28 May 2007

Hobson’s choice, Damascus

High above the streets of Damascus Bashar al-Assad gazed benignly down from giant hoardings on his people. Banners praised "our Bashar", defender of sovereignty and stability. Nightly street parties, concerts, dabke dancing and rallies created a festive, jubilee-like atmosphere in the run-up to yesterday's presidential referendum.

No one was surprised that celebrations were taking place before a vote was cast; Assad was, the only candidate nominated by the ruling Ba'ath party, a party which greets opposition with a smile and a castration. The event is described in Arabic as "renewing the pledge of allegiance" (perhaps the ballot paper had a big “Ja” on it).

"We have our own style of democracy and we are proud of it," the information minister, Mohsen Bilal (isn’t it called dictatorship?) In 2000 President Assad created a dynasty by succeeding his father, Hafez. The referendum produced a comfortable 97.3% vote in favour. The official result this time is unlikely to stray far from that.

President Assad appears popular particularly with younger people, but there is no opinion and fear of the Mukhabarat secret police is pervasive. There is a joke in circulation about the man who once dared to tick the no box and was dragged back by his terrified mother to beg to be allowed to vote again. "Don't worry," the officials reply. "We've changed it for you - but just this once."

Talk of change, though, is met with warnings about Islamist extremism. There have been Islamist uprisings in Syria in the 60s and the 80s. Islamism is a threat to the Assad regime (there have been armed Islamist uprisings in Syria before) - Syrian jihadis who have returned from Iraq are a threat but perhaps Assad could show a little consistency by not supporting Hamas and Hezbollah (but then “my enemy’s enemy” and all that. ...).

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