Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Syrian regime responds to critical cartoons by breaking the cartoonist's hands

The Washington Post's headline gets right to the point: Syrian security forces break hands of political cartoonist Ali Ferzat (8/25/2011)
Renowned Syrian political cartoonist Ali Ferzat was kidnapped, badly beaten, and left bleeding on the side of the road in an attack Thursday blamed on the security forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. [....]
According to the more extensive report in the Guardian:
In the early hours of Thursday, masked men seized Ferzat from the street and forced him in to a van. A relative has said that Ferzat's attackers targeted his hands, breaking them both, and told him it was "just a warning" before leaving him by the roadside with a bag over his head.
Of course, there is no direct proof that these thugs belonged to the Syrian security services. But that kind of heavy-handed symbolism, so to speak, is characteristic of their style of operation over the years, both at home and in Lebanon. One famous example was the 1980 assassination of the Lebanese journalist Selim al-Lawzi, whose body was found with his right hand burned in acid. And last month, according to the same Guardian report, "Ibrahim al-Qashoush, the composer of a popular anti-regime song in Hama, was found dead with his vocal chords removed." (They meant "vocal cords".) By comparison, what Ferzat got was "just a warning."

When Bashar took over from his father Hafez al-Assad as ruler of Syria in 2000, there was a brief period when it seemed possible that he would initiate a bit of glasnost. But those hopes faded pretty quickly, as the regime reverted to form.
In a 2001 interview with the Guardian, Ferzat recalled that before becoming president, Assad visited one of his exhibitions and said that some of the cartoons banned in Syria should have been published. He also published satirical paper al-Domar (Lamplighter), which ran from late 2000 until he was forced to close it in 2003. [....]

The dissident artist, who once described himself as having a friendship with Assad, warned in 2007 of an impending "monumental crisis" if the regime did not reform. He has since become increasingly critical of the regime and its brutal crackdown.
Until recently it looked as though Ferzat's prominence, along with Assad's desire to have a few token critics around for the sake of appearances, would protect him from attack. No longer.
Outspoken cultural figures have in the past been able to get away with more criticism than others. But in recent weeks, several artists, writers and actors have been arrested. [JW: Or, like Ibrahim al-Qashoush, murdered.] "At this stage, fame may be more of a danger than a protection because the regime does not want any prominent figure to come to the fore and provide a public face for the revolution," said Ammar Abdulhamid, a US-based dissident and son of Syrian actor Mona Wasif.
My impression is that for some time Ferzat's cartoons have all been published outside Syria, but no doubt they're accessible to Syrians in various ways. This recent cartoon, which shows Assad with his bags packed trying to hitch a ride with a fleeing Qaddafi, may have been the last straw.

Of course, Ferzat wasn't the only one to make this connection. On August 22, the day after jubilant Libyan rebels were shown on TV celebrating in the heart of Tripoli,
Thousands of anti-government protesters took to the streets across Syria today after a televised appearance by Bashar al-Assad, shouting for the president to step down and chanting: "Gaddafi is gone, now it's your turn, Bashar!"
Whether or not Assad does go the way of Qaddafi remains to be seen. The situations in Syria and in Libya are different in a lot of important ways, so one shouldn't jump to conclusions. But stay tuned.

—Jeff Weintraub