DAMASCUS, Syria — When President Bashar al-Assad spoke before the National Assembly on Wednesday, the world for the first time saw the full effect of an insular autocracy 48 years into its rule.
Throughout the president’s speech — which lacked the expected specifics on how the Syrian regime planned to implement promised reforms, including the lifting of its longstanding emergency law — lawmakers stood up to offer words of support for their leader.
One man recited a poem filled with adulations. Others wept as they praised him. Adoring crowds greeted Assad after he finished the speech and left the building. They carried banners with the president’s portrait and slogans calling him “father,” “brother” and “hero.” He waved to them before climbing into the driver’s seat of his BMW.
Then, as he began to drive off, an older woman in a headscarf approached the car, seemingly agitated and shouting. Syrian TV broadcasting the event quickly faded to black as security tackled the woman and dragged her away.
The sequence of events highlighted the unique power of the Syrian regime. Until recently, a calculated cult of personality, a fierce and widespread secret police network and a government monopoly on media had managed to shield one of the most authoritarian governments in the region from the uprisings sweeping the Middle East and North Africa.
Wednesday’s display mirrored the regime’s longtime survival techniques. Middle East correspondent for The Independent Robert Fisk, referring to Assad’s father and predecessor in his book "The Great War for Civilisation," wrote: “President Hafez Assad’s Syria was throughout the eighties and nineties an unusual mixture of paternalism and ruthlessness, a mixture of childish 'adoration' for the Baathist president and fear of the state security police.”
Such a mixture was also on display on Wednesday.
Bashar al-Assad is indeed popular among many Syrians who see him and his beautiful wife Asma as modernizers. The thousands of government supporters who swelled city squares throughout the country on Tuesday highlighted his widespread support.
“Foreigners are trying to make trouble, but they don’t understand that Syria is different than all other Arab countries because of how much we truly love our president,” said a waiter at a Damascus cafe, who attended the rallies.
While much of the pro-Assad fervor was doubtlessly genuine, the events were clearly organized by the government. Some attendants probably receive a small stipend.
The Syrian regime manages to drum up support while simultaneously suppressing dissent by using a widespread network of informants, which is organized by local offices of the ruling Baath Party, sources said.
The feared “mukhabarat,” or secret police, range from highly trained ex-soldiers to shopkeepers and workers who take small bribes for reporting to the party the opinions and habits of neighbors and colleagues. One Syrian journalist estimated that the network totals at least 1 million people.
Since unrest began percolating in January, surveillance has increased. Mukhabarat now go door-to-door in neighborhoods where minority groups live to question families. People with traits seen as subversive have been arrested and questioned. Two poets were allegedly taken from a popular weekly Damascus poetry club on Tuesday. Dozens of activists have been imprisoned since January. One low-level Syrian journalist and fixer who disappeared two weeks ago was known to have outspoken views.
“Everyone thought something was wrong with him — he would do things like sit in a restaurant loudly talking about how he didn’t like the president,” said another journalist in Damascus. “You just can’t do that here. I thought he was either crazy or secret police himself. He didn’t have the fear that all Syrians carry with them.”
Circumscribing one’s speech, activities and associations to within safe parameters is an ever-present balance in the lives of many Syrians, he said. The inability to determine who is an informant adds to this culture of paranoia.
“It’s terrible,” he said. “You’re constantly wondering what the loyalties are of everyone you talk to.”
The ubiquity of government spies coupled with the risk of detention without trial of those whose attitudes are found to “weaken national sentiment,” a crime according to the emergency law, means that the opposition movement inside the country is scattered and small.
“Civil society is a wasteland. Even at the height of Bashar’s reformist fervor, the regime refused to license dissident groups, choosing instead to tolerate their illegal operation until political convenience dictated otherwise,” Syria experts Joe Pace and Joshua Landis wrote in "Demystifiying Syria," a book about the country’s recent political history.
Most well-known activists live abroad and those who reside inside Syria are usually under a travel ban. Many others are in prison.
Reliable statistics on the number of political prisoners in Syrian jails are notoriously difficult to determine. In 2006, Human Rights Watch estimated that there were “thousands” of political prisoners inside Syria. The most commonly repeated figure among Syrian journalists is 10,000. One activist said that there are about 3,000 Kurdish political prisoners alone. Most others are Islamists and a smaller portion consists of human rights activists.
In its 2011 report on Syria, Human Rights Watch wrote: “There was no significant change in Syrian human rights policy and practice in 2010. Authorities continued to broadly violate the civil and political rights of citizens, arresting political and human rights activists, censoring websites, detaining bloggers and imposing travel bans.”
Such assertions contradict Assad’s protestations — echoed last week by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — that he is a reformer. In January, Assad told the Wall Street Journal that he began implementing reforms when he first took office.
As an example, he cited a new media law set to go into place this year. In fact, this law is aimed at regulating online news sites, whose content had been difficult for the government to control and had therefore become one of the only sources for reliable information about the country.
Nabil Saleh, editor-in-chief for the Al-Jaml news website, criticised the law in an address to the Syrian parliament on Nov. 7. He said that it "restricts intellectual freedom [of journalists] and fails to protect citizens from the dangers of internet crime." He added that the new law also "puts journalists at risk of imprisonment and fines."
All radio and TV stations in Syria are government owned, and the constitution permits the prime minister to ban print publications that fail to serve “public interest.” Newspapers and magazines not aligned with the government are reviewed and censored by the Ministry of Information before publication. Several articles in the constitution impose prison sentences and fines on those who publish “falsehoods” about the state or items that tarnish its “dignity” or “national unity.” Simultaneously, the government monitors all internet and phone traffic.
Presidential adviser Bouthania Shaaban chastised foreign media on March 24 for spreading “lies” about Syria. While international outlets cite human rights groups’ estimates that between 60 and 130 people have been killed in government protests in recent weeks, state media puts the figure at 30.
And while foreign media have inquired about the whereabouts and safety of the frustrated, lone woman who approached the president’s car on Wednesday, no mention of her has appeared in local media.
“She’s gone,” a student from Damascus said.