Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Pretend to be a democrat or else..

By some accounts the turnout in the Syrian parliamentary elections last weekend was as low as 10%, but no one really knows. In any case, should this really have surprised anyone? When the Syrian constitution tells people that they must always "vote" the Baath Party back into power, no wonder that most choose to stay at home and watch a movie. What prisoner would vote for his jailer? Why pretend that the jailer needs the prisoner's vote in the first place?

It is interesting that the authorities, who exercise total control over the population, have openly admitted that the turnout was low. You can tell something is not quite right. Such uncharacteristic openness really throws you off balance; have they, all of a sudden, turned honest and transparent?

In the past, people were bullied into voting so the authorities could give an air of legitimacy to the results. This time around they have played it differently. Coersion appears to have been minimal and focused on squeezing out "undesirable" free-thinking independents rather than forcing large numbers of people to vote and then rigging the results.

The new official game is all about pretending to be democratic and saturating the atmosphere with election hype and American-style fanfare (complete with cheap, over-sized poster and banner advertising) and whipping up public interest in a sterile non-event. It is all about creating a world of make-believe and engaging the public and local and foreign media in a preposterous game of charade. Everyone knows Syria is not a democracy and as long as the Baath Party and the Assad clan are around probably never will be. So, the regime dictates that we must all pretend to be democratic and act as though we were!

Anyone who is familiar with mass psychology and public control techniques cannot but admire this regime. Its ability to persuade, brainwash or force people to play along in the game of transforming real misery into pretend nirvana is legendary. When the public re-awaken, complain or resist the game becomes more outrageous and dangerous. You could be locked up and persecuted for refusing to acknowledge the leader's wisdom and celebrate his great achievements. You could be harassed for using language that sees a glass half empty rather than half full, for describing social and economic problems as they really are instead of wishing that inshallah tomorrow will be better under the astute stewardship of our rulers and for questioning official policy or decisions on any issue.

The result is complete national paralysis and impotence. The only voices that are heard in the country are those of pretenders and regime sympathisers. The brave real ones are let out only when they promise to don a mask and "play along".


Fares said...

Brilliant Philip!!! and so sad. You should have written something about Bunni though!

عشتار said...

Dear Philip
When i used to watch the Syrian TV i always wondered about the public celebrations of "belroh beldam" with the big posters of Asad , it looked like a worship rituals , so abvious how the people are brainwashed
"cannot but admire this regime. Its ability to persuade, brainwash or force people to play along in the game of transforming real misery into pretend nirvana is legendary.."
And am still wondering about the common people , how deep they are brainwashed , how far they beleive in what they are doing or is it just the fear of being harrased and persecuted??
Are there any signs of resistance? beside the Islamist?
Btw , are you familiar with any Syrian novelists who write about the real life in Syria , iv been reading for Haifa Bitar , as a female writer she's very bold and explicit , but her books or at least the ones i read talk about social issues only , mostly from a female point of view , without drawing the whole picture

Philip I said...


Thank you. You are quite right. Bunni's persecution is particularly abhorent and I hope to devote time to wite about him soon.

Philip I said...


Assad, the father, was inspired by Stalin's cult of personality when he spent time in Moscow training as a fighter pilot.

I don't know of any Syrian novelists who write about real life in Syria without fear of persecution. However you might be interested to read an excellent book by an American lady, Lisa Wedeen (a professor of political science at the University of Chicago)who lived in Syria for a few years:

Ambiguities of Domination: Politics, Rhetoric, and Symbols in Contemporary Syria

University of Chicago Press, 1999. 244 pp.(paper, $17).

A review of her book appeared in a magazine called Middle East Quarterly in June 1999 and I quote:

"Why, she asks, did the Asad regime devote such a substantial proportion of its meager resources to the ubiquitous celebration of Asad? Why promote such nonsense as calling him the "premier pharmacist" of the country or suggest that he is immortal? Wedeen has a refreshingly simple answer: the cult of personality reinforced Asad's power by demonstrating that "his regime can compel people to say the ridiculous and to avow the absurd." If anyone happens to believe the drivel forwarded by the regime, that's a bonus; for all else who are compelled to take in and repeat the cult's platitudes, it serves as a powerful "mechanism of social control." The beauty of it is, the more skeptical a Syrian is, the more the cult oppresses him.

The only lightness in her morbidly interesting study comes in a long chapter where Wedeen offers up the jokes, cartoons, comedies, and rumors, underground and tolerated, through which Syrians manage to express their hatred of the rulers."


Philip I said...


Here's some background on Wedeen's time in Syria and her book, in her own words:

Acting “As If”: Symbolic Politics and Social Control in Syria



The following anecdote was related to me during my field work in Syria a few days after the event allegedly took place:

One day a high-ranking officer visiting the regiment ordered the soldiers to recount their dreams of the night before. A soldier stepped forward and announced: “I saw the image of the leader in the sky, and we mounted ladders of fire to kiss it.” A second soldier followed suit: “I saw the leader holding the sun in his hands, and he squeezed it, crushing it until it crumbled. Darkness blanketed the face of the earth. And then his face illuminated the sky, spreading light and warmth in all directions.” Soldier followed soldier, each extolling the leader's greatness. When M's turn came, he stepped forward, saluted the visiting officer, and said: “I saw that my mother is a prostitute in your bedroom.” The beating and discharge followed. Commenting retrospectively on his act, M explained that he had “meant that his country is a whore.” 1


1 M's story was told to me by a close friend of M's, one of my most reliable sources for information about Syrian politics, during the course of what would become two and one-half years of field research in Syria. In 1985, while studying Arabic, I lived with a Lebanese family in Abu Rummaneh, an affluent neighborhood of Damascus. In 1988–89, under the auspices of an IIE-Fulbright grant, I lived in the women's dormitories at the University of Damascus, in the Palestinian refugee camps, and in a rented apartment in Salahiyya, a middle-class neighborhood near the center of town. In 1992, I rented an apartment on the border of the middle-class, conservative neighborhood of Muhajirin during a year-long stay supported by a Fulbright-Hays doctoral dissertation fellowship. And in 1996, funded by a grant from Wesleyan University, I returned for the summer and lived in the Institut Français d'Études Arabes de Damas. During the course of my research, I conducted open-ended interviews with over 100 people from diverse generational, religious, sectarian, and class backgrounds. Interview subjects included prominent government officials, leaders and rank-and-file members of the “popular” organizations, peasants, sports coaches, school teachers, principals, entrepreneurs, artists, poets, film directors, economists, historians, and political dissidents.

عشتار said...

Thanks Philip
That was very interesting to read , appreciate that , will look for the book in Amazon
does this mean that Asad deliberately wanted to make the people look ridiculous??!
The story about the soldiers reminded me of Karfan stories in Syria exposed blog , so funny yet so sad..

Anonymous said...

I like to read to the dark sarcastic Syrian writer, Zakeria Tamer, it seems that he managed to adjust himself with authority, but like Maghoot he kept writing critical stories and articles of Syrian society and authoritarian system of Syria. He has an article about election published in free syria.
Philip, thanks for the link of Lisa Wedeen, it is valuable, I read as much as I can on Google, and ordered the book. I was looking for such a study for a while. I admire your position on Rime blog, I appreciate you setting the record straight regarding Aref Dalileh jailing, which is not because he is from Alawite sect but as you said because of calamity of what he said in public about the regime(Assad Clan) theft and the economic dire.
In Wedeen book, She writes on freedom of expression and said: the implicit and explicit norm of the official rhetoric operates to demarcate the boundary between acceptable and unacceptable.” I was like in face of discovery that the fearless regime is just a paper tiger can be easily stripped from power if opposition got to know the right tools. She said that the foundation of the Assad Clan since the late 70s, is based on rhetoric which manifested in the repetitive slogans, media scare and organized demonstration. It would the ridicule of history to know that these tools been used on 18 millions and succeeded.
One other story I would like to share with you, in my military service after graduation from Damascus U, in Aleppo camp, we were a large number of doctors and engineers at that winter, the authority treated one of the guys so badly by beaten him, and the rest of us saw his condition and we could not believe and we right away figured that what happened to him could happen to any of us. Next day we refused to eat in the lunch room. They got crazy and punched us collectively all day long and we saw the real face totalitarian regime and his authority the army offices, I will never forget that time. Which it tells you a lot, peaceful act is more powerful than the violent one.

Philip I said...


Thank you for pointing out the writings of Zakaria Tamer. I will look out for his work. Thank you also for your comments and sharing your experience of brutality in the army.

You hear about mistreatment of soldiers in many countries but in Syria low-rank officers can be particularly savage and crude and resentful of anyone who has received a university education. Their aim is to humiliate and exercise power. They have nothing else to offer the world!

Fares said...



please republish if you could. Thanks