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Speak Politely Mr. President: Lesson in Freedom and Citizenship

Commentary | 2018-03-08 11:28:00
Speak Politely Mr. President: Lesson in Freedom and Citizenship
By Ali Eid

No Syrian is free from bad memories.

I still remember when my 8-year-old daughter came back from her school in Damascus 2010. She was sad and seemed offended by her teacher for not knowing who is the 'Immortal Leader', such a new term pushed her to ask ‘What does that mean?’

The angry teacher answered: President Hafez al-Assad is Syria's Immortal Leader. The child girl wondered about that and said: when my grandfather died, my father told me that everyone is going to die.

It seems that she didn’t express her opinion well. She came home with eyes full of tears and her mind clear of explanations. In this way, the state apparatuses systemically repress children. During the first years of primary education they were indoctrinated with slogans that they don’t understand, and end up being called “Baath Vanguards”. In middle and secondary school they engage in “Revolutionary Youth”. 

Hence, in just 12 years, a whole generation becomes inert, forbidden to think, and deprived from freedom. Their understanding capability becomes limited to the shallow banners and expressions that glorify the leader and the party. The concept of the nations often summed up in sacrificing with blood and soul.

In 2011, the Syrian regime was confronted with decades-long tension. The suppression of freedoms, exclusion of alternative views, and establishing parties loyal to the regime came to an end. The real problem was that new generation that has never exercised freedom of expression faced a regime that has never dealt with civil, peaceful protest. Instead of facing the civil war’s warlords, the soldiers of the army's elite Fourth Amored Division, stood against angry protesters who only needed to be heard.

Freedom of expression, the right to education and equal opportunities are very important component of citizenship, on the other hand, citizenship means that all individuals ought to contribute in building their nation, which protects and gives them an identity. 

In Syria, thousands of people have been killed and disappeared only because they wrote about freedom or draw pictures, as in the case of the cartoonist Akram Raslan that was arrested by Assad authorities for his courage. Raslan became one of the forcibly disappeared and there is no sign that he is still alive .Ali Farzat was also kidnapped and they broke his fingers for violating the boundary of freedom set by the regime. 

In the social-contractual sense, no one has to die for an opinion or for having a different conception of the nation; on the contrary thousands of soldiers should sacrifice their lives to defend this person. Here we face two distinct interpretation of the meaning of defending the nation: the emotional and the rightful one.

The glorifying slogans, news written by the intelligence services, arrests, assassinations, politicization and employment of mediator control people lead to the big boom. All those vicious means make up the foundation of dictatorships and authoritarian regimes, but this cannot last forever. 

Amid this, we can point to the freedom that a citizen have in a respected country, the scene of president Emanuel Macron’s heated dialogue with a farmer during Paris International Agricultural Show few days ago seems a case in point. Macron’s visit was an opportunity to reassure the farmers that have doubts concerning new free trade agreement between France (as a member of the EU) and South American countries. The farmers fear that the agreement will affect them especially the importation of cheap meet from Brazil. 

One farmer addressed the president saying, "Talk to me politely”. Maybe, many won't find a good reason for the French President to use such a high voice tone, and others won't justify the "impoliteness" of the farmers, however all these will be within the frame of the freedom of expression guaranteed bylaw and constitution. 

Contrary to Individual ethics, the law is a decisive factor that guarantees freedoms. Human beings tend to be free and savages, but the system of laws put by legislators and agreed upon by citizens through a referendum is the real guarantee to citizenship, freedom, democracy and stability.

 When I was working in the State-run news agency (SANA) and during a discussion with senior employee about the website content and news priority, I said the headlines that must be on the top of the homepage are the ones which address the people's concerns. I was referring to a package of decisions issued by the Prime Ministry over the Syrian economy and other crucial issues like the social insurance. Then, the news that was heading the website was a congratulation cable sent by al-Assad to a foregin state. 

The debate came to an end when the official said: ”You are not supposed to publish any headline if there is news about President Bashar al-Assad”.

I actually realized that it is a sort of regulations from, as commonly in Syria, the supreme authorities. 

In addition to that, what I don’t get is what the official meant by “there is a distance we shall keep between the president and others, as well as information about him and the rest of news, whether government news or people’s public affairs. 

This distance is actually “the pincers” that ripped out fingernails of prisoners’ opinion. Consequently, it is criterion for determining what people may say and what is prohibited.

However, it’s like a “Crown of Thorns” that made all authorities and constituencies just a remake that aimed at defending the leader, the president or the king.

I once reviewed both the French and Syria’s constitutions then I found that the latest is full of words and phrases about people’s authority as well as people’s rule and rights and freedoms of citizens.

It is a strange irony, which made us reconsider the real meaning of freedom and citizenship: How could French be able to raise his voice against a head of state while a young man is being arrested by the Syrian intelligence services because he exclaimed freedom?

The current questions, that highlight the challenges of an individual consciousness to a collective awareness till the concept of nation and citizenship, are: To gain a responsible freedom is what we asked for? Is freedom just a concern / obsession or a supreme objective? Is it a matter that requires thinking? And how we turned it into a right or a fundamental value in society and state building?

As Andre Gide once said: “To know how to free oneself is nothing; the arduous thing is to know what to do with one's freedom.”

Ali Eid is a Syrian journalist and analyst writes a weekly column for Zaman al-Wasl news site.


Zaman Al Wasl- Ali Eid
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