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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Smug in Damascus

May 21, 2007 Edition > Section: Opinion >

Smug in Damascus

May 21, 2007
URL: http://www.nysun.com/article/54884

Why are dictatorships so keen on going through the motions of a democratic process? This is an especially pressing question to ponder in a country like Syria that held a parliamentary election on April 23 and is due to hold a presidential referendum — not an actual election but rather a show of support for President al Asad — on May 27.

Over a two-week period, and while traveling throughout Syria, I could not find a single person who had voted for the parliament. Granted, my sample of the population was rather limited and could not have exceeded 40 persons. But they were much varied: a bookshop owner, a hip musician, a peasant hauling a bag of wild thyme that he'd just picked off the mountainside and was taking back to his village. These persons belonged to various religions and sects and locales, and yet none had voted or knew of someone who did.

One professor, a member of the ruling Baath Party that expectedly swept the majority of seats, admitted that a colleague of his did vote but only because he had a pending application for a promotion and did not want any act of civic irresponsibility to blotch his record of toeing the line that may put his career in jeopardy.

Based on my casual observation, I'd snidely say that more paper was used in printing up candidate paraphernalia such as posters and fliers than in actual ballots cast. But does nitpicking over voter turnout really matter in a country like Syria? Doesn't the debate itself about voter turnout give some measure of credibility to the purpose of a sham electoral process, which in a dictatorship such as the one in Syria is to give the regime the result it planned for?

So why go to all this trouble for a exercise that no one, whether inside the country or observing it from afar, would believe as genuine?

Dictatorships do this because they can. It is done to rub everyone's face in the fact that they — the ruling clique — are in charge and nothing can be done to change that. And the Syrian leadership is flexing this fait accompli these days with a certain amount of relish and smugness. The Asad regime believes that it has weathered the worst of the democratic storm unleashed by the Bush administration on the Middle East and that it is now time to draw in a deep breath and celebrate.

It's been seven years since Bashar al-Asad took over the helm in place of his deceased father, Hafez al-Asad, who had ruled for three decades after leading a coup d'etat in 1970. The referendum later this month is to pave the way for another seven-year term. One his first referendum in 2000, the younger Asad received 97.2% of the "yes" vote.

However, Mr. al-Asad faced a considerable challenge to his absolute rule ever since America's Congress took the lead and passed the Syrian Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act in December 2003 that imposed the three year stretch sanctions seeking to punish Syrian bad behavior at home and in Lebanon. These sanctions are due for a one year extension this month.

This American challenge was further emboldened when President Bush made the policy of bringing democracy to the Middle East — the projected hallmark of his second term and a move that many thought would specifically put Syria in the hot seat.

But the flames of insurgency in Iraq, and political paralysis and hints of an impending civil war in Lebanon, coupled with a change in congressional leadership that brought in one that seems more friendly to the Syrian dictator--Speaker Nancy Pelosi chit-chatted with Mr. al Asad in Damascus in early April--have all but stymied any such talk of a fundamental political change in Syria.

The Syrian regime has done much to bring about this result. In the very least, it turned a blind eye to the jihadists using Syria as their main conduit to Iraq, and it operated all the levers at its disposal — mostly in a gauchely sectarian manner — to bring Lebanon to the brink of constitutional failure. It then pointed to these two regional hot spots to scare the Syrian populace into equating American-inspired democracy with suicide bombers and sectarian strife: "You wouldn't want this to happen to your kids as they head to school on the streets of Damascus, would you?" the regime's cynical and intimidating refrain says.

To drive home the point that the American cavalry ain't coming to rescue anyone from oppression, the Syrian regime went on a spree of dolling out severe sentences to democratic and human rights activists in recent weeks, at times purposely timing court orders with the visits of isolation-breaking international dignitaries. These draconian measures are replete with oddly-phrased crimes like "weakening the national sentiment" — something that will put you away for three years, minimum. When hearing this on TV, one quick-witted fellow leaned over and remarked, "aren't the potholes in our streets delightful? Why do these intellectuals fuss over things so much and weaken our sentiments?"

There is a very decent man who I had met over several visits to Syria, yet I cannot reveal anything about him: not his profession, not his location, and certainly not his name. Syria is still a country where one looks over one's shoulder with every pronouncement, even though freedoms may have improved slightly during the last seven years. But it is also clear that there is a rapid regression of a "democratic process" as the Asad regime believes that the American pressure is off.

This person, who must remain anonymous, found this out the hard way: he was recently hauled back to the same prison in which he spent many weeks in the 1980s for political activism of a Communist variety. Time and wisdom had turned him into a liberal democrat who had openly embraced Mr. Bush's plan as the only remedy for Syria and the region.

Now, he found himself repeatedly being handcuffed, questioned, and harassed. He asked me to deliver this message: "We are on our own here and we look forward to help." He is one of the last pockets of hope in an otherwise bleak landscape.

As the parliamentary posters peel off, Damascus is again being spruced up with a new advertising blitz: a Syrian flag is superimposed on a thumb print, with a Syrian accented Arabic word printed underneath, "minhibek," meaning "we love you." This will ostensibly be the message the Syrian people will send to their leader, Mr. Bashar, on referendum day when they vote "yes" for extending another seven year term. Yet, a cynic may recognize the wavy Syrian flag with its two stars as the uncanny depiction of an unhappy face, and may misread the word in an Iraqi accent to mean the opposite: "manhibek" — we don't love you. But the country is rife with cynicism as it is, so what use is there to add to it? Would it change the dread that I have that the next time I call upon my friend I'll find out that he's been thrown in jail for "weakening the national sentiment?"

The referendum will be covered by news agencies with the usual deliberations over voter turnout and other trivial statistics. The regime's all-important message of "we can do whatever we want and you can't do anything about it" will be implicit and understood by all, yet again. Sadly, it won't be challenged, neither in Syria nor abroad — the regime knows this now with certainty and can afford to be smug about its prospects.

Mr. Kazimi can be reached at nibraska@yahoo.com. This column is part one of a two-part series on Syria.

May 21, 2007 Edition > Section: Opinion >