DAMASCUS, Syria — After a lecture on the role of private banks, Syrian economist Mohammed Ayman al-Maydani was asked to elaborate on a passing remark to corruption in the private and public sectors.
"If I answer this question I may not get to spend the night at home," he quipped, alluding to the possibility he could be arrested. There was nervous laughter in the room.
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The tense moment at the Damascus lecture earlier this month underscored
how much and how little has changed in Syria under President Bashar
Assad in recent years. The Syrian leader has slowly moved to lift
Soviet-style economic restrictions his father and predecessor, Hafez
Assad, left him.
He opened up the country for foreign banks,
threw its doors wide open for imports, authorized private higher
education and empowered the private sector.
But the lanky, former
eye doctor who came to power 10 years ago this summer has not matched
his liberal economic policies with any political reforms. None, in fact,
and his powerful security services are in constant watch for criticism
of the regime.
In the process, Assad has changed the Syrian
regime's basis of legitimacy. He has depended less on his father's old
anti-Israeli, Arab nationalism rhetoric, basing his power instead on
promises of stability, modernization, economic openness and ending
Syria's international isolation.
After 10 years of Assad's rule,
the Damascus that once looked like a grim little place now smells of
money, gripped by a consumer boom sustained by a clique of nouveau riche
and businessmen living it up in what's essentially a "money talks"
Foreign tourists crowd the old city's storied bazaar,
hotels boast full occupancy and trendy restaurants are so busy that
advance booking is always recommended. The latest car models from Japan
and Europe are a common sight on the city's congested streets and
boutiques selling designer clothes seem to multiply.
Opening up a
country economically while denying the populace democracy and freedoms
is perhaps the Arab world's most popular formula of governance. Close US
allies Egypt, Tunisia and Jordan have been pioneers in the field.
is not entirely risk-free. The free market economy often makes
political reform the next logical step in people's minds. Moreover, some
Syrian economists warn that the changes have widened the gap between
rich and poor and send prices soaring beyond the reach of most — making
the regime vulnerable to popular grumbling or even unrest.
real challenge ... is managing the switch from a socialist to a free
market economy without increasing poverty," said economist Jihad Yazigi.
"But the government has not managed this as well as it should."
he said, is desperately needed to root out corruption in the bloated
government sector and to make the judiciary more efficient in dealing
with trade disputes, if the regime is serious about boosting the
Still, Assad has been strong enough to weather a
difficult past few years, as Syria was forced to withdraw its military
from neighboring Lebanon in 2005 and endured heavy international
isolation that is only now beginning to ease. Assad has so far been able
to withstand U.S. pressure that Syria break its alliances with Iran and
militant groups like Hezbollah and Hamas.
power-base has been a trying process, but his grip on power today is
undeniable," said Bilal Saab, a Middle East expert from the University
of Maryland at College Park who regularly briefs US officials on Lebanon
Assad's image as a modernizer, helped by the appeal
and sophistication of his attractive, British-born wife Asmaa, have
helped him increase his popularity among Syria's 20 million people.
his family and its trusted associates keep a tight grip on the armed
forces, security and intelligence. They and the new business clique that
owes its deep pockets to the regime control the biggest and most
lucrative businesses like mobile phone line providers and franchises for
anything from cars to computers.
Unlike his father, the younger
Assad has not responded to political dissent by jailing thousands
without trial or by razing entire neighborhoods to the ground — steps
that would worsen Syria's isolation.
Still, after a short-lived
accommodation with opponents soon after coming to power in 2000, he has
followed the same uncompromising intolerance for dissent.
al-Maleh is a good example — the prominent 79-year-old reform activist
is currently standing trial before a military court on charges of
"disseminating false news that could weaken the nation's morale."
crime was criticizing arrests and the emergency law in a TV interview
and in Web articles.
In an April 22 court appearance, al-Maleh
pleaded to no avail to be released while on trial because of his
deteriorating health. He complains of diabetes and arthritis.
feared security agencies also keep a close watch on everyone, carefully
combing Internet postings for criticism of the regime and any sign of
religious militancy. Syrians say they are back to whispering again just
as they were when they wanted to talk politics under the rule of the
US-based Syria expert Joshua M. Landis said Assad's
claim to legitimacy is no longer rooted in Syria's conflict with Israel,
as it was under his father.
"It is based on the fear of chaos
and the promise of stability," he said.
Still, the younger Assad
uses the formal state of war with Israel to his advantage, with his
regime citing it to explain away economic woes, emergency laws and harsh
treatment of critics.
"Insisting on the idea that we are in a
state of war with Israel since 1973 is no longer acceptable," said Aref
Dalilah, a leading economist who in 2008 completed serving a seven-year
sentence after criticizing business monopolies awarded by the
"It's being used to justify everything."