WASHINGTON -- Never, ever say the word “revolution.”
Protesters are to be called “terrorists” at all times. When a listener calls in to praise the president, you must agree in flowery terms. When suffering civilians beg you to describe their plight, you ignore them.
Those are just a few of the rules imposed on Honey al Sayed in the final weeks before she abandoned her nationally broadcast radio show, “Good Morning, Syria,” which drew millions of listeners each day.
Eight months ago, Sayed left Damascus under the pretense of pursuing her studies, though she knew she was fleeing both the regime of President Bashar Assad and a rebel movement that’s killed media personalities who are seen as pro-government. For months after Sayed left, the radio station continued to play promotional jingles for her show, to cover her departure and make her return seem imminent even when it became apparent that she was gone for good.
She’s used her blog and social media accounts to support the uprising but she’s kept silent about her own departure, mostly out of fear for her family still in Damascus, she said, but also because of lingering shame that she believed in Assad’s potential for reform long after the death toll was in the thousands.
Now she’s telling her story, offering a rare portal into the regime’s propaganda machine and an explanation for why Assad remained attractive to so many Syrians for so long.
“The reason I left was to keep what’s left of my personal and professional integrity,” Sayed, who’s 39, said in a three-hour interview in Washington, where she’s living as a refugee. “I compromised it. But I didn’t know what else to do. I had fear.”
Sayed got her break in 2005, when Assad ushered in some mainly cosmetic reforms, including the right to private media ownership. Some of her friends seized on the chance to open the country’s first independent radio station, Al Madina FM, and they hired Sayed for the coveted morning slot.
As Sayed sees it, she was a pressure valve that helped fed-up Syrians blow off steam without really threatening the regime. She embodied the Western-friendly Syria that Assad projected when he inherited power from his father in 2000: She challenged old taboos on women, embraced a secular lifestyle, spoke a cool patois of English and Arabic, and made bold on-air jokes about rampant government corruption. She prided herself on pushing against the regime’s red lines.
“That’s why people became loyal to him,” she said of Assad’s efforts to rebrand his family’s authoritarian dynasty. “When you don’t have anything, and suddenly you have something – even if it’s very little, even if it’s your right – it’s like candy.”
Her family comes from the well-heeled Sunni Muslim merchant class that, together with the minority Alawites, forms the backbone of Assad’s regime. Because Assad was the bookish, accidental ruler – assuming power only after a car wreck killed the heir apparent – he was seen as fairly benign, Sayed said.
Her father, a photographer, once did a photo shoot for the president. Her mother was proud to have him visit her art gallery in Damascus. Sayed’s sister did some advertising work for Assad. And Sayed recalled bumping into the president and his glamorous first lady at the opera.