Posted by Joshua on Monday, June 4th, 2007
The presidential plebiscite: What does it mean?
I will begin with my conclusions about the presidential referendum and the many street “hafles” or parties, parades, and festivals that preceded and followed it. I have moved the conclusions to the top because this post is long.
1. Bashar has completed the process of power consolidation begun with the 10th Baath Party Congress of June 2005.
2. He has gained legitimacy in the eyes of Syria’s elites, who are betting on him and seriously considering bringing their capital back to the country. Many, particularly expatriates have yet to do so and are hedging their bets, but many local capitalists have everything they own here. The “Ehsani” expatriates have invested considerable capital in Syria over the last three years but, I believe, are still holding back. (Ehsani is a contributor to Syria Comment. We will see if he agrees.)
3. Everywhere the posters are of Bashar only. He does not share the ground with Nasser, Nasrallah, Basil al-Assad, or his father any longer. Today, it is all about Bashar, who stands alone.
4. The parades exuded “modernity” and professionalism. This is new for Syria. Syrians like it, even if they think way too much money was spent on them. It is the message Bashar al-Assad has worked hard to convey. It is how he is marketed inside Syria. He is staying on message. He is “Mr. Modernizer,” even though the West is trying to convince Syrians that he doesn’t get it, is not new at all, and is just keeping the Assad family in power.
5. Syrian nationalism has largely replaced the old Arabism. The parades were all about Syria, its long history, and many different civilizations, peoples, and varied culture. They were not about Arabs, militarism, or the Baath Party. (Who knows, Bashar may even try to steal Phoenicianism from the Lebanese. God forbid!)
6. Bashar has not stuck a dagger in the Baath Party’s heart, but he has definitely circumscribed its authority.
7. Democracy: Bashar ran his campaign against Iraq and Bush. Many banners extolled “security, safety, and stability” – “al-`amn wal-istiqrar.” This was a no brainer for Syrians. The campaign presented Syria’s choice as being one between Bashar and Bush or between Syria and Iraq. For Syrians, American democracy promotion in the Middle East means following the path of Iraq, Lebanon, or the Palestinian Authority, the three countries that have accepted or been forced to follow the US democracy agenda. Carpenter tried to present democracy as a disembodied magic that one can just import by following certain practices, such as free elections. There is no doubt that many Syrians yearn for more democracy, but they are now well aware of its attendant dangers, especially in a region as troubled by sectarian and ethnic differences, identity crises, and a weak sense of national community.
8. Syrians have not completely made up their minds about this regime. They want to see what will happen to the “reform” process, which could easily be reversed or stall. This is the BIG question. Many hope that following the president’s inauguration on the 17th, there will be a new government nominated quickly. They hope that the president’s new power will be used to confirm his reform agenda. These hopes will probably be dashed, as nothing has happened quickly or with resolution in Syria. There are big interests standing in the way of the 5-year plan. Local industrialists do not want Turkish tariffs to come down, for example. Many businesses depend on protected markets and privileges that the 5-year plan will eliminate. I have heard two contradictory predictions about the reform process made by well-informed people. One is that Dardari, on whom economic reform hopes have been pinned, will be out in 2 to 5 months. The other is that he has the backing of the president and will be given an important role in the future government. This is a sign of the nation’s confusion over the reform process. Many foreign investors are still sitting on their land purchases or have yet to enter the market. Unemployment is still way too high. The Iraqi influx has undercut Syrian employment and driven up prices. Inflation is eating away at the standard of living of ordinary Syrians. The floundering state sector and economic subsidies are sucking off state revenues. Only big foreign investment can balance these negatives. To get this, Bashar must make some big decisions. He seems to have the power now, but will he use it to discipline the privileged few, who have their feet on the brakes?
The Referendum as Political Theater:
Syria witnessed nearly two weeks of preparations for the presidential plebiscite that was carried out on May 27. The state-sponsored festivities and show of political dominance by the president was ubiquitous. Any analysis of the events surrounding the plebiscite must be understood on the level of pageantry, marketing, and the effectiveness of the message that the palace hoped to convey. Those who confuse the process with democracy will only become apoplectic and indignant. I have yet to speak to a Syrian who misunderstood the process.
I cannot say the same for some American observers. Deputy Assistant Secretary Scott Carpenter gave a press interview on the 29th, shortly after the presidential referendum, designed to clear up any confusion Americans might have about whether the plebiscite was “pure theater,” and make sure that Americans know that Washington’s democracy agenda for the Middle East is still going strong. Here is one extract from Carpenter’s briefing:
Q: Well, about the, as you put it, so-called referendum: The Syrian ministry has said that the turnout was more than 90 percent, like 12 million. So that must mean something, or do you think it’s all faked and false statements?
DAS CARPENTER: I think it’s – you know, when you threaten people that if they don’t vote they may lose their job, if you threaten students if they don’t vote they may not be able to take their exams, that this has an impact on people. Anybody – you know, the Ba’ath Party has probably a million vested members in the country. You can turn out a million people to go chanting and celebrating at midnight for their great opportunity to go vote in this farce, but as we saw throughout the day, and as pictures indicated and things, again, I’ve seen on the Web, over the course of the day, the number of people showing up at the polling sites was much, much less.
Again, if the regime had confidence in this process, it would have introduced real competition. If the regime had confidence in this process, it wouldn’t have moved up the date? by two months. If the regime had confidence in this process, it would have given people the right to vote. If the regime had confidence in the process, it wouldn’t have had, you know, small children casting symbolic ballots. They would have taken their own process seriously. Ten-year-olds do not have the right to vote, I believe, under the Syrian election law, and yet they feature them prominently casting ballots – and not their fathers’ ballots, but specially designed ballots for them to cast. It’s pure theater, and I think everybody recognizes it as such.
As Carpenter insists, the referendum was about political theater, so let’s evaluate it as such.
The “Minhibak Karnaval”
Two days ago, the last of the big celebrations and parades was held at the Umayyad Circle, called the “minhibak Karnival” or “We love you carnival.” It was televised and astounding for the high quality of its artistic production and novelty of its ideological content. The parade began around 4:00 p.m. It was billed as a pageant of Syrian history and culture or al-turath al-souri.
Roughly 12 large floats representing different aspects and periods of Syrian history and culture divided up the procession. Leading the way were the floats representing ancient cultures, each with a large castle or palace constructed in great detail and representing a different Syrian civilization. First was a large wooden ship surrounded by a blue scrim representing the sea and Ugarit civilization. On top of the ship about twenty beautiful women, dressed in blue diaphanous scarves and wearing golden bands, danced in harmony. At the stern of the ship were large cuneiform tablets representing the Ugaritic alphabet, believed to be the first alphabet in the world. Its thirty letters formed the basis of the Phoenician, Greek, and Latin alphabets. As my little Syrian guidebook trumpets: “It is a most wonderful gift that Syria has offered for the benefit of mankind.” It is hard to argue with that. Perhaps even the most jaundiced Syrian observer would have a bit of pride sparked by these reminders of their illustrious past.
Of course, the present leaders of the state are particularly proud of the Ugarit culture which was centered at the palaces of Ras Shamra 15 k. north of Lattakia, the coastal city where Bashar al-Assad is from.Other floats carried large replicas of the architectural monuments that distinguished them – Aramaic, Roman, and Babylonian, etc. Each float was proceeded by a band dressed in period clothing and playing the instruments particular to the time. It made for quite a sight. The many onlookers seemed to genuinely enjoy themselves.
Following the historical section was the economic culture of Syria. Children dressed in gold costumes with high shafts of wheat shafts ascending from their backs swayed to and fro. Another group of children dressed in elaborate white costumes and each sporting a big cotton tufted turban represented cotton fields. The large highway was girded by crowds come to ogle the show and listen to the music. I was new and profession.
Once the procession had reached the Umayyad Circle and evening had fallen, a fireworks display began on a par with the Hudson River 4th of July display in New York City lit up the city with colorful plumes?
From an artistic point of view, this parade was second to none. It was clearly planned long in advance. Syria’s most talented artisans, dancers, costume designers and craftsmen were brought into the task. What a difference from the old days of Hafiz al-Assad, when parades were dull and militaristic. There was not a hint of militarism this time around.
The President Separates Himself from the Baath Party
Moreover, there was almost no Arabism. The Baath Party was not mentioned. Nor is it referred to in any of the political advertising and banners that festoon the city. Bashar al-Assad’s transformation of the political ethos from Arabism to Syrianism is a process that I have been commenting on for several years. In the parliamentary elections earlier in the month, the Baath Party had a large role. It dominates the Assembly of Deputies. The President is separating himself from the Party within the limits offered by the regime’s structure.
Deputy Assistant Secretary Scott Carpenter made a big to-do in his anti-Syrian press conference about the regime squandering 50 million dollars on the “scam” process. “Seeing the government spend upwards of $50 million or more on this process is an indication of how out of touch really the regime is with its people,” he explained.
This sort of comment is humorous on several levels. First Scott Carpenter is making up the $50 million from thin air. He is absolutely right that it was very expensive, but it was not the state or people’s taxes that paid for the bulk of the festivities. Carpenter knows this. As in America, large capitalists and private donors sponsored and organized the parades and festivities. They are showing loyalty to the leader who gives them their privileges, protects their wealth, and from whom they expect continuing support.
Capitalist Sponsorship of the Regime
This is an entirely new phenomenon in Syria: capitalist rather than Baath Party sponsorship of the regime. We have seen it emerge only in the last five years. It took on a particularly striking form after Syria’s military withdrawal from Lebanon, when Syria began copying the Cedar Revolution’s notions of “hafles” or street parties. Rich Syrians were asked to get out a display of support.
Throughout the referendum process, local street parties were sponsored at almost all the major street corners and parks in center city. There were tents, music, and young people dancing. Food and sweets were handed out to passers by. Rich businessmen advertised their sponsorship of the hafles openly in order to get maximum credit. The music blared until the wee hours of the morning. All city residents were delighted when they finally came to an end; they could sleep. As many said, “Enough already! This is too much. We get it.” Syrians did not misunderstand the message. They understood that the state was declaring its presence and proclaiming its strength and ability to mobilize the elites.
Many Syrians have explained to me that one of the reasons it went on so long was because the message was directed at the outside world. Assad was telling the West: “Istuflu” or “stick it.” “You think I am ready to collapse or weak? You are wrong.”
Carpenter argues that the pageantry of the referendum is a clear sign of the President’s illegitimacy. To prove this he referred to a Web poll carried out by a small exile group, the results of which indicated 80% of its readers voted against Bashar al-Asad. Presidential referendums in Syria, as in much of the third world, are not about the democratic process, however. They are about a show of “za`ama” or authority and the backing of national elites.
In Syria, the recent referendum demonstrated that the moneyed national elites are willing to back the president, not only with their cash, but also with institutional resources.
Legitimacy in Authoritarian States
Legitimacy is a slippery concept and exceedingly hard to gauge in authoritarian states. Most political scientists agree that in authoritarian states, where democratic polls are unknown, legitimacy is best measured by the ability of the state to retain a consensus among national elites.
States fail only when the elites split, fight among themselves, and drag the house down. This is what is happening in Iraq and some fear could happen in Lebanon.
In Syria, the referendum demonstrated rather conclusively that Syria’s elites are on board, willingly or unwillingly. Artists, labor unions, professional associations, businessmen, and industries of all kinds put their shoulders to the wheel and made this the biggest and most professional celebration of national consensus in 40 years. No one dared to speak out publicly against it. Legitimacy in Syria is about acquiescence, not votes. Syria’s elites did their job. That is why the hafles were confined to center city, where the elites live. They were hardly evident in the poorer suburbs. Carpenter can point to opposition web polls in the US as an indication of the illegitimacy of the Syrian regime, but he is missing the point. It is the elites that count, not the people.
Abdul Halim Khaddam and the Danger of Elite Defections
Abdul Halim Khaddam, Syria’s Vice President under Hafiz and under Bashar for the first five years of his rule, left Syria for France in 2005. He established the National Salvation Front in 2006 in order to rally Syrians against the regime. The 22 members of his family were compelled to follow him into exile. At first, it appeared that Khaddam’s defection might threaten Bashar al-Assad. Many believed he might attract other powerful Sunnis to join him in a revolt. This did not happen. On the contrary, Khaddam’s example has chastened Syrian elites, who see in his experience a cautionary tale. In some respects, the outpouring of support by Syria’s rich for Bashar signifies an end to the Khaddam threat.
I drove past La Noisette on Mezzeh Autostrad with a friend last night. It is a ritzy restaurant that was owned by Khaddam’s son Jihad. I asked my friend what had become of the many Khaddam businesses. I was told that they are working very well. Rather than take them over directly, authorities handed them over to Khaddam’s erstwhile managers. A government accountant who earns 5,000 pounds a month visits every morning to go over the books. A share of profits goes to the state, but there is little interference in management. My friend explained that one of Khaddam’s old managers is a buddy of his. “He is very happy to run the business alone,” I was told. “It is like he is the owner now. He retained all the employees, they are happy.
My friend followed up by saying:
I don’t understand Khaddam. He was so stupid. He had everything in Syria and was surrounded by family, businesses, and connections. Now he is nothing. Syria will forget about him. He fed off the government trough for 30 years and was rich. It was time for him to step aside and let others have their turn. Look at Tlass and others. They stood aside and let their children take over. Thirty years! It is enough, no? And Khaddam not only ruined his own family, but at least three other families, those married to his sons and daughters. They had to leave and give up their holdings in Syria. Rima Khaddam was married to an Atassi. His sons were married to good families too.” (He named the families, but I cannot remember their names or businesses.)
Then he said, “Look at Hikmet Shihabi. His children are all here. They can come and go. They still own their businesses – the BMW franchise, Fiat and many private businesses.”
Background: The Hariri Threat as Perceived by Damascus
It is important to give some background here because the Shihabi experience reinforces my broader argument about legitimacy, elite solidarity, and regime stability.
Hikmat Shihabi was Syria’s Chief of Staff under Hafiz al-Assad. He was the military commander of Lebanon for much of Syria’s rule there. He teamed up with Abdul Halim Khaddam, the political commander of Lebanon, and Ghazi Kanaan, the intelligence chief in Lebanon during the 1980s and much of the 1990s. These three men worked as a triumvirate, ruling Lebanon for Hafiz. It was widely believed in Syria that Lebanon’s Prime Minister, Rafiq al-Hariri, had bought these men. Everyone says that Hariri gave Khaddam the apartment in Paris on Rue Foch that he now lives in, just as Saad Hariri has given Jacque Chirac his present apartment in Paris.
When Bashar al-Assad took power in 2000, he distrusted the old triumvirate and believed they had been bought. He began a subtle campaign against them. Shihabi was accused of corruption and left for California. Khaddam and Kanaan were kept on in an attempt to re-domesticate them and bring them back into the fold. Khaddam continued to maneuver behind the scenes to re-build his authority and oppose the president.
In early 2005, when President Bush and Chirac decided to move aggressively against Bashar al-Assad, insisting that Syria withdraw its troops from Lebanon, give up influence there and allow for free Presidential elections to replace Emile Lahoud with a Hariri loyalist, the Assad regime balked and battle-lines were drawn.
Syria understood that the West meant war and that Syria’s regime could be next. In Syria’s ongoing war with Israel over the Golan, Lebanon is the crucial front. Hizbullah is Syria’s main asset in the tug of war over the Golan. Also, Syria feels it cannot afford to permit Lebanon to become a beachhead in the West’s attempt to destabilize Syria, as it was in the 1950s through 1960s and again in the 1980s. In 1956, the CIA trained over 300 Alawite members of the PPS in the mountains of Lebanon. They were to serve as one element in a Western backed coup against the Syrian regime. In 1957, Lebanon was the staging ground for Operation Straggle, another US inspired coup attempt. Syrian opposition groups found a ready base in Lebanon, where western intelligence agencies could help arm and handle them.
In the 1980s, following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the Muslim Brotherhood, which was backed by Saddam Hussein and others waged a war against the Assad regime. They used Lebanon as a staging ground. Several old CIA hands have written that the US also helped the M.B. at this time. The game of using Islamist groups in Lebanon is not a new one. Today, analysts are arguing over who is secretly backing Fatah al-Islam – Hariri’s people or the Syrians. We don’t know the answer to this. The reason it is so hotly debated is because past history suggests either possibility can not be exluded. It is not the first time that East and West have fought to turn Islamist organizations in Lebanon to their advantage. My sense of Fatah al-Islam is that neither side had or has any real control over the group. In short, Lebanon has great strategic importance to Syria and to any state or alliance that hopes to destabilize Syria. This is how Syria regards Lebanon.
The Western Attempt to Split the Syrian Elite and Destabilize the State
In 2005, Bush, Chirac, and presumably Rafiq al-Hariri believed they could split the Syrian elite, turning Khaddam and his triumvirate of Shihabi and Kanaan against Assad. To eliminate such a possibility, the Syrian regime carried out a mini-purge. Shihabi de-camped to California, Khaddam was fired at the Baath Party Conference in June 2005 and decided to move his family to Paris where he teamed up with the Muslim Brotherhood rather than accept defeat and humiliation. Ghazi Kanaan “committed suicide” in the fall of 2005. Perhaps this was his way of protecting his family, all of whom have remained in Syria. One of Kanaan’s sons has resigned his officer’s commission, but other children are doing well, people say. My Damascene friends do not know much about them. Kanaan was not corrupt, people suggest, and thus his children are not big business owners. Who knows? Many believed in 2005 that Hikmat Shihabi would join Khaddam in Paris and help Bush and Chirac in an effort to destabilize the regime, perhaps by getting Kanaan, who remained in the country to carry out a coup. Shihabi refused. His children still have a life. I suspect they paid for at least one hafle in the recent referendum, as a show of appreciation.
The conclusion of this narrative is that the West believed it could split the Syrian elite by using Hariri’s money and connections as a wedge. It sought to exploit Lebanon’s desire for sovereignty and Khaddam’s desire for power. Bashar al-Assad skillfully sidestepped this danger by excising the threat and consolidating his leadership over the Syrian elite.
Syria's economic opening is the primary tool to accomplish regime consolidation. It gives the president the means to make Syrian elites stakeholders. Big new holding companies, such as the Sham Holding Company, are perfect vehicles for this consolidation. In the case of Sham Holding, Syria’s richest businessman anteed up hundreds of millions in capital to take advantage of the economic opening. The president’s cousin, Rami Makhlouf, stepped in and matched their entire purse, making them all his and the state’s partners in the new order. As one friend explained, “That is why we call him Rambo.”
As many have observed here, the funding of the referendum ceremonies by private business was a demonstration by the elites of their loyalty to the regime and willingness to make a public show of their partnership. If Khaddam believed that wealthy Syrian Sunnis would split from the regime to join him in opposing Bashar and bringing down the regime, he sorely miscalculated. He is alone in exile. The other old guard figures have found a way back in.
“Failure is an orphan, and success has a hundred fathers,” as the saying goes. Bashar is a success. Big money is betting on him as it never has before, to which the whole country is witness. A good source told me, “businessmen didn’t know that the hafles and activities surrounding the referendum would be so big, so many, and last so long. It wasn’t all planned. A dynamic established itself and the moneybags of Syria felt compelled to jump in and outdo their competition.”
Bashar’s ability to navigate the very dangerous obstacles that have been thrown up before him since the US invasion of Iraq is astounding. Almost every Syrian I have met over the last week has reiterated this truth, some with considerable satisfaction, made all the more manifest because I am an American from Bush country. They are impressed with Bashar the politician, even as they express their disapproval of “the system” and its corruption.
I am copying a few comments from my last post that cover the referndum ceremonies.