November 4, 2014

Voting - Syrian style

Syrian President Bashar al-Asad and wife Asma' casting their ballots

Today is election day in the United States, the day we Americans elect who will govern the country. It is a right most of us take for granted, and too few of us actually exercise. For those of us who have served abroad in countries that do not have this right, it is disappointing to watch the low turnout numbers.

Let me contrast our right to vote with an anecdote about voting in Syria.

In the early to mid-1990s, I served as the air attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus. As with any embassy tour, you develop friendships among the local population. Since both my wife and I could speak Arabic, it was fairly easy for us to meet people. One of the couples that we met were a doctor and his wife - great people. We will call them Samir and Layla Fulani.

One night we were invited to dinner at the Fulanis' - it happened to be election day in Syria. Samir was a bit late getting home from the state-run hospital where he worked. After his initial greetings to Layla and the children, he sat down and we began a conversation. I asked him if he had voted in the election during the day. He laughed, shaking his head, saying the Arabic equivalent of "what a joke."

I asked him what he meant - although I was under no illusion that the Syrian regime of Hafiz al-Asad (father of the current president) was going to conduct free and fair elections. Samir recounted his "voting" experience.

The doctor had arrived at the hospital that morning at the usual time. As he was walking across the lobby to his office, the hospital director called out to Samir and asked him to come into his office. In the office were two Ba'th Party officials. I asked Samir how he knew they were party officials. He smiled at me and said, "Oh, you just know."

The officials welcomed Samir and asked him if he planned to vote that day. He responded that he was planning to stop by on his way home from work and cast his ballot. One of the officials gave the typical Levantine click of the tongue and remarked that since the doctor was so busy and of course a loyal supporter of the Ba'th Party, that he had taken the liberty of filling out Samir's ballot for him.

Before I continue, I want to stress that Samir and I were good friends, so we often "tweaked" each other a bit. So, I asked him how the official had voted? He just nodded and gave me the "I'll get you later" smile. I then asked how he let them get away with such obvious voter intimidation and voter fraud. He asked me, "My brother Rick, how long have you lived here?"

I replied, "Long enough to know the answer."

That's how the Syrian president is elected and re-elected. Normally in the past, it was a referendum - do you want Hafiz al-Asad, or later, Bashar al-Asad to be the President of the Syrian Arab Republic? Yes or no. In the last election, the system was changed to allow multiple candidates. Who but an approved patsy is going to run against a brutal dictator?

The joke in Damascus - and you have to laugh sometimes to get by in these countries - was that after the election/referendum, an aide ran into the president's office and reported that the president had won 99.7 percent of the vote - what more could he want? The president replied, "The names of the .3...."

No matter how many hiccups there are today, and there will be some, at least we get to cast a real vote. Please exercise that right - many of us served in some faraway places to guarantee that you continue to have that right.