Syria's Reforms Too Much or Not Enough?
President Bashar Assad's job of holding Syria together is an almost impossible balancing act. Although his reforms are too limited for the younger generation, who are calling for both political and economic freedom, as far as the old established families are concerned, he has already gone too far.
Damascus, the capital of Syria. Although the country is moving forward, for many young Syrians progress is not fast enough.
How long can a person who is beautiful, talented and 30-years old wait for the future to come? TV presenter Intisar Junis is not the waiting sort. Today, she is in a hurry and does three things at once. She is sitting in her tiny, windowless office on the third floor of the state television station in Damascus. In a few minutes, her live show will be going on air. Today's guests? The minister for health and the minister for higher education, two old men in grey suits. The pale blue and red backdrop of the studio décor -- which looks a bit like a beach towel from the 1950s -- far from fits them.
Junis adjusts her red, rather tight-fitting blouse and scribbles a down few questions on a notepad. Then, next to the questions, she begins jotting down a column of figures: her estimates of how much a Hyundai SUV could cost her.
Junis is a good patriot. She is loyal both to the state and to the president. If she weren't, she wouldn't be sitting here today, working at the state-run TV station. But, she also has dreams. Dreams that she desperately wants to come true. In particular, she'd like that SUV. And, she'd like more money. Right now, she earns $200 per month, not more than an average worker, despite the fact that she is almost as well known in Syria as Sandra Maischberger is in Germany or Oprah Winfrey in America.
She wants something else, too. She wants Syria's young president, Bashar Assad, who has never given a TV interview in Syria, to appear on her Thursday night political show "25." "I'm young," she says in that deep, unmistakable voice, which has already helped her come a pretty long way. "I have questions, lots of questions."
Recently Junis also started working as a correspondent for Dubai TV. The state-of-the-art TV studio is a two-hour flight from Damascus, but the pay is better and there are no "red lines" -- that is issues that are not to be reported or discussed, such as corruption scandals involving powerful politicians, nepotism and a host of other topics. How long will Junis hold out in Damascus?
Don't Leave Me this Way
Assad's government wants to prevent popular, inoffensive personalities, like Junis, from leaving the country to work elsewhere. More emigrants could be fatal for the already troubled nation, which is politically isolated and lagging behind economically. In the past decade -- largely during the reign of Assad's father -- hundreds of thousands of Syrians fled both the regime and the Baath Party socialist market rules, which strangle Syrian entrepreneurs and bleed the nation dry economically. They left a nation that not only uses its secret service to carefully monitor foreign powers, but also to spy on its own people and keep them in line. Today, Syria's intelligentsia is strewn across the world. Germany alone is home to 8,000 academics, 6,000 of them medical doctors.
Some have returned for a trial run, to see how things are now that the younger Assad is in power, rather than his father. Marwan al-Kabalan, is among them. A professor for politics and media studies who receieved his degree in Manchester, he had his pick of numerous places to work as a Middle East expert. But a year ago, he chose to return to Damascus, where he could have what he so missed elsewhere: the silence that at night suddenly blankets the city, and the powerful shadow of Mount Kassioun -- the much loved backdrop to the city -- which he can see from the terrace of his apartment.
The smell of fresh kebabs and Muhallebi -- a sort of milk pudding with rosewater and pistachios -- drifts through the streets of the old town. The smell of home.
At first glance there is nothing conspicuous about 35-year-old Kabalan; a man in dark pleated trousers and a white shirt, carrying a briefcase, determinedly making his way from the university, through the chaos of the traffic, to the other side of the street. However, the professor differs from other Syrians, who speak about politics and reform only very cautiously. He is angry, and he says as much.
The Painful Path to Progress
For Kabalan, changes here have come about "painfully slowly." He is annoyed by the everyday petty corruption -- if he has to pay backhanders for a telephone connection or for the electricity or for the water supply. Even five years after Assad's assumption of office there is no credible legal system, not even the first signs of one, and still no transparency, with regards to who is doing business with whom. Who would want to invest in a country like that?
President Assad had promised that the state would largely keep itself out of the private lives of the people -- and it is true that opponents of the regime are no longer dragged off in the middle of the night and never seen again. But when Kabalab gives an interview to an international newspaper, one of the five secret service organisations questions him as to whether he had really said what he said, and if it wasn't at all 'unpatriotic': "I love my country, but the people here make you feel like you are a traitor."
So how long should it take to achieve progress? At least from an economic point of view, that is an easy question to answer: the country has until the oil runs out. Thanks to current high prices, the 500,000 barrels of Syrian crude oil pumped out every day account for 50 percent of the state budget. From 2008 the amount produced will drop dramatically. The country will then be reduced to importing oil, which is expensive. The Assad regime has until then to come up with a way of ensuring that people can survive.
"Just give me time," was Bashar Assad's plea when he inherited the presidency from his father five years ago. The young ruler, who trained in London as an eye doctor, is also someone who has returned to Syria. Great hopes have been pinned on this reserved and lanky man. But he is also the subject of big questions: Is he a modernizer? Is he different from the others? Does he want political renewal - or after all just the Chinese model of economic openness without political freedom?
Out with the Old ...
Assad's father steered the country's fate for almost 30 years. He was authoritarian, but also pragmatic. In 1991, during the Gulf War, he stood on the side of the Americans against Saddam Hussein, his arch enemy.
Hafis Assad was a man of power. His son is being forced to be one, rather against his will. The father was feared, the son is loved. The older man judged his subjects severely and ordered them around. The younger one listens to advice and weighs the pros and cons.
...And In with the New
Bashar Assad, 39, even has a different style compared to his father. From time to time he will suddenly turn up, with his elegant wife, at the national museum or the opera. His wife, Asma al-Achras, is ten years younger than him, is a banker and was born in England. The power couple act as if there are no differences in their social station. She never wears a headscarf and gives intimate interviews, in which she talks about her husband. They share an office together in their villa in the west of Damascus. The charming Asma al-Achras, who the Syrians call their Princess Diana, is no doubt an influential advisor.
The talk in recent years has constantly been that Assad isn't the real ruler of Syria - only a puppet of the secret services and military. But since the Baath Party Congress in June it has become clear that this tall, somewhat wooden, head of state really does control power in the country.
He has freed himself from the Baath party's old guard and already got rid of much of the military. Insiders speak of a purge of 450 officers. Assad has loaded the secret services with those he trusted, leaving the most important posts for his brother-in-law Assaf Schaukat.
- Part 1: Too Much or Not Enough?
- Part 2: Next Page: But can Assad Live Up to his Promises?