In a state where one party has ruled by Constitutional right and through the force of its secret police for nearly half a century, accurately gauging the political opinions of the Syrian public has long been a daunting task.
Tens of thousands of Syrian gathered in a central square in Damascus yesterday to show their support for President Bashar al-Assad who many ardently still believe is a committed reformer.
The protest was huge in comparison to the almost daily anti-regime protests still taking place across the country. Of course the pro-Assad protestors were not met with bombs and bullets, as those protesting for freedom have been, but with a public holiday to encourage the hundreds of thousands of state workers, school children and students in the capital to attend.
The protest nearly went awry, however, with what might go down as one of the most profound Freudian slips in the history of political rallies. On a video of the event, a man is heard leading chants through a loudspeaker, shouting, “He won’t fall, he won’t fall,” before following up with the humdinger: “Bashar al-Assad will fall!”
The slip up occurs around 25 seconds in:
One can only imagine where and in what state the deviant crowd pleaser is now.
Organizers said the Damascus rally was also meant to thank Russia and China for blocking a UN Security Council resolution condemning Syria for its brutal crackdown.
“America, out, out, Syria free, free," the crowds shouted.
Some wore white T-shirts with a photo of Assad with the Arabic word minhibbak, or "we love you." Previous "Minhibbak" pro-Assad demonstrations have been mocked by the opposition and dismissed as staged events.
Despite the show of affection, a rare recent survey of Syrian public opinion found that 8 in 10 respondents wanted regime change.
The poll, here, was conducted by Pepperdine University in conjunction with the Democracy Council of California, and was the product of face-to-face interviews in Arabic by trained data collectors with 551 Syrians over the age of 18. The poll was carried out between August 24 and September 2 in secret due to the regime’s ban on opinion-gathering.
The Democracy Council is a nonpartisan, non-profit group that promotes democracy in emerging countries. The group receives funding from the US government agency USAID, although the Syria poll was not commissioned by the government.
The poll found the numbers of respondents who do not think the government is capable of solving the country’s problems had risen from 63 percent in an earlier survey in late January 2010 to 88 percent by mid August this year. A whopping 86 percent of respondents judged Assad’s performance negatively, while the anti-regime protestors are popular, with 71 percent holding positive views of the protestors and only six percent holding negative views.
Just one in ten want the regime to stay in power to implement reforms.
But as Angela Hawken, associate professor of Economics and Policy Analysis at Pepperdine's School of Public Policy, told CNN: "Those who agreed to answer a poll conducted without government approval may be more likely to express anti-government sentiments than their neighbors who refused."