Amid this uneasy global debate, Bashar al-Assad’s Instagram comes as a luminous portrait of the ruler, his marriage and lifestyle. It is a glittering triumph of banality. The al-Assads really seem to believe that they are the perfect couple, the dashing man of power and his beautiful and gracious first lady.
It is too simplistic to describe these images as “propaganda.” Propaganda for whom? Can the regime really think pictures of Asma al-Assad meeting the people will efface dead bodies, blasted cities and homeless children? It can only appear monstrous to outsiders to see this myth of a sanitized Syria promoted by a government at war with a large part of its own people.
Yet the Syrian president must think the pictures have purchase, that he can smile his way to success — and this can only be because he and his supporters drug themselves with such images. Dictators don’t just fool the people. They fool themselves first. Dictators’ private lives are often kitsch fantasy worlds that enable a ruler to believe in a myth that is then projected outwards and buttressed by violence. The al-Assad Instagram world of glossy magazine glamor is just another such self-empowering fantasy.
It has something in common with the photo albums found when Libyans stormed then-leader Muammar Qaddafi’s family compound. Pictures of the dictator and his children posing with pet camels mingled with Qaddafi’s pictures of former US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice. These albums — like the desert-disco decor of the Qaddafi residences — were not intended for public consumption. They were not “propaganda.” The dictator himself liked to look at images of his private life that strengthened his sense of identity.
Adolf Hitler, similarly, worked on a private fantasy of who he was. He did not conduct his affair with Eva Braun in the public eye — her existence was a secret from most Germans. Yet plenty of photographs record their relationship and celebrate the leisure life of the Fuhrer in Bavaria and Berlin. Braun and his dog feature heavily in these eerie pictures. Both appear to have been props in his own self-image. Hitler’s real relationship with Braun is a mystery — observers said he was awkward in her company.
No one would doubt that the al-Assads have a “real” marriage — but what is real in the life of dictators? In the glory days of the Arab spring, the image of dictatorship as a corrupt, abusive form of rule was widely excoriated across the Middle East and in the west. It was easy for all parties to join in portraying Qaddafi as a tyrant reminiscent of Roman emperors Caligula or Nero. Today, so soon, disillusionment is such that even calling al-Assad a “dictator” may be seen as a caricature legitimating US aggression. However, the Instagram says it all. Here is a ruler just as deluded as Qaddafi, just as intoxicated with his own myth. To live in this false world is the nature of absolute rulers.