Cartoonist Critical of Syrian Regime Assaulted

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World, a coproduction of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. The rebellion in Libya is taking most of the Arab Spring spotlight this week, but the protests and crackdowns in other countries continue. In Syria, a prominent cartoonist has become the latest victim of repression there. Early this morning Ali Ferzat was dragged from his car by masked gunmen and beaten. The attackers reportedly Ferzat's hands before dumping him on the side of the road. The 60 year old's recent work has been highly critical of president Bashar al-Assad and his regime. In one cartoon this week Ferzat depicted a fleeing Assad catching a ride from Muammar Gaddafi. Robin Yassin-Kassab is a write and blogger based in London. He has followed Ali Ferzat's work for years and wrote the blog entry about his beating, which you can see on our website, Robin Yassin-Kassab, we don't know the identity of the attackers, but who would have an interest in attacking Ali Ferzat?

Robin Yassin-Kassab: No, we don't know for sure who did this as we don't know anything really for sure that's coming out of Syria, but it seems 99.9% certain that it was the Syrian regime. The message is very clear, if you draw pictures against us, you draw cartoons that we don't like, we'll break your hands.

Werman: It's kind of confusing because Ali Ferzat had been around for many years. He's 60 years old and has cartooned through the years under Hafez al-Assad, the father, and now, Bashar, the son. What makes him dangerous now?

Kassab: Well, I think in a way he's always been dangerous, but they're meeting a real challenge at the moment. And they're responding with this outrageous violence, so there are many people who were more or less left alone when the regime wasn't under threat and now they're not being left alone any longer. One thing that Ali has done is that recently his cartoons have actually depicted characters who do look obviously like Bashar al-Assad. In the past he stuck to draw in types, so he would draw a dictatorial general type, which didn't actually look like any individual that we recognized, or he would draw an arrogant, fat, rich man, but it wouldn't specifically refer to any individual. Now, he's got a little bit more explicit in recent months.

Werman: Would you say he's gotten more literal as well? I mean is he reflecting the ongoing protests in Syria and also you know, featuring somebody...

Kassab: Yeah, yeah, certainly. In the past he didn't necessarily refer to the immediate news of the day. He referred to the general ongoing issues of dictatorship and bureaucracy and so on. But recently he has responded specifically to, for example, if Bashar al-Assad gave a speech, the next day Ali Ferzat would draw a cartoon in which we see a captive audience being told to clap with this speech.

Werman: Right.

Kassab: So he is responding to the silliness and the hypocrisy of official state proclamations at the moment, yeah.

Werman: And his work is cartoons. Do Syrians see his work every day?

Kassab: Yeah, he's very popular in Syria. He's very well known. He's popular throughout the Arab world. Of course, one of the things which has made him more dangerous is that he has a website now that Syrians, like everybody, are using the internet all the time. So, Ali Ferzat's website is not censored in the way that his work in state-controlled newspapers has been censored in the past. Of course, his website today, unfortunately, has been, has gone down and has been taken off the air.

Werman: Given how popular Ali Ferzat is and you know, how much everybody reads his work and sees his work, how would you imagine the news of his beating will be received across Syria?

Kassab: Well, with horror. I think it can only serve to make the regime even less popular than it is now, and it's not popular at all now. In a way this is like so many of the things that the regime has been doing recently. It looks like they're shooting themselves in the foot. It looks like a stupid move. If they're trying to convince anybody that they're nice people and they should be supported, well, this isn't going to help. But actually, I don't think that they're trying to be liked at the moment.

Werman: Robin, your part Syrian, how did you feel when you heard this news this morning?

Kassab: Well, I woke up as I have done for different reasons so many times over the last five or six months just feeling sick and fighting back the tears because Ali Ferzat really is a great Syrian and a great Arab. He's somebody who has spoken very bravely and very accurately about patriarchy, dictatorship, occupation, class oppression, bureaucracy, hypocrisy, ignorance, and it's a tragedy that they've broken this man's hands. It kind of sums up their thuggishness and the way in which they seem intent on destroying everything that's good in Syria and Arab society.

Werman: Robin Yassin-Kassab is a writer and blogger based in London. You can see a slideshow featuring several of Ali Ferzat's cartoons and follow links to some of the Facebook pages that have sprung up since his beating today at