Date: May 28, 2007. Category: Local Affairs. Publisher: Al-Thawra (Revolution) Newspaper, Syria. Title: “The Masses: We Have Voted for Hope and for the Future.”
This 2645-word article was published following the referendum on renewing the term of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It was just an “ordinary” article. Syrians read hundreds much like it every month, but it illustrates everything that was going on in Syria.
The Deified President
“Yesterday, cities across the country turned into a colorful panorama of society in all its elements, showing the world a strong-willed and steadfast Syria. The masses rallied around the leader who promised and delivered. The citizens in the nation can hold their heads high thanks to his honorable stances. He sowed the earth with wealth until the plains and hills burgeoned with fruit. It is for this reason that the citizens have voted for themselves, when they voted for the leader that they loved, confirming that the next seven years will see the building of a bountiful and generous Syria.”
This is the article's introduction.
Four, rather than seven years later, the Syrian revolution began. It is peculiar. Syrians did vote yes in the referendum on renewing the president’s term. This part is not a fabrication. But then how did things change so dramatically? Some might say it’s a conspiracy, the work of some foreign power meddling in what was otherwise the home of a “happy family”.
Such explanations, however, are meaningless. There was an oppressive security apparatus that forced people to act against their will, and it was not possible for the relationship between the regime and the citizens to continue as it did.
Reading Al-Thawra’s article can help shed light on the major flaws in the structure of the regime in Syria. Bashar al-Assad was not portrayed simply as an popular leader. The state-owned newspaper painted him as much more than that, as more than a mortal being. The qualities bestowed upon him makes him look more like an immortal god-like figure, sowing the earth, and causing the plains and hills to overflow with all kinds of crops!
“The coming years will see more bestowments”, said Finance Minister Dr. Mohammad al-Hussein. “Voting yes for President Bashar al-Assad is a yes for his bestowments in all areas,” said Ali Ahmad Mansoura, Governor of Suweida. “The bestowments that were dispersed under His Excellency the President covered all aspects of life,” said Minister of Agriculture and Agrarian Reform Adel Safar.
All aspects of life for Syrians depended on the president’s bestowments, just like with the gods of Greek mythology.
According to the image the regime paints of itself, through its mouthpieces and followers, citizens may not second-guess the president on his policies. In fact, for the regime they are “masses” rather than citizens. Their role in governance is simply cheering for the ruler.
Meanwhile, the president is more like an absolute monarch ruling his subjects. This might explains the choice of words to describe the policies of the president. The term bestowments for instance, is a good example, a term that implies people are given charity or a gift that the monarch-president has bestowed upon them, rather than receiving what is rightfully theirs.
The People as Grateful Beneficiaries
What exactly is the role of the Syrian people? In the regime’s image of itself, the people are passive recipients of its bestowments. So they must do little more than show obedience to the man who bestows his generosity upon them. This much is obvious in the dominant discourse: The people decided to reconfirm Assad as their president, “because the majority of our people can never forget the bestowments of the master of the homeland and his magnanimity”, as journalist Hanaa Dib said.
“The national day, when the leader and the people are fused together,” as the governor of Suweida describes the day of the referendum, is simply an occasion to give thanks to the deified president for his many graces. One example is farmers, a group that the Al-Thawra article addresses at length, explaining why they voted yes.
Apparently, “over the past seven years, this important segment [of society] received many bestowments and made many gains thanks to the reclamation of land, debt relief, electricity discounts, and assistance with all their production needs.” They voted yes because they were grateful for Assad’s blessings. Better yet, “the working class was repaying its debt with the word yes,” according to the president of the Workers Union in the governorate of Deir al-Zour. The president bestows charity upon the people, and the people thank him. Such was the regime’s concept of the electoral process.
Renewing the president’s term is even portrayed as a favor for the people. At the time of the referendum, the lines between the ruler and the ruled were deliberately blurred, because delineating them would have otherwise shattered the image that the regime had carefully crafted for itself. The people were not renewing the president’s term because they are satisfied with his policies. Rather, the people, being grateful to the president for his generosity, were serving their own interests by reaffirming his presidency.
This self-styled image of the regime was necessary to maintain the concept of governance as something that flows in only one direction: From top to bottom. These terms were imposed on the entire discourse in Syria. For instance, the president of the Farmers Union in the governorate of Deir al-Zour proclaims: “The word yes that the tanned wrists [i.e. the working class] scribbled with their blood is a yes to ourselves.”
Similarly, Minister of Agriculture Adel Safar spoke about the “coming together of the leader and the people”, while member of the national leadership of the Baath Party Bassam Janbieh observed that there was “an unrivaled popular consensus between the leader and the people, amounting to full identification.”
In Idlib, “for this grand occasion, church bells rang out strongly, echoing the loudspeakers from the mosques as citizens rejoiced euphorically.” Such were the clichés long advertised by the regime about coexistence among communities.
The regime robbed society of the chance to form any real horizontal relationship among its components. The only legitimate liaison was the one-tracked vertical relationship between the regime, at the top, and the people, at the bottom. Even the other way around was forbidden.
Statements by the clergy in Syria highlight “the 'loyalty' of religious communities". The Mufti of the Republic Dr. Ahmad Bader Hassoun said, celebrating the new term for President Assad: “Syria, which has been blessed by the heavens, and Damascus, which has been visited by the prophets, is teaching the world today about loyalty to the young man who has devoted his youth and his life to tell his compatriots ‘I am on your side’. For this reason, we are all voting today for ourselves. If these ballots were consulted in the Arab world, they would be filled with only one word: Yes to you.”
For his part, Bishop Hilarion Capucci described Assad as a “man who has been blessed by God with precious gems. He is a cultivated and modest young man with the wisdom of the elderly and the energy of youth. Syria’s renaissance is derived from God and the courageous President Assad.” Of course, Capucci did not forget to thank Assad for his “sacrifice”.
A president bigger than the nation
President Assad, according to the narrative of the regime’s media, is bigger than Syria. He is the pride of the Syrians. Syrian citizens had to tell themselves: “Thank you Lord for making me a subject of Bashar al-Assad.”
Nael Mahfoud, President of the Court of Cassation and Dean of the Judicial Institute, said: “This (yes) is not a three-letter word but a word as big as the whole nation.” How else when “Mr. President has gone from being president of Syria to becoming the leader of the Arab nation,” as Anas al-Zein, Vice Chairman of the Court of Cassation and the Director of Legislation at the Ministry of Justice, so clearly states. Zein adds: “The Syrian people chose Assad as a leader, on behalf of themselves and the Arab nation, because he is the spirit of Arab resistance and the Arab masses everywhere.”
Statements such as, “Bashar al-Assad is the embodiment of the Arab will” or “his wise policies and directives serve all Arabs, and not just Syrians” are just a few examples of the discourse at the time. They show how one narrative was being marketed and coordinated by the regime’s journalists, who were also required to remain vigilant and ready to “respond to foreign media campaigns trying to undermine Syria.”
The People Want Bashar
What about the conduct of Syrians on referendum day? In Idlib, apparently, “the citizens broke into traditional folk dance at polling stations”, while in Aleppo people celebrated the occasion with “mass ceremonies,” and “flash mobs of folk dance,” celebrating the “nation’s hope and the one who brings glories to its civilization.” In the Damascus countryside, people chanted, “we want no one but Bashar!”
This is how the regime’s media spoke. Certainly, not all of these stories are fabricated. It is true that the narrative of this event has been generalizing and presented one holistic perception of it. But this is how things would take place in Syria.
So what was it? A conspiracy? Even a conspiracy cannot come out of a vacuum. What happened then? To put it very simply, the people wanted to overcome their passiveness. They wanted “rights” rather than “bestowments.” And it is for this very reason that the Syrian regime has now imploded.