Stripping the president of his legitimacy

Once intimidating, images of President Bashar al-Assad are now trampled on and burned.

One of the young men pointed at the green rubbish bin, smiled, and said, “This is the traitor Bashar’s house,” referring to President Bashar al-Assad.  He placed Assad’s picture on the bin to further slander a personality that most Syrians never dare speak ill of or publicly criticise, for fear of punishment.

This large town near the city of Idlib in northern Syria now seems liberated from Assad’s rule, after a large number of demonstrators tore down all of Bashar’s pictures previously plastered on the walls of the government buildings and the Baath party headquarters.

Slogans were written on the city walls and the grand mosque calling for the fall of the regime and the toppling of Assad; some even demanding his execution.  Slogans were also written on the walls of the square located in the vicinity of the mosque, where hundreds of young men gather to call for freedom, condemning the regime’s unjust rule.

In the square, which the revolutionaries call Freedom Square, a meeting was held by a number of young people belonging to different age groups.

One of them said, “When the demonstrations started in Syria, the slogans were not strongly-worded. We never imagined that we would be able to yell out loud that the people want the execution of the president.  This call came as a result of the brutal treatment we received at the hands of the military and security forces.”

The young man added that he had begun, with his friends, to tear down the pictures of Bashar during their third demonstration. There was a huge picture of the president in the town; it was torn down and the municipality eventually removed it.

The young people have stripped the president of his legitimacy and replaced it with the legitimacy of the revolution; they made certain that no voice overrides their own.

A pastry seller interrupted our conversation while he chanted, “Freedom cakes oh youth!” and a speeding car passed playing the famous song called “Ya Hayf” [Oh Shame, a song about the killing during the uprising] on full blast by singer Samih Shukayr.

Another young man told a story about the president’s picture.

“During my military service I once joked with one of my fellow soldiers, so he responded by throwing a shoe at me; when I was trying to dodge the hit, the shoe hit the picture of the president instead,” he said. “This incident took place in front of a large number of enlisted soldiers.  The following day, a patrol arrived and took my colleague away.  He was imprisoned for around six months on charges of insulting the president; I swear to God that he did not mean it.”

Prior to the Dignity Revolution of March 15, Bashar’s picture was sacred.  It used to intimidate a public that had been controlled by the security system for decades; however, after these events everything changed.

Now, Syrians no longer perceive the picture of the president, “the leader,” as they did before.  Syrian citizens before the revolution used to place the president’s picture inside schools, government institutes, homes, on vegetable-selling carts, and bakeries.

It was also positioned in private and public vehicles and in streets and neighbourhoods. Some people used to use Bashar’s picture as their mobile background picture, all of which indicated love and respect for Bashar.

Many observers considered that some believed that displaying Bashar’s picture would protect them from the threats of the intelligence and the security services, and justify breaking laws.

Most thieves, smugglers, and corrupt ones raised the picture of Bashar al-Assad and his father and sometimes the entire family, especially the picture of Hafez al-Assad with his sons Bashar and [late] Bassel, with a caption that read, “That is the way lions stare.”

During our meeting in the Freedom Square, the youth mentioned the picture that was circulated on social media websites and TV channels showing a number of Bashar supporters prostrate on Bashar’s picture.

“Doesn’t this picture hold notions of disbelief and humiliation,” said one young man. “Prostration should only be to God, and I think whoever prostrates to Bashar is someone who lacks reason and religion.”

On our way back to Damascus we noticed the absence of Assad’s picture on vehicles contrary to previous times.  We asked one of the drivers about it and he said, “On our way to Damascus we will pass by Talbisah town and if the residents see the picture they will break the vehicle’s glass.  Furthermore, the drivers do not want to raise a picture of a murderer.  How do you expect the drivers to raise the picture of the one who is ordering the military and security to kill citizens in Idlib, Homs, and Damascus?”

After that the driver made us promise to forget what he just said and refrain from mentioning his name. He further said, “I have children and you know what happens to those who talk about the president.”

Pictures of Assad were present in every government agency and as government employees were promoted they used to hang a bigger picture of Bashar in their offices, an indication of loyalty to the leadership and to give the impression to those visiting their offices that they had been selected as per the orders of the president.

A large number of senior government officials used to hang pictures of them shaking hands with the president behind their desks to show their good relationship with the leader.  The same applies to some owners of private companies who had the picture of the president behind their desks to protect them from being punished for violations.

Nowadays, the picture does not mean anything in some neighborhoods in Damascus, namely in Al-Qabun, Barzah, Al-Hajar al-Aswad, and Al-Midan, and in most of its cities and towns, also in Homs, Deir al-Zur, Lattakia, Al-Hasakah, Deraa, Idlib, and in other areas.

Today, in protest squares the picture symbolises treachery and murder. But in other places it is a picture of a leader, the protector of livelihood.  A pro-government taxi driver complained of the treatment he received at the hands of protesters as he was passing by them while displaying four pictures of the president.

“They attacked me in the area of Al-Hajar al-Aswad and tore down the pictures,” he said. “Some kids attempted to attack me but the adults prevented them.  Don’t I have the right to raise pictures on my car!”

On social media websites, namely Facebook, we can notice that the opposition youth leaders distorted the picture of the president using Photoshop.  They made him bald resembling the Nazi leader Adolf Hitler. In other pictures he was behind bars or with a noose around his neck.  Some made his neck longer in an attempt to humiliate him further.

Thousands of Syrians were imprisoned for insulting the president.  The picture was once intimidating; a symbol of national resistance; however, today the picture is trampled under the feet and burned. It is no longer a symbol of pride to the ones who raise it in their homes or offices.  Bashar and his picture have been shaken. The president became a traitor to the revolutionaries after a number of them became certain that he was the one ordering the killing and the suppression of the protests in Syrian cities and towns.  Bashar and his regime do not differ from the regime of his father who was responsible for exterminating part of Hama city and its residents in the 1980s.