 2021, he declared he aspired to become Sweden’s prime minister. Later that year, he also told the media he was running for parliament on the liberal Center Party’s list. He claimed he had sacrificed his journalistic work to do so.
Yet, in May 2021, he continued to work for Al-Jazeera.net, part of the Al Jazeera network, where he claimed to have been a correspondent covering the Syrian war. But there is no evidence to support this. Al Jazeera did not respond to Daraj’s request for information.
Balout has obtained Swedish citizenship. Earlier this year he graduated in political science at Malmö University. For reasons he has not explained, he withdrew his parliamentary candidacy one day before the general elections in September.
He only said he decided “to stay away from politics to search for [a path] for himself elsewhere.” The Center Party did not explain the reasons for his withdrawal either. Nor did it respond to Daraj’s questions.
It seems the Center Party quietly removed Balout’s name due to Swedish activists re-publishing one of his old tweets praising Saddam Hussein, who was executed by hanging in December 2006.
“[It is the] commemoration of the martyrdom of Saddam Hussein, the falcon of Arabs. After you, all men died,” Balout tweeted in December 2016.
In addition to publishing articles on Al-Jazeera.net, Balout started working as a real estate broker. He launched his own company, while continuing to work as an integration coordinator in Vellinge, a municipality in the south of Sweden.
Balout believes the “negative image” of immigrants in the minds of Swedes is due to “what they hear in the media, which is the only source of knowledge they have.” According to him: “Each one of us can do something to change that image.” He declined to comment to Daraj.
Balout’s case is not the only case of fraudulent Syrians in Sweden. In 2021, SVT revealed a scandal of university certificates being forged on a large scale. The fraud seems to have increased in recent years, with over 60 percent of detected frauds being related to Syrian documents.
Last September, a woman was convicted for submitting certificates showing she had completed a teacher training program at Damascus University. Yet, the university declared the woman had never even studied there.
Recently, a man was convicted of providing false evidence that he had completed Syrian secondary education. Like so many others, he was sentenced to paying a fine.
On November 26, Swedish journalist Sofie Löwenmark wrote in the Expressen newspaper that fake Syrian driving licenses “have become a threat to the Swedish traffic system, which has been flooded with fake certificates.”
She added that fake certificates can lead to people being allowed to stay in Sweden on false grounds, while Syrians who did complete their education may find it more difficult to find a job although they are in fact certified.
“Swedish society is built on the principle of trust,” she wrote. “But, unfortunately, the authorities now have to be more suspicious.”