Whose truth? Competing narratives in Syria and Libya

Written on April 29, 2011 by Ángeles Figueroa-Alcorta in Democracy & Human Rights, Middle East

By Ibrahim Al-Marashi, Assistant Professor of Contemporary History & Freedom of Speech at IE University

After the fall of Saddam Hussein, Syria and Libya became the two strongest mukhabarator ‘secret police’ states. The longevity of the Al-Asad and Qaddafi regimes could be attributed to the ability of state security forces to project fear into the populace and quell anti-state protests whenever they emerged. Damascus used force to crush an uprising of the Muslim Brotherhood in the town of Hama in 1982 and Tripoli did the same to crush a Libyan Islamist insurgency in the 1990s.

Both Syria and Libya (and Saddam’s Iraq) did not rule on fear alone. These states also depended on networks of patronage, a way of communicating to these ‘in-groups’ that if the regime would fall, so would their privileged socio-economic status. Defending this status could explain the tenacious resistance of military units around Qaddafi and Al-Asad.

While patronage can only benefit a few, the masses were seduced by their leadership with rhetorical campaigns to cement loyalty between the regime and public. As these besieged regimes defend their positions of power with armed force, they have also fallen back on systems of truth telling and conspiracy theories to legitimize their rule. Speeches delivered during the ongoing crises reveal how these leaders view themselves and the struggles that they are uniquely qualified to fight. If they were to fall, so would their struggles. Thus, using force against opponents is justified in the name of defending the regime engaged in struggles greater than the state itself. Syrian President Bashar Al-Asad’s speech from the People’s Assembly on 31 March provided a window into these dynamics.

Unlike the other countries facing domestic revolts, Syria is the only country that can tap into a ‘resistance’ discourse. It is the only frontline state (excluding Lebanon) that has not signed a peace treaty with Israel, and its support for Hizbullah allows Damascus to burnish its credentials for continuing this fight. From this perspective, any domestic disturbances can be blamed on foreign plans to undermine this national and pan-Arab struggle.

According to this reasoning, in March Al-Asad declared that Syria faced ‘a great conspiracy, the webs of which spread from far away countries and close countries, and some of whose strings reach inside the country.’ Al-Asad only mentioned Israel as a threat and placed the rest of the blame on unspecified ‘satellite channels’ and ‘foreign conspiracies.’ These enemies were ‘smart’ in choosing satellite television and text messaging to infiltrate the country but Syrians ‘note their stupidity in that they chose the wrong country and people, as this kind of conspiracy does not work here.’

The global media characterized his statements as a delusional conspiracy theory. However the notion of a conspiracy theory is subjective. One person’s conspiracy theory is another person’s truth. What Al-Asad was explaining to a Syrian audience, and a global one at that, was the Ba’athist/Syrian interpretative schemata or framework for understanding its role in the Middle East. Read more…

Ibrahim Al-Marashi is Assistant Professor of Contemporary History at IE University in Madrid, Spain. He is co-author of Iraq’s Armed Forces: An Analytical History (Routledge, 2008).


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