Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Al-Assad: the myth of the beloved president

After 11 years of failures, Bashar became like any other Syrian: a prisoner of the regime.   

That many Syrians disapprove of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad is no surprise.

This became clear in the month-long protests that are taking place all over Syria.

The divisions over Al-Assad are as old as his time in power, and these emotions have been crystallized in stronger ways these days.

Often, protests inside or about Syria in other countries end in clashes between pro- and anti-Assad demonstrators.

In few examples, pro-Assad supporters took part in the dispersal of protestors by the security forces.

But 11 years after he became president, why do some Syrians still love him?

Early reformer

There is no easy answer to this question. While many in Syria are forced to love him owing to their job or their interests, others seem to be genuine about it.

A comment by one Syrian on a recent Al-Jazeera commentary can sum up this emotion:
"I can't imagine the events occurring in Egypt to happen in Syria because we really like our president, not because they teach us to like him."

Indeed,  Bashar's past at the helm shows that he had tried to do something.

In early 2000, Bashar became the president of Syria after the death of his father, Hafiz al-Assad. His rise was seen as a good sign by some Syrians.

He was as young as many Syrians. An ophthalmologist by education, he did not boast of a past career in any of Syria's feared security services.

Compared with Gaddafi, Mubarak or other Arab autocrats, Bashar's young age in fact set him aside.
In addition, for a brief period, Syria did change under his leadership in what became known as the Damascus Spring.

Then, political salons mushroomed, and bristled with discussions about reforms and change.
Ebullient debates by otherwise underground activists about the future of Syria became a daily routine.

Real Bashar

However, this dose of freedom irked the symbols of the old regime, who clearly feared that the rug might be pulled from underneath their feet.

Afterwards, the Damascus Spring became history. The salons were closed, the expression of opinions muzzled and the arrests of dissidents resumed.

Ever since that moment, Bashar has but extended the legacy of his father. He ruled with an iron fist, meddled in the affairs of Syria's neighbours and championed - albeit verbally - the pan-Arabist dream.

He also added cronyism and corruption to the Syrians' lexicon, and under his leadership the economy almost crumbled.

It looked as if either Bashar radically changed, or worse still, was co-opted by the old guard in his father's junta. And by doing that, he subliminally dragged many Syrians into believing in him.

Pattern of weakness

Following the eruption of protests in Syria on 15 March 2011, these symptoms of Bashar's weakness and his inability to deliver reforms have become even more visible.

His announcements after the protests are one case in point where the passive language and the sense of delegation therein have not reflected the strength of a chief executive.

First, it was the emergency laws that will be lifted after an examination by the "regional command" and a discussion "by the relevant authorities", according to his first speech after the protests. Several weeks passed until the emergency was lifted on 19 April, without a clear end in sight to repression.  

Another case is Bashar's alleged orders for the release of protestors detained by the security forces.

Mahmoud Mar'i, a Syrian human rights defender, said in an interview with Al-Jazeera on 15 April that orders by Bashar for the release of those protestors were not put into force.

"It seems that even the security forces do not carry out the orders of the president," Mar'i noted.

To this day, 19 April, at least 200 Syrians have been killed and thousands remain in detention.

Prisoner in his homeland

It is therefore inconceivable that some Syrians still believe in Al-Assad or his ability to lead reform.

By forfeiting the protestors, and slurring them in his first speech, the president of the Syrian republic has also wasted a golden opportunity to solidify his reported pro-reform agenda.

Endless possibilities could have opened up had Bashar capitalized on the Syrians' anger against the status quo.

Commenting on Syria, Syrian writer and broadcaster Rana Kabbani told the BBC on 13 April that Al-Assad's regime was simply "unreformable". 

She added: "A lot of people believed [in his reform platform] and have been prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt. In 11 years, he has not been able to make one meaningful concession or reform."

It seems therefore that those who supported Al-Assad have done it only because of his weakness. For he, essentially, is one of many other Syrians who have become prisoners in their homeland.

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