Thursday, May 24, 2007

Reelecting a president

Presidential campaigns without an opponent are short. But this one was to the point.

Two weeks ago, the bus-stop advertising appeared with the Syrian flags and a new portrait of the president, introducing the slogan, minhebbek – we love you, in the Syrian Arabic dialect.

Then, the billboards with the new portrait, and the slogan, Hamat al-diyar aleykum al-salam – "Defender of the homes, upon you peace," or, more loosely, "We salute you who defend the nation." It's the opening line of the national anthem; here, the defender is understood.

Then, the banners, and more billboards, and more slogans and signs and flags, and yet more portraits, the largest of which spans four stories, hanging from the front of the finance ministry, an iconic building in the center of Damascus that is featured on the 25-lira coin. The portrait is framed by two long banners, one the Syrian flag, the other the pan-Arab flag.

Then, a new ode to the president on government radio, Sawt al-Shabab, Voice of the Boys. The chorus: "Bashar, Bashar." And the jingles between radio segments, "Minhebbek, Minhebbek."

Then, the tents, festooned in the national colors, in every neighborhood, with stages for bands to play their latest Arabic pop songs honoring the president, and complimentary tanoori bread and shawarma sandwiches for the merry-makers.

Then, the poets, who performed at the university, reciting their latest muse in praise of the president.

Then, the coverage in the government dailies. Al-Baath, taking its name from the ruling party, led Monday with a story on the upcoming election. "Yes, for the symbol of pride, power, and dignity," read the headline, in bold type. On Wednesday, the lead was similar, but different: "Yes for he who strengthens the power of the homeland and secures the country's foundations."

Today, the parade. The government declared Thursday an official holiday in order to allow bureaucrats, undercover security agents and students alike to express their support, providing free bus transportation to and from the event. Responsible parties noted the names of those who might have forgotten to attend.

Tens of thousands – official accounts will tell us hundreds of thousands – of participants crowded downtown, waving likenesses of the president and nylon Syrian flags that were already frayed by 10 a.m.

They chanted, "God, Syria, Bashar, and that's it," and, the ever-popular, "With our blood and our souls, we sacrifice for you, oh, Bashar." In Iraq, they used to chant the same, substituting Saddam for Bashar, of course.

On Sunday, the ballot choice will be simple: yes or no. Bashar al-Asad is seeking a second seven-year term under a constitutionally-mandated presidential referendum, which produced his landslide victory in 2000, and landslides five times before for his father, Hafez.