At the end of the sun-baked road that weaves laboriously through the stones and sand of the Syrian desert towards the ancient ruins of Palmyra, a huge billboard has been erected to welcome visitors. The focal point of the hoarding is not a depiction of the Roman arches or sandstone columns that have brought people here for centuries. Its centre is dominated by the ever-present face of the country’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad.
As his regime has sought to paralyse the increasingly widespread protests against it with the legions of snipers and security forces that are thought to have killed close to 600 demonstrators in the past six weeks, this is another weapon of the state that is less deadly but, in its own way, every bit as sinister. Assad’s face is ubiquitous and inescapable. It can be seen across the country, from the facades of government buildings in Hama to the grand old souks of Aleppo. In Damascus, it is especially startling.
Shops sell mugs and cigarette lighters with his image. There are postcards of him and his children on display, alongside collectable plates depicting the First Couple of Damascus. Cars are driven around with giant stickers of Assad covering their windows and even their entire windscreens – one can only guess at how their drivers don’t crash. Cabbies place photos of Assad on their dashboards. The walls of restaurants and cafes always have a place reserved for the leader’s image. Banners proclaiming his brilliance hang across alleyways. Government buildings are adorned with giant posters of the man. Sometimes his eyes are grey, sometimes blue and sometimes an almost alien green. He is everywhere.
This is what life is like amid the cult of the personality that for so long has dominated the Syrian political and sometimes physical landscape. Most of Syria’s population have grown up with their ruler’s constant presence, which dates back to long before Bashar al-Assad came to power as head of the Ba’ath Party in 2000. It originated during the 29-year rule of his ruthless father, Hafiz al-Assad. Although the face has changed from father to son, the systematic and effectively compulsory celebration of it has remained very much the same.
An account in the book Ambiguities of Domination by Lisa Wedeen of the University of Chicago, written in the year before Hafiz replaced his father, describes how he was “regularly depicted as omnipresent and omniscient”.
Professor Wedeen states: “In newspaper photographs, he appears as the ‘father,’ the ‘combatant,’ the ‘first teacher,’ the ‘saviour of Lebanon,’ the ‘leader forever,’ or the ‘gallant knight’. At regional meetings, he ‘shows complete understanding of all issues’. Religious iconography and slogans attesting his immortality bedeck the walls of buildings, the windows of taxicabs, and the doors of restaurants. If only by dint of repetition, everyone is fluent in this symbolic vocabulary of the Syrian state, which has become a hallmark of the Syrian state.”
Few people have ever truly believed this stuff. In fact, few Ba’ath Party members themselves are said to have much faith in the virtual sainthood of their ruler, despite constantly extolling it. But it is only in the past few weeks of this paranoid police state’s history that large numbers of people have been prepared to drop the pretence and not only openly admit this in public, but actively act against it. The risk of being seen as someone who questions this uncompromising regime’s right or ability to rule remains huge, however. No one wants a visit from the Mukhabarat, the secret police.
In a country ruled by fear for so long, it is no wonder that, as the first signs of significant dissent against the lack of democracy and abuse of human rights became more obvious in recent weeks, the Assad iconography was intensified still further by those loyal to him – or at least too scared to appear disloyal.
The worship reached new levels on March 29, when hundreds of thousands of people flooded the streets of towns and cities across Syria to show their support for his leadership. Placards and flags decorated with his image were waved, and patriotic songs were chanted as they blared out of car stereos. It was as if Syria had won the World Cup and Bashar al-Assad had scored the winning goal.
Walking through the streets of Damascus that day, it was a struggle not to get caught up in the apparent joy of what was said to be a spontaneous expression of national unity – so spontaneous that the local Ba’ath Party headquarters had mountains of pro-government regalia ready to hand out. State-sanctioned media, such as Hezbollah’s own television station, proudly replayed footage of the demonstrations all day, while conducting phone-ins for people to express their solidarity with their president. One Palestinian resident of the city even told me it was the greatest day in Syria’s history.
This ghastly adulation would be hard to comprehend at the best of times. What made it harder to understand was the knowledge that, in Deraa, these protestors’ fellow Syrians were dying – killed by bullet wounds inflicted by the armed legions of the same dictator they were supporting. Still more chilling was the realisation that many of these apparent supporters of the regime must have known what was going on.
The state media may have been filled with reports of foreign conspiracies led by Mossad and CIA spies, when it was not showing stock footage of Assad kissing babies through car windows and addressing adoring crowds at mass rallies. But Western media reports of the violence are available uncensored on satellite television and the internet. And people have been sharing news of growing dissent on Facebook since the authorities bowed to pressure to unblock it in February.
Suddenly, hidden hatred of Assad and his regime has broken into public view. As the demonstrations’ death toll has continued to rise, increasing numbers of people have realised they can no longer continue their false worship of Assad.
With increasing paranoia, the regime’s loyalists have conducted more and more impromptu pro-government protests, beating those around them who refuse to join in their chants for Bashar.
However, with so many pictures of him around, this increases the opportunities for his people to give vent to their true feelings. As Lisa Wedeen pointed out in her study 12 years ago, the cult produces political power “yet also, paradoxically, invites transgressions”. Now we are seeing that assessment being played out in the most breathtaking manner, as those in search of freedom make their point in the most direct and obvious way possible: defacing the many faces of Assad.
A photo of a soldier urinating on his president’s portrait has been widely viewed on the internet. And while the most disturbing footage to emerge from Syria has been of Samaritans aiding the injured being shot in the street by snipers, some of the most haunting and inspiring video clips have shown the president’s enigmatic look of calm being ripped up, kicked, or set alight and consumed by flames. Posted proudly on YouTube for the world to see is flickering footage of these acts of defiance against the cult of the personality, often lasting only a few seconds. Syria’s chimes of freedom are sounding.
Rob Hastings is a freelance journalist