On Manaf Tlass, Syrian regime and the opposition..

Manaf Tlass` defection has resulted in a big buzz. But it is only few weeks after leaving Syria that the former commander of elite unites in the Republican Guard has finally spoken. “Spoken” with words, as in this interview aired by Al Arabiya, where Manaf states his support for the revolution which will give Syria back to its citizens.

He has also spoken with “images”, as soon as this picture here below went viral over the Internet yesterday. It portrays Manaf`s trip to Mecca for `umra (lesser pilgrimage), something that gives him enough “grades” to be accepted by the Kingdom as the right successor to Assad.


On the Manaf Tlass` case I think everybody should read this article by American Syrian scholar Bassam Haddad, an expert of Syria`s “neo-liberal” economy and editor of the precious Jadaliyya review.

My 50 Minutes with Manaf

by Bassam Haddad | published July 25, 2012 – 12:54pm

Tala was a friend of a friend. I met her in the early 2000s. Shortly afterward, she disappeared from the office. It turns out she got married.

Some years later, during one of my regular visits to Syria, I was with a group of friends at one of the bustling new restaurant-bars that dotted Damascus’ old city, around Bab Touma. Some places were more popular than others, frequented by internationals and a particular stratum of Damascene society that included some people who were pro-regime and others who were opposed. By the mid-2000s, one’s opinion of the regime did not matter much, in and of itself. What brought these Damascenes together was their common benefit from President Bashar al-Asad’s “economic reform” policies and the social stratification they had produced. In these circles, criticism of the regime was no longer taboo — so long as it was presented in a pleasant and “reasonable” manner. No names, no mention of sect, nothing “subversive.” Anyway, why would these people want to subvert the status quo?

That night, I was introduced to Tala’s husband, Manaf Tlass, as a “Syria researcher” working on the “Syrian economy.” At the time, Manaf was one of the regime’s top strongmen, working side by side with Mahir al-Asad (the president’s younger brother) as a commander of elite units in the Republican Guard. It was too dark to make out his features. Most of what I saw was the big round flame at the tip of the cigar that seemed surgically attached to his fingers, if not his lips. He asked a few questions. I answered politely. I knew who he was, and thought it was odd that he mingled so freely.

That was it.

On a subsequent trip, at a birthday party in another of those restaurants, I met Manaf again. This time, he asked someone to ask me to come to his table. Usually, that is not a good thing. I obliged, and he took me aside, asking more questions about regional politics and, then, Syria. I found myself discussing post-colonial development with Manaf and his cigar as Stardust’s remix of “Music Sounds Better with You” played in the background. We talked for a few minutes before I excused myself. Later, as he said his goodbyes to his fellow diners, Manaf approached me and asked me to come to his home office in Mazzeh. I was not asked for my cell phone number but was given an office number to confirm the visit.

I was in a tricky position. My research on Syrian political economy examined state-business networks and traced the deepening relationships between state officials and businessmen.

Manaf Tlass was no businessman, having gone the route of his father, Mustafa, the former defense minister who was a close confidante of Hafiz al-Asad for decades. But his brother, Firas, was. Many offspring of the Syrian leadership had gone the entrepreneurial route, and by the late 1980s they had become big businessmen, often with the aid of connections to consummate insiders like Manaf. Firas Tlass is said not to have exploited his connections as much as others, but the fact is that policymakers and policy takers in Syria were increasingly bound together. And there was another model that proved even more efficient at generating profits: The state official himself was a businessman in his capacity as a private citizen, creating what I called “fusion” between the public and private sectors.

For about ten years, I had been trying to study the development of capitalism in Syria, how it sustained authoritarianism and the attendant social machinations. I was not interested in exposing this or that character, as the “fusion” formula is not unique to Syria, and the Syrian regime was in no need of further unmasking. I purposely avoided talking to government and regime figures because the returns from such interviews are usually meager, and there is always the risk of raising suspicions about one’s research. The last systematic fieldwork by a Western scholar on Syria’s political economy had been carried out by Volker Perthes a half-decade earlier, producing the staple bookThe Political Economy of Syria Under Asad (1995). It was not a walk in the park for Volker, and nor was it for me. Though Firas Tlass, the fast-growing tycoon, was quite accessible, I elected not to speak with him, relying instead on an interview Joseph Samaha, one of the best journalists of our time, had conducted for al-Hayat in 1999. But now Firas’ brother, on the other side of the state-business equation, wanted to speak with me. It was not easy to say yes or no.

Manaf was quite candid and seemed more interested in conversation than surveillance. Still, I hesitated for some time before friends advised me not to skip out on the meeting.

At the time, Manaf was a rising star, quite close to the Asad family. Regime strongmen had regained their swagger after several years of “consolidation” that took place after the succession of Bashar to the presidency. It was a day to begin making Syria anew, with a younger and more contemplative, though less seasoned, leadership. The theme was less “reform” than “modernization,” less “change” than “continuity.” There was an atmosphere of cautious openness.

I walked into Manaf’s office and was politely asked to sit. I politely turned down the offer of a cigar. After some back-and-forth about my heritage (my mother is Syrian), Manaf asked me to share with him my frank thoughts about the Syrian regime, without stammering or self-censorship. It was surreal.

I was not unafraid. But I spoke forthrightly because it was the only thing I could do, and, honestly, because Manaf’s bearing was anything but intimidating or reminiscent of the stereotypical interrogator.

Taking care to be respectful, I shared my views on the limits of authoritarianism in time and space, and the limits of Syria’s regional role in the absence of more inclusive power-sharing formulas inside the country. When Manaf asked about corruption, I made sure to repeat, almost verbatim, the words of ‘Arif Dalila, an independent Marxist economics professor at the University of Damascus who was incarcerated in 2001 for his anti-regime views, during the post-“Damascus spring” round of arrests. ‘Arif was one of the most courageous people around — a mentor and, later, a friend. In 1998-1999, under Asad senior, mind you, when mosquitoes shuddered at the thought of landing on a regime member’s nose, he would walk down the aisle of the packed auditorium at the Tuesday Economic Forum. He would take the stage and dismantle the state’s rhetoric regarding the causes of Syria’s economic decline after the mid-1990s. He would say to rooms crawling with informants (and worse), and I quote from my notes:

Corruption is not a moral or ethical problem at heart, and it does not start at the moment when a policeman or border officer asks for a bribe. It is a systemic practice with a social, economic and political material base intended to sustain the entire political formula in this country…. We should not blame the poor officer who cannot make ends meet on his salary, but instead we should demand accountability at the highest level possible in this regime.

Talk about goose bumps. It was scary just to witness those words uttered. The room would fall silent, as though everyone had literally died, but everyone was actually feeling hyper-alive as ‘Arif would yifish al-ghill (redeem) the listeners in the most visceral way. Almost immediately after he spoke, over half of the audience would leave. It was one of the reasons why the Forum’s general secretary, Farouq al-Tammam, would beg ‘Arif to postpone his intervention until the end, knowing that everyone would stay to hear him. ‘Arif was not just a political economist or regime critic. He was a visionary, versed in the intricacies of global politics, and someone who would tear up when discussing the loss of Palestine by Arab regimes, including Syria’s.

Manaf listened without interrupting, and without letting go of his cigar. He then responded for 20 minutes, challenging me mildly on the feasibility of genuine reform in Syria and giving his views on democracy, the United States and regional politics. He was also forthright. His ideas, however, were underdeveloped or, more precisely, developed in a mind accustomed to wielding excessive power.

On reform, he asserted the importance of gradualism, a Hafiz al-Asad mantra, one that suits the reformers’ timetable, not that of the purported beneficiaries. But he was also unabashed in asserting the need for top-down control, which to him transcended questions of right and wrong, or democracy and authoritarianism. The regime had to guide the reform process based on a holistic view, one that takes into account local and regional variables. I interjected that this approach is the norm for regimes like Syria’s because reform is not the goal. He did not correct me, and reasserted the need for control.

Earlier, I had said to him that, even by the Syrian regime’s logic, it was always possible to open up the system more, to take more calculated risks in order to reduce the constant pressure, to utilize better Syria’s resources, human and material, instead of having fewer and fewer Syrians set an entire people’s destiny. He seemed to think I was being idealistic, that “political rule” requires other considerations, then dove into stock ruminations about whether or not Syria was ready for democracy. I was taken aback to hear some of the culturalist arguments that many of us educators have spent years trying to debunk in American (or other) classrooms.

Manaf seemed to be thinking big. He spoke of the United States as an equal, and was interested to identify balances of power of which Syria could take advantage. He oscillated between great wariness of the West and openness to new forms of engagement. After a while, it seemed I had caught him (and his cohort?) at a time when he was simply brainstorming. Certainly, the regime had abandoned any meaningful notion of socialism or even social justice. Manaf was not overly sensitive about such matters. His friends and relatives, the Asads, the Makhloufs and others of his generation were divorced from the struggles that their fathers had gone through in the 1960s. The generational divide was wide, separating two entirely different worldviews, one held by men who saw themselves as underdogs championing the cause of the have-nots against great odds, and one born into a world of plenty, privilege and power.

It is not that Manaf’s bunch was not “nationalistic” or critical of Israel. It is that their views had come at little cost, and so were often more malleable. Yet it seemed that Manaf was embarking on a voyage of self-discovery, as though beginning to feel he was bigger than the regime. His style of jumping from one point to another did not in fact yield a holistic analysis; it was difficult to locate the center of gravity. He spoke as if luxury and plenty had turned policy imperatives into modular choices that could be exchanged in an exegetical manner. It was as if he was talking about a household, not a country.

The privatization of the Syrian state is a reality in the making and remaking. Something had to give as the regime widened the gaps between itself and the majority, between the haves and the have-nots, between the city and the countryside, between manufacturing and trade. When most Syrians are disenfranchised as a few gobble up the available capital, it signals the beginning of the end.

Syrians were ready for democracy when I spoke to Manaf, and long before then. It might have been the kind of democracy that involves no external pressure. Alas, it was not outside intervention that Syrian regime strongmen were most concerned about. They sought merely to forestall a marginal loss of authority and opulence. The luxury of plenty intoxicated them, even blinded them to their long-term self-interest.

Just a few years later, the unsavory actors of the world are amassed around Syria, calling for a “democracy” that will be obedient and not resistant on the regional stage, one that acquiesces in using the victimization of Syrians to perpetuate the victimization of others across the region. It did not have to be this way. And the only party that could have brought about a different kind of change is the party that had near total power. But that party failed to avert Syria’s present catastrophe, and brought so much more than itself crashing down — all because it would not risk one iota of privilege. By sharing just a little power, the regime might have avoided issuing an invitation to those who were waiting to destroy what Syria might have stood for in the region, as they did with Iraq. Now the true friends of Syria are in an impossible position: If we identify with the plight of Syrians under dictatorship, we are branded as imperialists. If we caution against uncritical support of the uprising for the reasons above, we are called regime apologists. We are all wrong, no matter what we say.

Manaf thanked me for the visit, and I left about 50 minutes after entering his office.

On July 24, after leaving Syria some 12 days prior, Manaf Tlass for the first time announced his opposition to the regime that he embodied, as though its transgressions had begun in March 2011. And the external “opposition” benevolently embraced him, as did the Saudis, who admitted Manaf to their kingdom for the ‘umra (lesser pilgrimage). As Louis Armstrong sang, “What a Wonderful World!”


Syrians and the “surplus” of Syrian drama

Ramadan started few days ago, and this is a very different one this year. Over the past years I`ve tried to report as much as I could about the most interesting TV drama productions in the Region and to discuss important issues related to musalsalat industry in the Arab world (financing, advertising etc). But this year is different. And even for professional media analysts it`s still very hard to watch Ramadan musalsalat without thinking of the events unfolding in the Region, particularly in Syria.

These days Ramadan is celebrated all across the world and Damascus, the hub of Syrian TV fiction production -and my second home, too-, is witnessing clashes in the streets, bombing, shelling.

While watching the Syrian musalsalat production for 2012 -which I will try to review in a later post-  I can`t help going back with my memory to an episode of comedic musalsal Buqa`t al-Daw (Spotlight), the famous Syrian TV drama which sprouted from the very brief opening of the Damascus Spring 2000-2001. Everybody, at the time, had strong hopes that the country would go under serious reforms, both economic and political. The Damascus Spring was soon over but the musalsal went on, for many seasons (it has now reached its 9th).

The episode I would like to tell you about is called Al-sirr (The secret) and was part of Spotlight`s season 7 (aired two years ago, in 2010, before the uprising started). 

A meeting is held between Syrian officials and representatives of foreign countries from the five continents in order to exchange experiences in managing a country`s economy. The foreigners are very interested to learn how Syria can manage its economy so well. Syrian officials are keen on explaining their secret which lies in the “excess value”, “surplus” (qyma za`da). A scene features a citizen who has to submit documents to a public official. The official cost of this operation is 50 Syrian Pound but the citizen pays 950 Syrian Pound in excess (qyma za`da), in order to have the public employee speeding up his documentation.

In the following scene a mazot seller meets up with a citizen shivering for the cold. The mazot is sold above its real price, so the excess value which was paid in the former scene has been re-gained. This is the shared chain (silsila mushtaraka) that lies at the basis of economic circulation in Syria. Syrian officials that are featured in the musalsal proudly explain that this “secret” (the title of the musalsal episode is al sirr, the secret) finally secures economic balance, as everybody pays the qyma za`da in order to get services, while the state pays nothing.

The musalsal concludes that the production of state economy (intaj al iqtisaad al-dawla) is based on what the citizens produce (intaj al muwatin): this process triggers a virtuous circle where the citizen, even if only paid 200 dollars monthly, will make profit at someone else`s expenses, and the latter will do the same, until the chain will be complete. Within this informal economy a citizen can earn even 10 times more his official salary, without being a burden for the state.

Through comedy and laughter, the musalsal reminds citizens that they are all part of the system and complicit with it. Corruption can be denounced and individuals can be removed, but resisting the system that generates that corruption is useless, since everybody is part of it. Every citizen is a gear of this mechanism and contributes to its survival; as the system`s survival is intertwined with personal survival.

This is how Syrian citizens have been constantly reminded, as audiences of tanwiri (enlightened) inspired media content like Spotlight and many other Syrian “neo-realist” musalsalat, to be culpable of perpetrating the social diseases that afflict Syrian society. 

How different it is to watch al sirr right now, in 2012..

Syrian people have become aware that denouncing corruption was a trick perpetrated by the system itself, helped by seemingly progressive media content. Let`s not forget that the production company who has been producing Spotlight for 9 years, Syrian Art Production International, is owned by Mohamed Hamsho, former Syrian MP and involved in different business deals with the Assad`s family.

Encouraging laughter over social and political problems was a way to relief Syrian citizens but also to remind them that any form of resistance was impossible, as they were complicit with the corrupted system and its rotten mechanisms. If there is an already accomplished result of the 2011 Syrian uprising, it is that Syrians have clearly refused these accusations to be a gear of the corrupted system. They have refused to be assimilated to it as its natural component. They have said no to corruption as a  part of their daily lives and their society`s life.  

Syrians won`t be laughing again.

Ciao Massimo…qualcosa che sa di vita..

Non e` facile per me mettere in fila queste parole, per una persona a cui tanto devo e a cui tanto ho voluto bene.

Mi ricordo quando ho conosciuto Massimo Fichera, la prima volta, nel 1997. Aveva uno studio a Via Timavo, dietro la sede della Rai di Mazzini. A quel tempo, lui metteva in piedi il sogno di una TV Euromediterranea, Euromed TV, un`alleanza di culture europee ed arabe per produrre contenuti televisivi e multiculturali. E io, una studentessa di Scienze della Comunicazione all`ultimo anno, mettevo in piedi la mia tesi, una fissa che mi era venuta di esplorare i canali televisivi panarabi all`epoca di stanza in Europa –MBC, Orbit e ART, questi ultimi due in Italia-. E cosi il mio professore, Alberto Abruzzese, grande amico di Massimo, mi spedi` da lui come unico esperto “del settore”. Come unico esperto italiano in grado di dare un respiro internazionale e multiculturale alla riflessione sui media.

Massimo mi accolse, nel suo studio di Via Timavo, incuriosito di certo da una piccola studentessa con la voglia di capire che ci stavano a fare gli arabi in Italia con le loro televisioni. Era l`inizio della mia ossessione per il mondo arabo, della mia “carriera” di massmediologa molto poco arabista. Era soprattutto l`inizio di un`amicizia, di una di quelle cose cosi importanti personalmente e professionalmente che ti capita una volta sola nella vita, e devi ritenerti fortunata.

Sono stata fortunata a conoscere un uomo di rara intelligenza, spirito e capacita di valorizzare gli altri come era Massimo Fichera. Una di quelle persone che non aveva paura dell`intelligenza altrui ma anzi cercava di valorizzarla, incanalarla, farla crescere.

E cosi dopo la mia tesi fu lui il primo a chiamarmi e a propormi un lavoro, un lavoro vero. Il mio primo lavoro in TV: a scrivere i testi di “Un mondo a colori”, un programma sulla multiculturalita` che lui aveva ideato e cominciava a realizzare con la Rai Educational di altro uomo di televisione onesto e illuminato (due doti che sono merce rarissima), Renato Parascandolo. Non avevo mai fatto televisione: anzi a dire il vero non avevo mai fatto niente, a parte lavoretti estivi in ristoranti e bar. Quella fu la mia prima esperienza vera, tremenda e bellissima, nel “magico mondo del lavoro” ( e della televisione).

Gli chiesi perche mi avesse chiamato, dato che non avevo esperienza in TV. Mi disse che certo non avrebbe trovato nessuno con piu esperienza di me nell`analisi delle TV arabe. Era un uomo spiritoso, e strappava sempre risate quando parlava.

Quando, due anni dopo l`inizio della mia “carriera” televisiva gli dissi “Massimo vorrei mollare il programma..ho un`idea di un programma tutto mio”, non mi disse che ero matta (pero` lo ero). Mi ascolto`, si fece spiegare l`idea. Era il 2000, Internet era agli albori (almeno in Italia). Per un uomo della generazione di Massimo che diceva sempre scherzando che non aveva voluto perdere tempo a imparare a scrivere email perche pensava fosse inutile, “Glocal”, il mio format – mio e dei miei compagni di avventura Marco Santarelli e Alessandro Salibra Bove– era a dir poco avveniristico.

Cercai di spiegargli cos`era una chat room, cos`era un collegamento webcam. Cercai di spiegargli che non volevamo una regia, che non cercavamo il controllo, bensi il flusso, giovani che si collegavano da citta diverse, scambiando suoni, immagini, parole, anche cose senza senso. Capi`. Si illumino`, come solo lui sapeva fare, e io mi sentii per un attimo come Renzo Arbore, Massimo Troisi, Roberto Benigni, i fratelli Taviani, Carmelo Bene, tutte quelle persone che nel corso della sua vita precedente di direttore di Rai due lui aveva sostenuto, a cui aveva dato ascolto e spazio in TV. Mi sentii fortunata ad avere l`attenzione di un uomo cosi, di un vero manager, di un vero uomo di cultura.

Un anno e mezzo dopo facemmo il nostro “Glocal”, sugli schermi di Rai tre, con la Rai Educational illuminata di Parascandolo. Fu l`ultimo mio programma in Rai, da dentro, e l`ultimo di Massimo. Dopo la “musica” cambio`, la Rai era diversa, e noi avevamo tutti troppa voglia di fare per aspettare -chissa quando- il momento giusto.

Mollammo ma la nostra storia professionale non si fermo li. Massimo era andato a lavorare all`ISIMM di Manca e mi propose di tornare a fare ricerca sull`innovazione, se proprio innovazione non potevamo piu fare. E cosi ci buttammo in una nuova avventura, studiare nuovi contenuti per nuovi media. Facemmo ricerche, convegni, viaggi, scrivemmo rapporti, li consegnammo a dirigenti televisivi (che probabilmente non li lessero mai).

Noi cambiammo ma la Rai no. Noi avevamo voglia di fare cose nuove ma loro no. E Massimo era sempre li, come un ragazzino, a entusiasmarsi e buttarsi in progetti folli e innovativi. Ripeteva sempre che la sua vita era stata scandita dal ritornello “come essere sempre sconfitti e vivere felici”. Diceva che non aveva fatto scuola, diceva che non aveva lasciato nulla se non tentativi di cambiamento andati a male. Pero diceva che era felice, perche almeno ci aveva provato.

Io non l`ho mai visto come uno sconfitto. L`ho sempre visto come un avventuriero, uno che si buttava ma sapeva dove cadeva. Calcolava i rischi e riconosceva l`intelligenza, non faceva mai tentativi a vuoto.

L`ISIMM e` stata la nostra ultima avventura insieme, dopo lui e` andato in “pensione” (non so cosa voglia dire questo termine nel caso di una persona come lui, sempre in attivita) e io sono andata fuori. Ho detto basta a quest`Italia, troppi tentativi, e il mondo era troppo grande per aspettare.

Ma siamo rimasti amici, sempre, negli anni. Dopo essere stato il mio relatore, il mio mentore, il mio consulente, il mio capo, adesso Massimo era mio amico.

Facevamo passeggiate insieme in citta, nei parchi, andavamo al ristorante, ai convegni, al cinema. Di 15 anni della nostra amicizia, la parte piu bella, quella che ricordero con piu affetto e dolore e` proprio questa. Quest`amicizia disinteressata, senza piu lavori da fare insieme, scadenze, report da consegnare. Un`amicizia in cui parlavamo tanto dei suoi ricordi, e io avevo un piacere immenso a sentire i racconti incredibili della sua Sicilia, di suo padre attore che divento matematico per amore, di sua madre, dei suoi fratelli tutti maschi e tutti matematici, della sua prima Roma, del giornalismo, di Adriano Olivetti, delle bevute nelle fabbriche sociali di Ivrea, della tensione e dell`affetto con gli operai, delle battaglie in Rai, delle femministe, di Processo per Stupro e Loredana Rotondo, della sua visita nella stanza d`albergo di Rossellini a Cannes, dei fratelli Taviani, di Lione, dell`amico finlandese ex-camionista e poi direttore TV, delle sue donne, della sua donna, dei suoi figli…

E io ho ascoltato per anni, fino alla fine, non sapendo cosa rispondere. Cosa rispondere di fronte a tanta storia? raccontavo anch`io, quando potevo..e nei giorni verso la fine mi ha detto “basta mi stai stancando sei troppo intellettuale!”.. Come avrei voluto allora dirti qualcosa d`altro, qualcosa di meno intellettuale, Massimo, e di piu vero, qualcosa che riguarda la vita..qualcosa che riguarda quegli scambi fra noi, qualcosa che ho avuto il privilegio di ascoltare, i tuoi insegnamenti, le tue battute, le tue idee, i tuoi rimproveri, i tuoi consigli, i tuoi ricordi..qualcosa che riguarda le passeggiate estive nel verde dei parchi, e poi quelle spoglie autunnali, e poi la prima pioggia romana appiccicaticcia, e poi i vicoletti di Trastevere che qualche volta mi hanno fatto sentire nella tua Catania..

Qualcosa che riguardasse la vita, e invece e` sopraggiunta la morte..E questo qualcosa rimane intrappolato qui, fra queste righe..e, per il resto, nei miei ricordi.

Ciao Massimo ..grande maestro, intellettuale, ispiratore.. soprattutto, grande amico..