“A bunch of us – the gray people – we believed that Bashar was supposedly the reformer. He was the apple who fell a bit farther from the tree than the rest of the family. He was just an eye doctor who loves photography and IT,” Sayed said.
When the uprising began in March 2011, in step with the Arab spring protests throughout the region, the people of Sayed’s milieu trusted in their leader to spare them the civil strife that Libya, Yemen or Bahrain endured.
“I thought, ‘He’s definitely either going to defect or call for presidential elections in six months,’ ” Sayed said. “That’s how hopeful we were. Everybody miscalculated.”
Before the crisis, Sayed’s show was an upbeat variety program with horoscopes, entertainment gossip, sports updates and interviews with stars from the Arab world, as well as visiting Western celebrities such as Bryan Adams and Enrique Iglesias. She once got into trouble for a segment that took a clinical look at masturbation, which backfired because it was “too Howard Stern” for local sensibilities, she explained, but generally she was free to complain about the bribes she had to pay public servants, or the neglected roads that damaged cars, or even corruption in schools and police stations
About two months into the uprising, however, what had been the occasional lecture or gentle warning about content became, Sayed said, a return “to the ‘80s,” when Assad’s notoriously iron-fisted father, Hafez, was ruler.
“My show turned political, and every show turned political because there was an elephant in the room you needed to talk about,” Sayed recalled. “But when you talk about it, you have to say, ‘It’s terrorists.’ All media became state media, whether you liked it or not.”
The radio station quickly became a nest of informants, with co-workers monitoring one another for signs of disloyalty to the regime. Sayed said she got noticed for petty slights: not agreeing enough with pro-Assad callers, not reading every single pro-Assad text message that arrived, failing to attend pro-Assad rallies.
Sometimes Sayed and a co-worker would grab sandwiches near pro-government rallies in the capital, just to appear to the ever-watchful informers that they were part of the gatherings, which drew thousands upon thousands of Assad loyalists.
“He has support, and people need to know this,” Sayed said. “Yes, there were people who got paid and, yes, there were people who were forced, but not all of them. There’s still a lot of loyalists, and that’s a fact we have to deal with.”
State security pounced when she attended a U.S. Embassy function; she hadn’t thought twice about going because she was the secretary of the Syrian American Business Council. She got in even worse trouble when she disagreed with a caller who was lambasting a famous Syrian singer who’d disavowed the regime; Sayed was forced to make a humiliating on-air retraction the next day.
“All I really wanted to be was objective on air. I didn’t want to take sides, I just wanted to say, ‘We understand,’ and ‘Please, let’s not do it the hard way,’ ” Sayed recalled. “I still wanted to promote peace and love, but as one guy told me, ‘You must be lonely in that world.’ ”