Political Orientations

Political Orientations

At gatherings in Syria, politics is often the chief topic of conversation; the Middle Eastern stereotype of fervent political coffeehouse discussions applies in part to Syria. Politics absorbs much of the active energy of the Syrian male. Most Syrians have strong opinions about what is wrong in Damascus or in their subdistrict centers and about what should be done. Urban Syrians, whether wealthy or poor, educated or illiterate, talk of political personalities and the central government. Rural Syrians talk of local political personalities, agricultural problems, and local politics. However, public criticism of the regime is muted and circumspect. Among the tribes and in more isolated villages, political discussion exists, but primarily on the basis of relations between villagers or tribes.

Political energy generally has been channeled toward clandestine opposition to the government in power and surreptitious criticism of other political forces and even other members of one's own political group, rather than toward active party participation. There are two reasons for this. First, few political parties have attempted to gain broad membership; many have been mere collections of prominent personalities without organization below the top central committees. Second, most citizens have questioned the efficacy of party activity as a means to political ends and personal advancement. The fortunes of political parties have been uncertain; some party members have been exiled or have gone to jail if the party has lost power. Consequently, persons with political ambitions often preferred to operate as independents rather than affiliate with a party.

Popular awareness of broader issues has expanded substantially in recent years as a result of radiobroadcasts and the expanding press, both of which have remained under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Information. Headed in 1987 by Yassin Rajjuh, the ministry played a key role in the dissemination of information and, through editorials, the formulation of public opinion. The ministry censored the domestic and foreign press, controlled radio and television networks, and published newspapers and magazines. It supervised the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA), the country's only domestic news service, and the Al Baath publishing house, which printed Al Baath, the organ of the ruling Baath Party and the nation's most widely circulated daily newspaper, and At Talia (The Vanguard), the fortnightly magazine of the Baath Party. Other major dailies included Ath Thawrah (The Revolution), and Tishrin (October, named after the October 1973 Arab-Israeli War) in Damascus; Al Jamahir Al Arabiyya (The Arab Masses) in Aleppo; and Al Fida' (The Sacrificer) in Hamah. The Ministry of Defense published the magazine Jaysh ash Shaab (The People's Army).

In Syria, individuals interested in politics have historically had limited means of expressing opinion. Often frustrated, they have seized upon the most direct means available of registering opposition: strikes, demonstrations, personal conflicts with politicians, and even, at times, violence and assassination. The method used most frequently is the demonstration, which has often led to rioting.

Industrial workers, merchants, farmers, and other groups have all used demonstrations to demand or protest government actions. Although demonstrations have not always been successful in achieving the aims of the instigators, they have served as useful barometers of public opinion. The skill of the Baath Party in initiating demonstrations was an important factor in the party's rise to power. The government has tolerated spontaneous public demonstrations, but more often it has stage-managed large public rallies in support of its policies.

Most Syrians have a strong libertarian streak and are wary of any government. This suspicion has been most pronounced in rural areas, where authority has been represented in the person of a tax collector or policeman. Moreover, government officials were usually townspeople, and members of villages and tribes felt that urban officials did not understand their problems and were condescending. Government officials often contributed to this attitude by posing as patrons or masters of the rural population. Indeed, urban officials still refer to prosperous peasants as "kulaks." As a result, any government effort to assist villagers or tribesmen was apt to be met, at least initially, with an uncooperative attitude.

Although distrust of the government has been less intense in urban centers, it has existed there as well. Regional jealousies have played a part in the lack of trust. People of Aleppo, Homs, and Hamah have felt that politicians in Damascus were primarily interested in maintaining the ascendancy of the national capital over the provincial capitals. Nevertheless, townspeople attach considerable prestige to holding a government position.

After 1958 the negative attitude of townspeople and villagers toward government began to diminish as people became increasingly aware that government could be an instrument for satisfying some of their needs. Successive governments attempted to bolster this process with a constant barrage of propaganda aimed at creating trust and building loyalty, not only to the government as a social institution but to the particular regime in Damascus. The regimes appealed to citizens on the basis of economic selfinterest , as well as on the broader and more emotional grounds of Arab and Syrian nationalism. The appeals found a wide and enthusiastic response, although the individual citizen incurred few obligations or duties that would test the sincerity of the response.

Concepts of Nationalism, Unity, and the Arab Nation
Attitudes Toward Foreign Ideologies and Systems

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