Syria dispatch: The road to Qardaha

Hafez al-Assad's tomb at Qardaha

A British reader of this website who until recently lived in Syria sent in this dispatch, about his last few weeks in Damascus. 

The broad-shouldered middle-aged figure walked into the internet café and sat down in front of the manager. The black leather jacket and olive trousers – de rigueur in those circles – marked him out as a member of the Mukhabarat, Syria’s feared “secret” police. He wanted to know if anybody had been looking at opposition websites critical of the government.

“Not at all”, my friend said in Arabic, “we always look out for that kind of behaviour; in fact, on my screen here I can see everybody else’s computer so know straight away if they are doing something illicit,” at the same time closing the incriminating websites on his desktop. The policemen nodded approvingly and picked up the list – held by all Syrian internet cafes - that records the name, identity number and entry time of customers.

Before he left however, the operative had just one more question: he wanted to know how it was that young Syrians were able to find these websites in the first place? My friend began to apprise him of Google and its use as a search engine, this was clearly the first time he’d heard of this wondro

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Bashar al-Assad's eye chart

Bashar al-Assad studied ophthalmology in London in the 1990s. Via Michael Collins Dunn via Wael Ghonim.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

What strikes me most about Assad's third speech

Bashar al-Assad just delivered his third public address since the uprising began in Syria. The previous speeches were cocky and confident, arrogant even. In this one he seemed uncomfortable and nervous, gone was the joking and swagger of a month ago. He even appeared to have lost some weight.

Assad offered a bunch of technocratic reforms: a new electoral law, a commitment to root out corruption, media reform, reform of municipal government, and the launch of a national dialogue for reform that will include 100 personalities. It was a technocrat's speech, not a leader or politician's speech, and he appeared rambling and perhaps even weak. Its contents were vague, and simply did not address the very serious crisis between the Syrian people and their state.

It's hard to interpret what this all means, because it was difficult to understand what Assad was pitching. He just didn't sell it, and we don't know who is supposed to big part of this national dialogue (although I've heard that longtime dissident Michel Kilo might be a part of it.) But it still feels too half-hearted, there was no grand gesture such as calling back security forces or addressing the refugee situation in Turkey (for instance by offering an amnesty and guarantees that they will be unharmed if they return and that the incidents that led to their flight will be investigated.)

It's very hard to judge from the outside where Syria is headed. This speech further muddles the picture, with Assad making a half-hearted conciliatory gesture that simply does not convince.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

Assad's propaganda

The Syrian state media is engaged in a no-holds barred propaganda campaign, described here by this rare report from inside Syria by a foreigner. It reminds me of the insanity on Egyptian TV during the 18 days of the revolution. From the Beast:

The protests in Syria have caused the world's media to focus on this autocratic state and its brutal response to the latest development in the Arab Spring. Foreign journalists are not being allowed into Syria. As a result, conspicuously lacking from international coverage is the response of Syrians themselves to the protests. And key in understanding this response is the "media war" that the Syrian regime has openly declared.

The extent of distortion and disinformation, of efforts to control Syrians' opinions, is mind-boggling, and terrifying. Here is a brief sample:
  • Armed terrorist groups are trying to destabilize Syria. Televised confessions and discoveries of weapons caches prove this.
  • Syrian citizens welcome the arrival of the army into their cities to protect them from these armed groups. Scenes of women throwing flowers over advancing tanks prove this.
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Bashar The Boring

Syria: speech by Bashar al-Assad, 16 April 2011:

For the Syrian citizens, the new government means new blood; and new blood means new and great expectations. But for this blood not to become old in a short period of time, we need to renew it constantly. This renewal happens by introducing new ideas. This new blood is not necessarily related to the individuals who join the government, but rather related to the new ideas which we produce every day. The world is moving fast around us, and we need to move at the same pace so that we can say that we are developing. Otherwise, we will be moving backwards. The world is moving ahead every month, every week, and sometimes every day.

 Oh spare me this unbearable banality. I can't bear to read the whole thing.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

“A Rose in the Desert”

"My husband's family tortures people for fun, but I'm hot so who cares"

From  Imelda Marcos of the Philippines to Asma Al-Assad, the western media has had a long love affair with foreign first ladies.  Perhaps this is the result of some subconscious attachment to the disappearing world of queens and princess. Indeed there is a touch of the royal in Vogue’s well-written profile of Asma Al-Assad, First Lady of Syria. As written the courtship between the future first lady and President Bashar Al-Assad seems to be missing only a glass slipper. The author’s profile includes a visit to the presidential residence in Damascus where the Al-Asad family makes decisions “on wildly democratic principles". The reporter also steals a few moments to chat with Syrian President. In a candid moment, the former eye-surgeon and rock fan characterizes the world of ophthalmology: "it’s very precise, it’s almost never an emergency, and there is very little blood” he says.  The reader is left to wonder how Al-Asad would characterize the world of Middle Eastern politics.

Links for 07.18.09 to 07.20.09

Gambling with peace: how US bingo dollars are funding Israeli settlements | World news | The Guardian | More Moskowitz. There should be an international financial blockade against any institution involved in the settlements. 'U.S. tells Israel to halt East Jerusalem building' - Haaretz - Israel News | More on Irving Moskowitz's settlement plans. Asma Al Assad: Syria's First Lady And All-Natural Beauty (SLIDESHOW) | HuffPo celebrates the beauty of Asma al-Assad. Never mind her hubby being a dictator and all... WaPo bows cravenly to pro-Israel lobby | WaPo publishes inaccurate "correction" on Gilo settlement. De “Freej” à “Hamdoon” : le dessin cartonne aux Emirats | On the spread of homegrown cartoon characters in the UAE. French agents kidnapped in Somalia | Security trainers were posing as journalists and staying at journalists' hotel — can't say I feel any sympathy for them. Publier ici votre bilan des dix de règne - Comme une bouteille jetée à la mer! | Larbi, one of the best Moroccan bloggers, is inviting readers to send in their assessment of the first 10 years of Muhammad VI's reign. Breaking the silence | Soldiers’ Testimonies from Operation Cast Lead, Gaza 2009 Al-Ahram Weekly | Egypt | Cementing the rift via dialogue | Update on Egypt-brokered Palestinian reconciliation talks after Ramallah meeting, takes the position that Fatah is sabotaging talks for electoral purposes. But does not acknowledge Egypt's acquiescence in this plan. The freegans' creed: waste not, want not | Environment | The Observer | Article on freeganism, i.e. eating free food that's been thrown away. Clearly only possible as a lifestyle in the first world. Somaliland's addict economy | GlobalPost | About Qat (also spelled Khat, the drug) in Somaliland. EGYPT: Poet accused of insulting Mubarak awaits final verdict | Babylon & Beyond | Los Angeles Times | Ridiculous. OpenStreetMap | Not bad alternative to Google Maps. For Cairo not bad, but Google is more detailed and in Arabic. Still, good effort that might improve, and does not lock us in to the G-Man. Revisiting Obama's Riyadh meeting | The Cable | So the idea that Obama came out empty-handed out of his pre-Cairo Speech meeting with Saudi King Abdullah is gaining ground. But it is ridiculous to imagine that Abdullah would pre-emptively agree to concessions before the Israelis have made even a single concession. Egyptian chronicles: Ahmed Rushdie-Barely-Speaks For The First Time | Very interesting post on former Egyptian minister of interior Ahmed Rushdie, described here as the only minister of the Mubarak era to have resigned and the only interior minister who was respected. (I don't know how true this is, but it's interesting!) International Crisis Group - 152 Sudan: Justice, Peace and the ICC | New ICG report on Sudan warns of laying off pressure on Khartoum over Darfur as focus shifts to the south and the CPA again. Among key recommendations to the ruling party is that Bashir should step down as soon as possible. US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman Talks to Asharq Al-Awsat | Sharq al-Awsat interview, mostly on Syria. The Obama administration sure loves Saudi media. Palestinians aim for massive pastry record Asharq Alawsat Newspaper (English) | I'm all for building the world's largest ball of twine or baking the biggest kunafa, but the reporting on this is over the top. Taboo Topics on Contemporary Foreign Policy Discourse | Stephen M. Walt | Excellent post on the Ten Commandments of foreign policy wonks. You could add plenty more, but I would add (as far as Egypt is concerned) "Thou shall greet yesterday's oppressor as today's reformer, or vice versa if appropriate." Walt makes so many good points it's hard to choose a favorite, although #9 is up there.
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Boutef's re-election: how does he compare?

Jacob Mundy provides a richly detailed background of Abdel Aziz Bouteflika's consolidation of power in the last decade in this fine MERIP article:
Given the outcome of the 1999 elections, it was important for Bouteflika to establish an independent base of support, one that would free him from the whims of the generals who put him in power. Though Algeria’s 2002 elections recorded what was then the lowest turnout since independence, the outcome indicated the growing power of Bouteflika’s electoral machine. The FLN -- a party that had seemed moribund in the 1990s -- took 51 percent of the seats in Parliament. This surprising show of strength was repeated in October at the local level. Though Bouteflika has been officially independent from the FLN since 1999, the reconstituted FLN provided him with the foot soldiers to bring people to the ballot box. The formation of the “presidential alliance” -- a three-party coalition led by the FLN -- would later guarantee the Bouteflika camp’s total electoral hegemony. Still, Islamist parties performed well in 2002, despite severe restrictions on many candidates; the largely secular-left Berber opposition stayed true to an electoral boycott stemming from the 2001 unrest in Kabylia. As the April 2004 presidential contest approached, there were indications that elements of the security-military-intelligence apparatus were starting to see Bouteflika as a threat. Bouteflika’s Brutus stepped forward in 2003, when Prime Minister and FLN Secretary-General Ali Benflis -- none other than Bouteflika’s 1999 campaign manager -- declared his intent to run. Yet even with the FLN divided and Benflis’ candidacy supported by powerful figures in the security oligarchy, Bouteflika sailed to an impressive 85 percent margin of victory, on turnout of nearly 60 percent. Benflis, who quickly disappeared from the political scene, managed to pull in 6 percent. With his 2004 reelection, it was clear that Bouteflika had established the independent base. A growing ensemble of stakeholders, from traditionalist elements of Algerian Islam to veterans’ and war martyrs’ groups, provided Bouteflika with his own means of reaching down to the grassroots. An Algerian sociologist has provisionally termed this coalition Bouteflika’s makhzan, in reference to the patron-client networks that have allowed the Moroccan monarchy to rule for centuries. There was perhaps no greater indication of Bouteflika’s triumph than the June 2004 “retirement” of Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mohammed Lamari, architect of the dirty war in the 1990s, and the 2005 posting of retired Gen. Larbi Belkhir to the embassy in Morocco. Belkhir, a key player for decades, had reportedly championed Bouteflika in 1999 in the face of the skepticism of others and subsequently ran the president’s office. Bouteflika’s new chief of staff and deputy defense minister were trusted allies. With Khaled Nezzar (mastermind of the 1992 coup) sulking in his villa, there appears to be little left of the cadre of “deciders” who allegedly manipulated events behind the scenes in the 1990s, except for long-time intelligence head Mohamed “Tewfik” Medienne, who, like the Wizard of Oz, seems to instill fear simply by staying out of the public eye. It was only after his 2004 reelection that Bouteflika fulfilled his end of the bargain with those who had put him into office. On February 27, 2006, the presidential cabinet, chaired by Bouteflika himself, used a special rule to ratify the National Peace and Reconciliation Charter while the parliament was in recess. Though the Charter had ostensibly passed a national referendum in September 2005, there were doubts as to the authenticity of turnout figures. In its final form, the law amnestied insurgents who surrendered after January 2000, including those facing criminal proceedings or held in prison, while at the same time opening a new six-month window for more insurgents to surrender. At the same time, the Charter kept the same restrictions on amnesty as the 1999 Civil Concord, but those found guilty of unprotected offenses could receive reduced sentences. For the families of the “disappeared” or those abducted by armed opposition groups, death certificates could be issued once all investigations had been completed. Perhaps the most important aspect of the Charter was that, for the first time, the government extended full immunity to the security and military forces, including civilian militias. Merely to criticize the actions of the government or its agents during the “national tragedy” of the 1990s was made a criminal act.
Mundy ends declaring:
Bouteflika’s victory is now almost total. He has conquered the generals, kept the FIS from returning in any form, staved off democratic challenges from his own party and the Kabyle Citizens’ Movement, and won the right to a third, or even fourth, term. The challenges he faces now seem almost quaint by comparison: residual political violence, high unemployment, widespread disillusionment with government and the state’s near total dependence on hydrocarbons.
Well perhaps Algeria has not made this transition from military oligarchy to dictatorship, it's successfully used an old-generation figure to pass control over to a new generation of oligarchs. And the problem with such coalitions around a transitional figure is that they might very easily collapse with his passing. In the meantime this Algerian election was profoundly depressing when you consider what a regression it constitutes. I am inspired by the Moroccan blogger Larbi to tally up the top five most "popular" Arab presidents: - At number one, like his father unrivaled, Bashar al-Assad at 97% but only in power for a mere nine years (re-elected 29 May 2007). - At number two, the indefatigable Zein al-Abideen Ben Ali with 94.49%, still going strong after 22 years. Like Bouteflika, he had to amend the constititution to be able to run again (re-elected 24 October 2004). - Slipping in at third position, the hero of the hour, Abdel Aziz Bouteflika who managed an impressive 90.24% and quite a strong show for an election many were boycotting. Thus he singlehandedly reestablishes Boumediennism. - Our very own Hosni Mubarak wins for longevity (28 years!) but has been slipping in the ranks lately, only achieving 88.5% in the last election (which, mind you, was the first to include other candidates) on 9 September 2005. Better luck in 2012 ya Hosni! - Finally it's Yemen's Ali Abdullah Salah with a measly 77.2% (re-elected 22 September 2006). Let's hope he tries harder next time. There's been a lot of movement in this race since the uncontested champion for most of the 1980s and 1990s, the late lamented Saddam Hussein, gave up his presidency. Will there ever be another like him, who against all odds is perhaps the world's only politician to win 100% of the vote in a presidential election?
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