The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged assad
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 wondrous new programme, but already his mind was working, “We’re going to have to shut down this Google thing”.

“What? Close Google?” my friend said. “Yep,” came the reply.

I witnessed this exchange in early May 2011, two months on from the outbreak of protests and nearly two years on from when I had first arrived in the country with the aim of improving my spoken Arabic. As the protests grew in size and intensity the frequency with which my friends and I would encounter the state’s security apparatus increased as the country’s Alawite leadership struggled to maintain control over the country.


I watched as the predominantly Christian neighbourhood in which I lived retreated inside itself. Whipped up into a mass of hysteria as the Mukhabarat sent memos to shopkeepers warning of imminent attacks on their churches by Salafists (members of an extreme sect of Islam) - supposedly sponsored by the Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan – barricades were erected and manned throughout the night whilst underemployed youths patrolled the narrow lanes with sticks and axes waiting for this imagined threat.

To be clear, despite the tolerance and the pluralistic attitude to religion espoused by Assad’s government – its greatest selling point – the sectarian divisions have always run deep. Whether it were warnings by young Christian men that the manner in which I greeted others was redolent of local Muslims and as such should be avoided, or the concern with which fathers greeted news of their daughters mixing with Muslim men, the divisions were evident and in existence long before anyone had heard of a fruit seller in Tunisia.

It is this sectarianism and minority fear that account for the support the government is receiving from the Christian quarter as they identify with the government’s own minority status. Shocked by the killings being carried out by the Syrian security forces the vast majority of Christians I spoke to (nearly always in Arabic) want to see reforms, but within the framework of the current government. They fear that the fall of the regime would see the ascendency of a conservative Sunni dominated government in which their rights as a religious minority would be subordinate to those of this threatened Islamic state. As one Christian owner of a successful fast food chain pointed out to me, “in Egypt the Copts cannot build new churches or extensions on their existing ones, here (Syria) we never have that problem.”


It would however be a gross simplification to suggest that the divisions that now exist within Syrian society reflect religious beliefs only. Within a few months of the outbreak of protests battle lines had been drawn in workplaces. A friend of mine, a journalist for a popular lifestyle magazine in Syria, told me how her office had been split down the middle, with those supporting the incumbent working on one side and those known to be favouring change (obvious in their lack of vocal support for the President) along the other. Friends were lost and managers antagonised as Facebook pages revealed a person’s true allegiances. This same friend told how her manager, upon seeing that she belonged to an opposition Facebook group, sent her a threatening email asking that she consider very carefully her position at the company.

And therein lays one of the truths revealed by current events: the present regime has created a system in which a few prosper at the expense of the many. It is senior managers and the businessman close to the regime that have most to lose from any upheaval.

It was interesting to hear a British friend recount to me how the views of students in the English language class (from the Central Bank) he teaches were split along seniority lines. Although the students were too frightened to make their opinions explicit, they would express their grievances with the regime by vocalising in class — in front of their bosses — their displeasure with their salaries, all the while disguised as English language practice. The managers were always content.


It was a common refrain from local friends that Syria no longer has a middle class, “ya fauk, ya taht” (“you are either at the top or at the bottom”). Taxi drivers were often at a loss to explain to me why both cars and mobile phone units were more expensive in Syria than in the UK. Their reticence not a sign of ignorance, but an acknowledgement of the fact that a group of powerful families close to the government run what is essentially a monopoly in both industries, the criticism of whom would not be tolerated.

In 2003, Riyad Saif, a member of parliament and vocal opponent of the government, dared to question whether a deal made by SyriaTel (the state telecom provider, owned by the President’s cousin Rami Maklouf) was in the interest of Syria. He received five years in prison.

Aside from the knowledge that the government has presided over a period of widening income inequality in an already poor country, without making any serious effort to reform, people are upset by the prevalence of “wasta”. With no real equivalent in the English language, it is almost a cross between nepotism, power and bribery, with the difference being that it is something one possesses. The need for “wasta” permeates every level of society; it is not simply a case of a few people using their contacts to gain an advantage in a particular circumstance. Instead it is the ability to have a government document processed quickly, avoid military service, or simply the power to circumvent the ubiquitous payment of bribes that plague the public sector. Jokingly refereed to as “Vitamin W”, in reference to the economic pickup it provides its owners, “wasta” was used in coded criticism of the elite as a substitute for the word few would dare utter; “fassad” – corruption.


On a Friday afternoon in mid-March I was strolling through the cobbled lanes of the old-city with my girlfriend and her mother. As we ascended the steps leading to that ancient seat of power and learning, the Omayyad Mosque, we began to hear a commotion. Hastening through the alleyway towards the sound we turned the corner into the main square, our ears suddenly assaulted by the cacophony of noise as pro-democracy protestors chanted slogans in competition with those backing the regime. “Allah, Suriya, hurriya” – “God, Syria, freedom” the rhyme heightening the sense of defiance in their voices.

“Allah, Suriya, Bashar wa bass” – “God, Syria, and Bashar, only” retorted a choir of paid informants and Mukhabarat; the sheer volume overwhelming the democracy activists, but the incongruities of sounds and lack of harmony were almost a signpost to the hollowness of the regime they were propping up.

Making our way through the crowds in front of the mosque we eventually passed into a side street lined with buses. In the innocence of those early days the buses had not yet come to take on the symbolism that they later would, oblivious to what was happening we pressed on. We heard the shouts before we saw the man; he was being dragged from behind us, the three men - all clad in black leather jackets, one carrying an asp – pulled the stricken man past us, up to the entrance of one of the buses and deposited him inside. The bus shook as the figures inside it moved about, but we were not to know the reason, for the curtains had been drawn.

The next few weeks witnessed a gradual escalation in the size of protests and the demands of the activists, with each Friday like a set-piece in a game of football between the regime and its opponents.


Syrian friends living in Damascus who had been concerned by the president’s reticence in the face of the growing unrest were relieved to hear news of a first speech that they fully expected would culminate in the ending of the much reviled emergency law. As middle-class Damascenes with relatively well-paid jobs they cherished the seeming stability that this regime had provided, one only had to look to neighbouring countries to see what could happen.

In years to come, when historians analyse the events of 2011 they will no doubt look back on Assad’s first speech as a turning point. Returning to my girlfriend’s flat that evening I found her and her friend discussing the speech. I was shocked. In the past her friend had always been one of the president’s most ardent supporters, but her stance had now changed dramatically. She felt that the president had completely misunderstood the seriousness of the situation. In her mind it was a grave misjudgment to have allowed expectations over the scrapping of the emergency law to rise only for the speech to offer nothing new.

That same evening I went to my favourite internet café, ostensibly to check my email, but really I wanted to gauge the reaction of the owner (with whom I had become good friends) to the speech. He was as dismissive of the situation as ever. A middle-aged Christian who had fought in the 1973 war against Israel, he was used to life in a police-state and was confident in the regime’s ability to suppress any dissent, in fact he welcomed the regime’s actions. Speaking in Arabic he told me how he valued the stability that he thought Assad offered, the people carrying out the attacks against the government were not Syrians, but Lebanese seeking to stir up trouble, they should be dealt with severely.

Later that night, after the owner had left I sat alone with the manager of the café (another friend). A closet-atheist, raised in a Christian household he sympathised with the protestors plight and recognised their demands, but was concerned with what might happen if the regime did actually fall. Would the ensuing anarchy, bloodletting and loss of protection for religious minorities that he predicted be any better? Yes, the regime had serious faults, but the alternative being touted by the pro-democracy activists was not an improvement. And anyway he pointed out, why should he join the protestors when so many of their chants were underpinned by religious convictions (“Allahu Akbar”) rather than those of freedom and humanity?


A few weeks later I was sat with some friends in a café in the Damascus suburb of Saruja watching Barcelona play Real Madrid in the Champions League. The atmosphere was already tense as earlier that evening a man had been taken away by the Mukhabarat for shouting a pro-democracy slogan in a café opposite. Sipping at my coke I did my best to enjoy the game trying to forget the ominous presence of the two characters clad in black leather jackets sitting in the corner.

Suddenly a goal was scored and the room erupted into a scene of celebration. Within an instant the owner had turned the television off. I sat in astonished silence as he explained that there were to be no boisterous post-goal scenes in his café, gently alluding to the figures in the corner. Another slight, another small encroachment of the state into the private sphere. At once tamed and humbled the all-male crowd returned quietly to their seats, the television switched back on, the humiliation complete.

Although at that time living in Damascus, my girlfriend was originally from Homs and travelled back to visit her family every other week. I would pick her up from the Pullman bus depot in the east of Damascus on Saturday evenings making the usual enquires into how she had spent the weekend. As the protests wore on I began to notice that she was often tired upon her return to the capital, a matter I attributed to the stress she must be suffering as a result of the turmoil the country was experiencing. I was correct about the stress, but wrong about the tiredness.

Her restless nights were caused by the constant din reverberating around Homs as its residents repeatedly called out the first words of the the call to prayer throughout the night. “Allahu Akbar” they would shout from their balconies, windows and rooftops, the familiar call an act of defiance, a challenge to the regime. The irony was lost on nobody. The same words that had challenged the Shah over 30 years ago when it was heard above the rooftops of Shi’a Tehran, leading to the most pro-Syrian theocracy in the history of the 20th Century, had now been appropriated by Syrian Sunnis calling for the end of a regime that saw itself as a Shi’a sect.

The truth is that despite the language of the Enlightenment that the more media savvy western-orientated Syrians couch their calls for reform in, there is still a strong religious dimension driving many of the protestors.


It is not without reason that one of the most popular car posters among regime enthusiasts is a picture of the late President Hafez al Assad with his hands cupped about his ears in a position of prayer. The President’s Islamic credentials need to be flaunted in this manner to deflect the assertions made by Syria’s more conservative Sunnis that the Assad’s are not Muslims, much less Shi’a.

In the 1970s, pronouncements by Iranian clerics that the Alawite sect was in fact an offshoot of Shi’a Islam bolstered the regime’s religious credentials, but many remain unconvinced, seeing the present leadership as an anomaly in the country’s Sunni dominated history.

Driving back from a restaurant one night I sat listening as my Syrian friend –a conservative Sunni - denounced the President as a non-believer: “He prays in the Omayyad [mosque] as a way to get closer to the people, it’s all for show.” Later that night, passing by the headquarters of the Alawite-dominated state security he pointed at the guards, “do you think any of these men attend a mosque?” I had heard similar things before: Sunnis criticising the President for his lack of religious credentials. A stark reminder that this was not solely a domestic issue, but rather part of the centuries long confrontation between Shi’a and Sunni that had found its most recent expression in the struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Resentment towards the Alawite nature of the regime was not confined to believers only, it was to be found amongst the secular also. Older members of Syrian society recalled the days when the people from the coastal region of Latakia – the traditional Alawite base - were known as hired help, employed as gardeners or cleaners, a designer accessory for wealthy Syrians much like the Filipinos working in Damascus today. Alawites were seen as rural types, unaccustomed to the gentrified manners and pretensions of city life, an image that they have found difficulty in shedding.

Sitting in an expensive restaurant with a group of Syrian friends I noticed that the two women next to me were whispering to one another. Enquiring as to their discussion they told me that they were amused by the appearance of the women at the opposite table. Accoarding to my friends the brash clothes, heavy make-up and blonde highlights marked the women out as Alawites; a Syrian nouveau-riche whose wealth, power and status coincided with the spectacular rise in fortune of their poster-boy, the former President Hafez al-Assad. The sentiments were not new, I had heard variations on those words many times before.


As I prepared to finally depart Damascus for a translation job in Beirut I spent a final few hours in my favourite internet café. The owner was there as always, but this time he was in the company of a man I had never seen before. In his early twenties the man stood up as the owner introduced me to him.

From the full enunciation of the Arabic letter “qaf” I could tell he was from Latakia, now here in Damascus to study law he told me. Asking after my time in Syria he wanted to know if I had learnt anything about the place. Did I know the capital of Syria? Inwardly groaning at his weak attempt to make me welcome (did he really think foreigners were so ignorant of the places they visited?) I told him Damascus. “No”, came the answer. I looked up from my computer screen, now paying him full attention. “No, you’re wrong, it’s not Damascus”, he continued. Piqued by his silly game, I asked him where it was. “Qardaha” he replied.

I had seen or heard this place before somewhere, but could not at that moment place it. My face must have revealed my puzzlement for he was openly grinning now. And then I realised, if I had heard it once before, then I had certainly walked past the poster of its most famous export hundreds of times.

Crossing the border into Lebanon that night I saw his picture one last time, in full military regalia Hafez al Assad stared down at me, he wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

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.

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.
  • Foreign satellite news channels—Al-Jazeera, Al-Arabiya, and BBC Arabic chief among them—are involved in deception and distortion in order to destabilize Syria. Detailed "refutations" of their reports prove this.
  • Under the pretense of democracy promotion, the United States is providing funds to groups whose aim is in fact to spread discord. A montage of bombardments from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, along with footage of maimed children and women, proves this. The clip finishes with the words 'Made in the USA' filling the screen.
  • On Fridays, the day on which the biggest protests have traditionally happened, looping scenes of "calm and peace and stability" in Syria's cities are broadcast.
  • And now, ringing condemnations of the Israelis' use of force against peaceful demonstrators in the occupied Golan Heights—presented without a shred of irony—eclipse all else in the Syrian news.

 "It makes me want to laugh and cry at the same time. I simply can't watch it," says Mona, a Ph.D. student at Aleppo University, who participated in an anti-regime protest on Eid al-Jelaa, Syria's independence day, last month.

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.

“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.

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?