Give Asad the benefit of the doubt?

March 29, 2011 § Leave a comment

Just a few months ago, I criticized the New York Times’ assessment that the “new generation” of Syrian youth was only capable of producing “a culture of small-bore opportunism.” I still disagree with reporter Michael Kimmelman’s elitist and narrow-sighted dismissal of Syrian art, culture, and society, but I can’t bring myself to disagree with what Kimmelman said next:

A young generation of Syrian entrepreneurs, weaned on the Internet and devoted to the global marketplace, has arisen in the last decade or so. They see fresh chances to make big bucks and show little appetite for political confrontation. During the 1960s, and then under Hafez al-Assad in the ’70s, Syria had its version of the youth movement. It survived partly because Syrian activist-artists steeped in Sartre shared with the country’s rulers a dream of pan-Arab prosperity. But today young Syrians, many of them freely admit, dream not about making waves but making money.

During the past weeks of protest in Syria, many of the elite and wealthy “youth” of Syria have spoken out on Twitter and in op-eds, letting it be known that while they condemn violence, they strongly support Bashar al-Asad. Their arguments and reasoning are not one-sided or simplistic; many elite supported demonstrators in Deraa and condemned the killings of demonstrators by security forces, yet ultimately, the prevailing sentiment is that the stability of the known must reign over the chaos of the unknown.  This is not to say that all elite Syrian youth share these sentiments or that it’s only the non-elite who support revolution, but at least to say that there is a segment of the youth elite firm in their support of the regime. (Insert here something about how these people, despite their support for the regime, really support human rights, release of political prisoners, lifting the state of emergency and so on and so on and so on.)

Syrians like Abdulsalam Haykal and Sami Moubayed, who I guess are on the younger side of the spectrum, are in line with Kimmelman’s description. Both are involved with the development of the private media in Syria, with Haykal being CEO of Haykal Media and Moubayed writing and editing the Haykal-owned magazine Forward. It was Haykal who announced last month via Twitter that Syria had lifted its ban on Facebook. I have singled out these two since not only are they very successful financially, they are also media savvy and serve the regime just by being young Syrians who support Bashar.

With Bashar’s wife Asma al-Asad spearheading the “development” of Syrian civil society through a network of government-sanctioned (N)GOs, such as the Syrian Trust for Development, characters like Haykal and Moubayed embody the ideal type of leader emerging from this tightly-controlled civil society.

Now, moving on to Moubayed’s recent op-ed for Gulf News titled “Al Assad Deserves Benefit of the Doubt.” The title pretty much says it all, but his arguments present succinctly some of the Syrian youth views on past weeks’ demonstrations. You see, there are really only “two paths” for Syria:

One is that of Al Assad, which calls for calm, and offers far-reaching reforms that would completely face-lift and revamp the entire composition of the Syrian regime . . .  This path promises democracy via the British model, through evolution not revolution.

[ . . .]

The second path is that of chaos and a very uncertain future at the end of the tunnel. It calls for bringing down the regime, shattering Syria’s tranquillity, and thrusting the nation into a very murky future.

Is it possible that Moubayed speaks for a large segment of the Syrian population when he lays out these two futures? Yes. It’s also possible that the stability of a dictatorship will continue to bring success, a stable economic future, and steady foreign investment for the elite, continuing the trend of the past several decades of circulating power and wealth amongst a small cadre of individuals. When I talk to other Syrian youth, those whose family members have served time in jail for political views, I see optimism in a different future, one that does not involve “trusting” your leader or giving him the “benefit of the doubt,” since this option has certainly benefited only a select few.

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