Minister of What?

Syrians may find it hard to put names to government ministers, but they know they don’t much care for them.

Minister of What?

Syrians may find it hard to put names to government ministers, but they know they don’t much care for them.

Saturday, 14 February, 2009
A recently-conducted survey suggests that most Syrians are incapable of remembering the names of government ministers.

On January 25, the pro-government Al-Khabar newspaper published the results of an opinion poll in which students, doctors, journalists and other professionals were asked to name various ministers. Syria’s foreign minister, Walid al-Muallem, was the figure most frequently identified. He was followed by Information Minister Muhsen Bilal and Finance Minister Mohammad al-Hussain – the latter only because he had imposed new taxes.

The students, doctors, journalists and other professionals interviewed for the survey expressed unhappiness with the performance of government officials, saying the policies the implemented had no impact on their lives.

Some commentators have said that Syrians are more familiar with officials in neighbouring Lebanon than with their own because they see and hear about them more often in the media.

Omar Qandaqchi, a lawyer based in the city of Homs, said that there was a large gulf between Syrian citizens and the government, a gulf that could be closed only if top officials began being more honest in their public statements, admitting their mistakes and bringing civil society into the decision-making process.

“How can people feel that ministers are close to them when their standard of living is falling and official statements greatly diverge from reality?” asked Qandaqchi.

Despite promises of political and economic reforms, the country continues to be tightly controlled by the ruling Baath party. Syria has not had a change of government for more than five years. The cabinet formed in 2003 has undergone only a few modifications to the roles of some ministers.

Local newspapers and websites have recently been reporting that the Syrian leadership was considering radical changes to the cabinet which it felt had not done well in managing the economy.

Adnan Khazam, a former environment minister, did not agree that people viewed officials like him so negatively. He told IWPR that he regularly met members of the public and set aside time each week to receive people and hear about their problems.

“I used to walk in the streets of Damascus without bodyguards and listen to complaints made by friends and acquaintances without formality,” he added.

Azzam al-Hayek, a businessman, said that he was not impressed by ministers who make a lot of statements and appear regularly on TV.

“They are just caretaker officials who oversee administrative procedures and sign documents,” he said. “No government minister ever issues an outstanding decision.”

Murhaf Mino, managing editor of a news website, believes people do not trust their ministers simply because their record is so poor. He said he could hardly have confidence in the economy minister when prices kept on rising, or the culture minister when there was nothing in place for young people.

Amr al-Ghirbal, a high-school student from Homs, said he only remembered the name of the higher education minister, Ghias Barakat, because he and his classmates once met him.

“He was eloquent and he seemed to listen to our demands carefully,” he said, adding that he hoped the minister would keep his promises to modernise the school curriculum.

(Syria News Briefing, a weekly news analysis service, draws on information and opinion from a network of IWPR-trained Syrian journalists based in the country.)
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