Why was a face of the Assad family just removed from Syrian currency?

Published July 8th, 2015 - 12:38 GMT
The Central Bank of Syria began circulating the country's new 1,000-pound note, with one major change. (AFP/File)
The Central Bank of Syria began circulating the country's new 1,000-pound note, with one major change. (AFP/File)

The Central Bank of Syria began circulating the country’s new 1,000-pound note, and one major question is being left unanswered in English media reports — why the currency was redesigned without a face from the Assad family.

The old 1,000-pound note featured former president Hafez al-Assad, father of President Bashar al-Assad. In 2013 the Central Bank made the decision to replace it with an image of an ancient Roman theater located in the southern Daraa province, the birthplace of the revolution.  

The new photo of the Bosra Amphitheater in Salkhad, only 40 kilometers east of Daraa city, now adorns the face of one of Syria’s most commonly used bills. The decision left government supporters outraged, causing some social media users to change their Facebook profiles to the old bill with Hafez’s face on it.

According to the Central Bank, the old note with Hafez Assad needed better paper quality and security features. In a press conference Tuesday, Central Bank Governor Adib Mayalah elaborated and added that printing new notes shows the Syrian economy is capable of overcoming the difficulties it's facing, especially given the American and European sanctions on Syrian currency.

But the statement failed to give a reason it would require a new image on the face of the bills, or why — of all the Syrian landmarks to use — they chose a Roman theater in the province where the uprising began.

Countries often redesign currency notes to make it more difficult to counterfeit. They add more watermarks, or enhance already existing features, but typically keep images the same; after all, they were carefully and painstakingly chosen to represent the nation.

Regarding currency redesigns to tackle counterfeiting, a US governmental website states: “The redesigned notes remain the same size and use the same, but enhanced, portraits and historical images. Above all, US currency users will continue to recognize the redesigned notes as quintessentially American.”

Jeffry Frieden, international monetary and financial relations professor at Harvard University, told Al Bawaba he couldn’t think of a security reason to change the image.

"Whether it was done as a snub to Assad, or as something of a sop to the opposition, ... I have no idea,” Frieden wrote. “But I cannot see a legitimate security-based argument, so it would be interesting to try to figure out what is actually going on."

Turns out, there’s a more likely explanation than what’s being offered by officials.

The Syrian note has been subject of a smear campaign by the opposition in which they write offensive words — “Curse your soul, Hafez” — about the former leader by his image. The slogan was chanted by demonstrators at the start of the revolution.

Not only was the trend embarrassing to the government, it also presented a legal challenge for authorities. Possessing the paper notes with the insult could lead to one’s arrest, according to Arabic news al-Khaleej Online, leaving residents more reluctant to use them. Opposition claims the campaign is what pushed the regime to change the image.

It’s hard to say how successful the campaign was. A resident in Syria’s capital Damascus had never seen offensive words being written on a bill but believed Syrians would be in big trouble — arrested, possibly beaten — if they were caught with one. It’s likely the campaign took off in areas no longer being controlled by the government.

Regardless, the decision seems to be a big one that couldn’t have happened without the approval of Hafez Assad’s own son, Bashar.

By Hayat Norimine

This story was originally reported on Al Bawaba’s The Loop.

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