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July 9, 2011

Silencing the voice of freedom in Syria

08 Jul 2011

The Asad regime’s determination to win the propaganda war has led to the assassination of Hama protest singer Ibrahim Qashoush, says Salwa Ismail

The reported killing of Ibrahim Qashoush by armed thugs (shabiha) of the Syrian regime in the city of Hama on 4 July has stirred deep feelings of sorrow and anger among Syrian activists and has them vowing to continue in their uprising to bring down the regime. According to news and reports circulating on Syrian opposition websites and Facebook pages of the uprising, Qashoush was brutally murdered by regime-affiliated thugs who entered the city on July 4 as part of a military and security assault to bring it under their control. It is thought that Qashoush was targeted because of his fiery songs and performances at night-time protests in Hama.


Up until this latest assault on the city, Hama residents were gathering nightly in large numbers of up to 200,000 in the al-Asi Square in the city centre. In these gatherings, Qashoush performed nationalist and political songs that expressed the defiance of the people. He sang in the ‘arada style — a traditional genre that has now been renewed in the spirit of resistance and contestation throughout the country. In this genre, the audience participates by repeating evocative refrains or answering questions and declarations sung by the lead singer. One of Qashoush’s songs, taped and widely viewed on Youtube is entitled Yalla Irhal Ya Bashar (Depart Bashar). In it, he asserts the people’s will to remove the President and their longing for freedom. The song directly addresses the President and ridicules his “third speech” and his talk of reform. Qashoush entreats him to leave, along with “the barbaric gang”, naming three inner-circle members of the ruling clique (Maher, Rami and Shalish).

The full significance of the killing of Qashoush can only be understood in relation to the regime’s two main mechanisms of control: propaganda and violence, which, in their continued use, reproduce the formula of rule of the late President Hafez al-Asad, father of the current President. Under crisis conditions, Bashar al-Asad’s regime deploys and intensifies the mythology and iconography inaugurated by his father. This includes the cult of “the eternal leader” whose photographs adorn all public spaces and for whom the people must shout slogans of loyalty, and make declarations of abiding love and affirmations of their willingness to sacrifice blood and soul. The cult, which was most insightfully analysed by Chicago University scholar Lisa Wedeen in her book Ambiguities of Domination, weaves with symbols of patriotism, equating nation and leader through an endless visual twinning and merging of flags and photographs of the President.

During the current uprising, in addition to the heavy-handed security approach, the regime has organized successive rallies of support and has flooded the public space with its iconography, spinning anew the myths on which it rests. There has been a proliferation of large and glossy images of the President posted on building facades and entrances, on the windows of retail shops, coffee shops, restaurants, banks, cars and so on. Officially sponsored “loyalty-to-the-President” campaigns include the organisation of an event curiously named “the imprint of loyalty on the wall of history” referring to the production of the biggest map of the country coloured with citizens’ handprints and unfurled on the wall of the Citadel in Old Damascus. The “loyalty” campaign has also comprised numerous instances of commissioning and raising large-sized national flags, each reputed to be the biggest ever produced.

The current resuscitation of the cult of the leader contradicts earlier productions of the image of the president which had accompanied his assumption of power in 2000. Upon taking over the presidency, Bashar al-Asad was presented as the youthful leader who was shaped by the ideas and technologies of his time. Write-ups of the President emphasised his previous post as head of the IT society and his western education. Cast in this light, he was made to represent a new style of politics — less personalised, more forward-looking and bearing a reform agenda, the hallmark of which is greater freedom and opening. Yet, with every passing year of his presidency, the cult production picked up pace. The insistence on the cult has been greater at times of crisis.

The adulation and sycophancy encouraged by this propaganda is inextricably linked to the violence directed against regime opponents and the politics of fear that violence generates. As the “beloved” leader, Hafez al-Assad was also a much feared figure. He was feared because of the spectacular violence he was willing to unleash as illustrated in the events of Hama, but also for the hidden but somehow known-about horrors that were committed to maintain his regime. During the period of the late president’s rule, it is estimated that a total of 100,000 citizens were detained for their political activities. Until now the fate of 17,000 of these detainees remains unknown. Imprisonment and torture were ongoing practices.

The level of violence today has not reached the scale witnessed in Hama in 1982 and in other less-known massacres (e.g. Tadmur prison 1980, Jisr al-Shughour 1980), but in terms of its reach and its objects, it shows the same logic and approach to maintaining power. According to this logic, regime survival justifies not only exclusion of opponents but also their eradication through murder, large scale killing, sieges of towns and cities, and the deployment of tanks and soldiers to subdue a population that has risen to demand freedom and basic civil liberties as a matter of right. The defiant public expression of this aspiration undermines the two pillars of the regime, the simulated love of the leader and the unspoken fear of his wrath. The killing of Qashoush represents the regime’s logic of eradication pursued against the spirit of defiance that his songs expressed.



Ambassador Ford’s visit to Hama

Angry Arab :

Saturday, July 09, 2011

US ambassador in Hama: how Anthony Shadid covered it

Now this is the account of Anthony Shadid:  “A video posted to YouTube captured a scene unusual for an American diplomat in the Arab world, where resentment at American support for authoritarian rulers runs deep. In Hama, crowds chanting “People want the fall of the regime” cheered what appeared to be Mr. Ford’s vehicle, and some protesters tossed flowers on its hood. In the background was a huge banner that said, “Syria is free, down with Bashar al-Assad.””  First, would Anthony Shadid dare cover something that is damaging to Israel on the bases of a video posted on YouTube?  What do you think?  For any news coverage relating to Israel, the New York Times’ editors require standards and scrutiny tougher than those applied on PhD dissertations by committee members (at least in the old days).  Yet, for coverage of Iran and Syria, the New York Times applies the most lenient and least reliable standards.   Now here is the video in question.  Watch it.  It seems that Anthony assumed too much from a few minutes of video.  Anthony says:  “what appears to be Ford’s vehicle”.  Exactly.  The car is nondescript.  How on earth would protesters know that this is the US ambassador’s car?  And there are no cars going through the tens of thousands of demonstrators in Hama.  This is not going through the demonstration for sure.  Secondly, the Syrian people don’t know what Mr. Ford looks like.  He is not visible at all, and is not recognizable (except in Hama–if you believe the account in the Shadid article).   So Mr. Ford is not recognizable anywhere in the world (I did not know what he looks like until yesterday), except in Hama and Dayr Az-Zur, for some inexplicable reason.  Thirdly, the account of the ambassador being greeted by protesters first appeared not in news sites but in the account of the US Department of State’s spokeswoman.  That should have at least made Shadid express some healthy skepticism.  Fourthly,  there is a history of American staging of public spectacles: from Operation Ajax in Iran in 1953, to the most fake staging of a spectacle–the topping of Saddam’s statue in Firdaws Square in Baghdad when US soldiers provided old style Iraqi flags thinking that the Iraqi people would abandon the Saddam flag which has “God is Greater” on them.  Fifthly, look at the video itself.  Judge for yourself.  It is most fishy.  The car does not look like the fancy motorcade of a US ambassador in an an Arab country: it is a normal vehicle.  There is no way for protesters in Hama to know that this is a US diplomat’s car.  And how would the crowd know it is the ambassador?  And if you look at the video, the people around the car appear more like the local goons that US embassy hires for security.  In Lebanon, the local hired goons were graduates of the death squads of the Lebanese Forces, by the way.  And the “protesters” in the video (which zoomed closely in and it concluded with a close up of the face of the ambassador to suspiciously prove to people that it is indeed the Mr. Ford) seemed to be protecting the car more than anything else.  They were strategically protecting the car.  Otherwise, the whole scene is very weird: there are according to news accounts, several hundred thousands protesters in Hama, and it is not possible that his car went through that crowd.  We know how careful US diplomats are about their security, especially the security of the ambassador.   Sixthly, how did the people in Hama arrange for the flowers (bushes really) to be tossed on the car?  Or do people in Hama protest with trees in their hands?  Seventhly, this is not only a staged event for political purposes, there is also a professional reason.  Mr. Ford came under criticisms in Congress for visiting Jisr Ash-Shughur so he had to play John Wayne in another city.  Enjoy.  “

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