You probably will not read anything about it in the Western media, but today hundreds of Syrians gathered in front of the Syrian embassy in Beirut to demonstrate their support for President Bashar al-Assad. I would not have even known about the event myself had I not gone to the bank across the street from the embassy after my Arabic class this morning. It was around noon and hundreds of men, many of whom are probably guest workers, were carrying pictures of Bashar and chanting pro-regime slogans like “our souls, our blood, we sacrifice for you”. The spirit of the protest was passionate at first, but more lighthearted as the demonstrators proceeded to march from the embassy up to Bliss Street and across to Ras Beirut. Young men were pouring out of honking cars, dancing and smiling as they sang praises for Bashar and Syria. Lebanese stood on the sidewalks watching the procession, either amused or angry. I subsequently read the sad news that one demonstrator was shot by a gunman as he approached the embassy. Since I did not have my camera with me I am borrowing the following two pictures taken by Associated Press photographer Bilal Hussein.
Of course this demonstration of support for President Assad in Beirut does not mean that most Syrians love him, but it does show that he has some genuine fans. Many of the reports coming from the West forget that support when they are reporting on regimes that are not American allies, like Syria and Libya, as well as Iran. During the 2009 protests in Iran there were also hundreds of thousands of Iranians demonstrating for the Islamic Republic, not against it. Some reporters and scholars reply that these demonstrations of support are purchased, that regimes pay poor people who need the money to come out into the streets. This is a cynical reaction that may sometimes be true, but more often probably not. In any case it needs to be proven with evidence. Because making that assumption is not only unfair to the regime, but more importantly dismissive of the perspectives of people who otherwise may not have an outlet to voice their politics. Most reporters and scholars do not speak to the working classes, nor to those living in rural areas.
Politics everywhere is complicated and we always have to question what we read and what we say. A reporter or scholar can try as best as possible to be fair and balanced, but we are human beings not machines. We choose sides. I know that I do. Also important is the position that we occupy in the world, but which is not of our choosing. One of my dear American friends, who does not speak Arabic, recently suggested that all of the Syrian guest workers he knows in southern Beirut, and who do not speak very much English, are opposed to the regime. I pictured the exchanges that must have led him to this conclusion and laughed. It reminded of my first major field lesson. It also speaks to the contradictory reports about how people in the region are reacting to the United Nations intervention in Libya.
In summer 2006 I was researching the role of Islamic institutions in a neighborhood of Dakar, Senegal that was constructed in the 1970s and 1980s by the World Bank. I interviewed two local Imams for my research. The first Imam I interviewed without any outside help, just me and the Imam along with some of his colleagues. He was a charismatic young man who was extremely critical of the World Bank and other international aid institutions. The conversation was difficult to follow in Wolof, French, Arabic and even a little English, but he basically said that development organizations were instruments of Western imperialism. He complained that capitalism was hurting his culture not helping it, making Senegalese lose their blackness. Whereas my interview with the second Imam was totally different. The second interview was filmed by a colleague and included a translator and many onlookers. Although I was told that he shared the same political views as the first Imam, in front of the camera the second Imam appealed to the World Bank for more aid. Perhaps he thought the World Bank would be listening and that this was his chance to do something for his community. But I could not stop asking myself what might he have said without the camera? And which interview was closer to the truth?
Desperate Assad Tries to Blunt Uprising with New Promises of Reform
Syrian leader faces greatest challenge to his family's rule since his father took power 40 years ago. Patrick Cockburn reports.
Monday, 28 March 2011
President Bashar al-Assad is facing the greatest challenge to his family's rule over Syria since his father took power 40 years ago, as protests sweep through the country.
Yesterday the government deployed the army for the first time, in the main port of Latakia. Authorities admitted that 12 people had been killed and 200 wounded over a two-day period in the north-western city, but said all who died had been members of the security forces or their attackers.
Speculation was growing last night that President Assad would announce widespread political reforms in a bid to bring the disturbances under control. His adviser, Bouthaina Shaaban, told Al Jazeera that the emergency law in existence since 1963 and hated by Syrian reformists for the far-reaching powers it gives to security services would be lifted, but did not give a timetable.
In another bid to placate protesters, authorities released political activist Diana Jawabra and 15 others. They had been arrested for taking part in a silent protest demanding the release of a dozen schoolchildren, detained for writing anti-regime graffiti.
While Mr Assad may offer concessions such ending emergency law, releasing prisoners, giving the press greater freedom and legalising political parties other than the ruling Baath party, such changes are unlikely to be seen as credible as long as the same people run the army and the security forces. And the ever-creeping death toll is increasing calls for an end to the regime.
The crisis that is threatening to overturn the Syrian government has erupted suddenly over the past week, initially provoked by the security forces in the southern city of Deraa arresting the graffiti-scrawling children. Their detention provoked demonstrations that were met with live fire, and the funerals of the dead turned into vast political rallies.
Human Rights Watch says 61 people have been killed in Deraa and surrounding towns and villages.
The threat to Mr Assad is the greatest the Baathist regime has ever experienced, and it has in the past always responded to dissent with repression. During the Muslim Brotherhood guerrilla war in 1976-82 Mr Assad's father, Hafez al-Assad, crushed the rebellion in the city of Hama by killing an estimated 10,000 people.
Baath party veterans may consider their best hope of staying in power at this time is to avoid making concessions, which, they believe, will only be interpreted as weakness and lead to additional demands.
Mr Assad, a British-educated eye doctor, is widely respected in Syria but his popularity is likely to slump as he fails to speak or respond adequately to the present crisis.
His spokesmen have made contradictory statements on the release of prisoners and other issues, putting in doubt the regime's seriousness in making reforms.
They have also released unlikely explanations of the killing of protesters, claiming that demonstrators opened fire first or were foreign infiltrators. These are often directly contradicted by videos taken by mobile phone and shown on YouTube or by satellite TV stations like al-Jazeera whose correspondents entered Deraa.
In the capital, Damascus, pro-government rallies, with supporter waving Syrian flags and posters of Mr Assad, have taken over main squares and threatened to storm the al-Jazeera offices.
The anti-government protests are fuelled by the demand for political and civil liberty but Syrians, who spend half their income on food according to UN figures, are also suffering from high prices, unemployment and corruption.
Some 30 per cent of the 22 million population are below the poverty line. The government is short of money because of declining oil revenues but has tried to reduce economic discontent by cutting duties and taxes on food and other staples.
The US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, yesterday drew a clear distinction between Syria and Libya, ruling out involvement in Damascus' affairs.
"Each of these situations is unique," she told CBS News. "Certainly we deplore the violence in Syria... What's been happening there the last few weeks is deeply concerning, but there's a difference between calling out aircraft and indiscriminately strafing and bombing your own cities (as in Libya), than police actions which frankly have exceeded the use of force that any of us would want to see."
In Latakia, the state news agency said "armed elements roamed the streets, occupied the rooftops of some buildings and opened fire randomly, terrorising people". Troops have now moved into the city, which is majority Sunni Muslim but its hinterland is largely populated by Allawites, the Shia Muslim sect to which much of Syria's ruling elite belongs.