Al-Ahram Weekly Online   22 - 28 March 2012
Issue No. 1090
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

While Rome burns

The international media has eagerly published e-mails purporting to reveal the Syrian president's lavish lifestyle. But could there be a hidden agenda, asks Scheherezade Faramarzi

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Destroyed vehicles after explosions near the intelligence centre in Damascus

For those wondering what Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and his wife Asma have been doing as the world watches the brutal suppression of the Syrian people, there appears to be an answer, according to a reporter for Al-Jazeera.

Asma, the reporter said, had bought a $4,000 vase and a $9,800 handmade table from the Harrods in London. The day he sent his wife a love song by e-mail, Al-Assad launched a brutal assault on the city of Homs.

The evidence for these insensitive acts by this modern-day Marie Antoinette and her husband was documented in thousands of alleged e-mails that the British newspaper The Guardian published last week.

A CNN website article also offered its analysis. "Clearly, Bashar and Asma Al-Assad are creatures of the modern world. They watch YouTube videos, shop online and use secret e-mail pseudonyms. I bet they're buying the latest iPads. But those in the West who believed that their modernity meant they would bring democratic reform got it all wrong."

The international media has been abuzz since the alleged e-mails were published with analyses and "revelations" of a president who apparently lives in a gilded cocoon insulated from the horrors going on in his country, painting a picture of a rich family enjoying life while Rome burns.

To the media, much of it verging on tabloid journalism, the e-mails are a smoking gun, reflecting a leader who has lost touch with reality because he listens to music on the Internet or his wife makes purchases online.

There has been speculation about the state of Al-Assad's marriage to Asma, "who had stood by her husband during a year of protests", because of a provocative picture sent to Al-Assad of a woman clad only in white lingerie.

The media hype has almost turned the focus away from what is really important -- the continued suffering of the Syrian people, still with no end in sight. "They are turning it into tabloid and Desperate Housewives and Paris Hilton spin... Much of the coverage is geared towards entertainment rather than serious analyses," said Syrian journalist Kinda Jayoush, president of MediaCorp News Canada Corporation.

The tabloid-style coverage also betrays a kind of racism and sense of Western superiority by highlighting Asma Al-Assad's British connection to show the contradiction of someone raised in the Western democratic system who apparently does not care about fellow human beings. Modernity, the CNN website article claimed, is normally synonymous with democracy.

But if the e-mails prove the disconnect between the Al-Assads and the Syrian people, the coverage could also reveal the international media's disconnect from Middle Eastern realities and dictators in general.

The media "probably did think they lived in the Middle Ages, so for many if the butcher of Homs orders Harry Potter movies and listens to Chris Brown, it will confuse them and make them rethink their ideas of the differences between 'us' and 'them.' People are really that naive and that disconnected, and they have always been, especially when it comes to the Middle East," said France-based Arab journalist Patsy Nakell.

No wonder, then, that the coverage has raised suspicions among many Arabs and others of the intentions behind these tabloid-like revelations.

One could similarly ask what Mrs Netanyahu was doing while her husband's army attacked defenseless Palestinians in Gaza, or whether the Obamas were serving lavish dinners while US troops strafed civilian homes in Afghanistan.

What kind of music were they playing as Afghan children were dying? Should we dissect every song they played to find clues to the nature of Obama's foreign policy, which has destroyed the lives of numerous people, just as some reporters are now doing with the songs that Al-Assad listens to?

(One report tried to detect clues to Al-Assad's character in his eclectic musical choices, such as the song "God Gave Me You" by country singer Blake Shelton. The self-pitying lyrics, it speculated, reflected Al-Assad's fears that his ouster would ruin the legacy of his father, Hafez Al-Assad.)

Critics see the coverage as nothing more than propaganda and an opportunity for the West and Israel to discredit Al-Assad and muddy his name, as it has been unable to end the Syrian conflict.

"They can't attack physically at this stage because there is no coherent opposition, and the West doesn't wish to get into another endless Levantine muddle," said British journalist Tim Llewellyn. "So they are trying to throw muck against his name and paint him as some sort of reprehensible monster. The Western wife and shopping stuff is a brilliant trope to sell to the Sunnis."

Elias Muhanna, a blogger whose blog is called Qifa Nabki, agreed that a weakened Al-Assad could nevertheless serve US and Israeli interests. "Any news that strengthens that agenda (whether it's news of the army's bombardment of Homs, or of Asma's shopping sprees) is going to be welcomed by the West... Obama has taken a very hands-off approach with Syria, so as to let Al-Assad keep shooting himself in the foot."

"Several reputable papers have really fallen short of any credible journalistic standards by taking this story and running it," said Muhanna, who has doubts about the authenticity of some of the e-mails given the level of YouTube fabrication. It's easy to "spice up a few e-mails with some incriminating photos or details. It's pretty easy to forge an e-mail," he added.

Among the most "explosive revelations" was the suggestion that the Syrian president routinely asks Iran and Hizbullah in Lebanon for advice.

However, this not-so-new revelation is hardly explosive as it's been common knowledge that Syria's staunchest ally, Iran, has been advising the Syrian president on how to deal with the uprising. Even if this had not been reported, journalists should not have been shocked as this is normal practice in politics all over the world.

Hasn't the West, including the US, given ample advice to its autocratic allies, some even more brutal than Al-Assad?

Ammar Abdel-Hamid, a US-based Syrian human rights activist, said that exposing this banal side of the Al-Assads had helped re-energise people in Syria and was "a welcome development following so many setbacks on the ground." However, the revelations were unlikely to have much effect on Al-Assad's followers, he said, who were "motivated more by fear of change than love for the Al-Assads."

Perhaps journalist Hazem Al-Amin's take on the subject has been the most telling.

In an article in the London-based Saudi daily Al-Hayat, Al-Amin referred to an undercover Algerian photographer in the Syrian city of Idlib who had decided not to photograph the corpses lying around her, including a headless body, because no newspaper or other media would publish them.

When she heard that the Syrian security forces had discovered that a journalist was in the vicinity, she took refuge in a village home, the woman of the house agreeing that if the soldiers came she would say that the photographer was a deaf-mute in order to conceal her North African accent.

The security forces never came, and when the photographer was safely out of Syria she received an e-mail saying that the man who had lent her his home in the village for five days had been killed by the shabiha militia working for the regime.

Al-Amin drew parallels between the photographer's journey into Syria and the lavish lifestyle of the ruling family, as depicted in the Al-Assad e-mails.

"There's something in common between the two that is represented by the slow approach of disaster," he wrote. "The photographer feels pictures of headless corpses and bodies torn into pieces are not worth taking, as events are moving faster than the camera."

On the other hand, Al-Assad's e-mails revealed that the ruling family, while not living amidst the violence, was in denial and ordering luxury items from Paris and London. "The two parallel scenes from Syria give an opportunity for the imagination to play its part in completing the truth," Al-Amin commented.

"While the breadwinner of the Idlib family was killed by an exploding shell, the first lady was asking the brother of the Lebanese prime minister for a DVD of the last episode of Friends" and ordering a table from a shop in London under a false name.

"The truth is not complete in both cases but partly hidden. How come this man was not mentioned until the photographer received an e-mail about his death, and how many stories did we miss about the table as it went from rainy London, via Dubai ... to a palace on a hill overlooking a terrified city," Al-Amin asked.

"The e-mails don't say everything about the ruling family's life, but they help us to believe that this family is disconnected from the tragedy taking place" below.

"It's Syria whose story is being told by the Guardian, Reuters and the New York Times... but these are incomplete stories that foreigners are telling us, foreigners who are even more alienated than the Syrians themselves from their own country and regime."

"The scene of death is an idea of death and not death itself. A wounded man hanging by a rope from the balcony of a Damascus building has not suffered an ordinary death. It's an unexplained death and an incomplete one -- just like most of the stories we are getting from foreigners about this neighbouring country and its tragedy."

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