x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Songs about the letter 'S' and Assad's hold on power

With the whole world on fire, sometimes the only thing to do is sing. And with one song – with one lyric – a whole edifice of fear and awe can fall down.

With the whole world on fire, sometimes the only thing to do is sing. And with one song - with one lyric - a whole edifice of fear and awe can fall down.

There are many protest songs sung in the Arab world these days, passed around by phone and posted on the internet. The Arabs, always in love with their language, have found a searing new topic to inspire them and an audience, at home and abroad, keen to listen.

Some songs are poetic, some urban, but all have a very similar theme, summed up in the single Arabic word that has defined this year: Irhal. Leave.

The most popular Syrian protest song at the moment takes up this theme. Called Yalla Irhal Ya Bashar, "It's time to leave, Bashar", it employs a catchy chorus coupled with call and response rhyming lines and a dabke beat.

Written in response to Mr Al Assad's public address in June, his third since the uprisings began, a sampling of the lyrics runs: "Bashar, you are a liar / to hell with you and this speech / Freedom is right at the door / It's time to leave, Bashar." The crowd shouts back: "It's time to leave, Bashar."

The subversive element of the song's lyrics and its chorus chant are difficult to describe to anyone who has not experienced the stultifying atmosphere of an autocracy. Thousands of people gathered together, addressing the head of state not as "Rais" (president) or the more polite Assad, but simply as Bashar and saying, point blank, it's time to go.

The most astonishing part of the song comes partway through and at first it is easy to overlook its power, its subversiveness and its implication.

In a reference to Mr Al Assad's claim - in his June speech - that the protesters were foreign infiltrators bent on causing trouble, the lyrics run: "Bashar, it is you who is the infiltrator / to hell with you and with the Baath party / go and fix your pronunciation of the letter S / It's time to leave, Bashar".

The third line is a reference to Mr Al Assad's slight lisp. When the song is sung to Syrian crowds, this draws a huge cheer from the audience, who recognise its potency - and its ability to possibly overturn an entire regime.

To understand why mocking the person of Mr Al Assad is so powerful, it is important to understand the cult of personality that has pervaded so many of the Arab republics over the past few decades.

The thousands of Syrians who now mock Mr Al Assad are not attacking his legitimacy because of his lisp, but rather demonstrating their complete disregard for his authority as a president by attacking him as a person.

Autocrats, and not only ones in the Arab world, bolster their legitimacy to rule by seeking to block questions about three categories of their rule: their personality, their judgement and their policies. The last of these was, in less tightly controlled countries like Yemen and Egypt, a source of tolerated discussion among the opposition.

But the two categories further up the triangle are not. This tendency is particularly acute in the Arab republics, where the legitimacy of the leaders does not stem from their lineage, and especially noticeable among those leaders, such as Hosni Mubarak and Bashar Al Assad, who could not claim leadership by virtue of their revolutionary credentials. Both became leaders because of an accident of history - Mr Mubarak because he was vice-president when Anwar Sadat was assassinated, Mr Al Assad because the designated heir, his older brother Basil, died in a mysterious car crash.

The purported judgement of the leader is important, because if their judgement is in question, it suggests they are not infallible or in some respect fated to lead. And if they are not fated to lead, then the criteria of leadership has to be something else, political or personal qualities that other potential contenders might have.

This is also why criticism of autocratic leaders is often framed around their advisers - it is they who are offering inappropriate influence or incorrect information. The judgement of the leader is thus not in question, it is just the information reaching him that is to blame. Thus reform can be achieved by removing advisers or ministers, leaving the leader unaffected.

You can see this clearly in Mr Al Assad himself, who, it is repeatedly claimed, dislikes the cult of personality, the endless photos of him, the flattering media accounts. He is portrayed as an ordinary family man - he shows the foreign press his modest home in Damascus (as opposed to the sprawling palace overlooking it). Syrians talk pleasingly of his and his wife's love of theatre, of his frequent appearances at restaurants around the city, with perhaps just one bodyguard. He is a man of the people, a reformer whose reforms have been blocked by the people around him, advisers from the time of his father.

The trouble with this is no one can tell whether it is true or not. Talk of reform is easy, implementation is hard. There is no doubt Mr Al Assad is more open to the world than his father, that he believes Syria needs to change. There is even little doubt he is a likeable person. It is also extremely likely that, as a young and inexperienced politician, he has been unduly influenced by the old guard that served his father for decades.

Yet, more than a decade after becoming president, the argument looks increasingly hollow. He could have sacked or sidelined his father's advisers. He could have implemented reforms and built his own power base. Instead, even his economic reforms have served to entrench the power of the elite, and the people around him have become vastly wealthy.

As opposition intellectuals frame it, either he is an autocrat like his father, or he lacks the spine to stand up to his advisers and be his own president - either way, the argument runs, he is not doing a good job.

If the judgement of Mr Al Assad is off-limits, his personality and his person is taboo. To criticise his person is to impugn the dignity of the country - because the president and the state are so close - it is to reveal the feet of clay of the king.

This is the real power of the reference to his lisp. Such a mocking public reference anywhere in Syria would have been unthinkable merely weeks ago. Such a reference in Damascus today is still dangerous. But as Mr Al Assad's legitimacy crumbles, so this cult of personality is being exposed and mocked. The veneer of fear and awe that held his rule in place is vanishing.

Even with thousands mocking him, there is no guarantee Mr Al Assad will go. Of all the republics with unfinished uprisings - Libya, Yemen, Syria - the least clear path forward belongs to Syria. The opposition is divided, many still support the president, and there is no international consensus on what comes next. Mr Al Assad's rule could yet survive, but the veneer of legitimacy that allowed him to rule unopposed has vanished.

In one popular Yemeni protest song, the singer tells President Saleh: "Walk away, leave, go outside. Do you or do you not hear me?" And the people sing back: "Do you or do you not hear?"

Mr Al Assad may not be listening to the songs of the people he rules, but the Syrians have heard them and know their power. Each day, more are singing.

falyafai@thenational.ae