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Last Updated: Tuesday, 6 July, 2004, 14:39 GMT 15:39 UK
Reformist despair in Assad's Syria
By Magdi Abdelhadi
BBC Arab Affairs Analyst

When Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad succeeded his father four years ago, he promised political and economic reform - but the state he inherited is still very much the same.

The Havana cafe in central Damascus is a favourite haunt for politicians, intellectuals and young lovers.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad
Assad promised reform when he took over from his father
Its history is shrouded in mystery. No one quite knows when and who built it.

According to one enduring legend, it was at here at the Havana that the Baath movement - a unique mix of Arab nationalism and Western socialism - was born in the 1940s.

The Baath (Arabic for "Renaissance") has ruled Syria since 1963.

Shrouded too is the inside of the cafe in a haze of hubble bubble smoke.

The dimmed lighting, the dark wooden ceiling and the sound of a mournful old love song from a crackling loudspeaker create the feeling of a place frozen in time.

There I met Mazen, a young Syrian man who's been unemployed for 10 years.

The characters changed, but the situation's the same
Mazen, 31, unemployed
"Our country is rich," Mazen tells me. "But 10% of the people in Syria, they live well and they make business and the 90% are living... you know... under the poverty line. It's unfair."

Thirty-one-year-old Mazen has given up hope that things will improve. He believes that in 10 years' time he will still be unemployed.

When I ask him whether it has made any difference that Syria now has a young president educated in the West, he says: "Nothing changed. The characters changed, but the situation's the same."

He looks worried when he says this. Is he afraid?

"A little bit, yes, you know, walls have ears..."

Brief period of openness

Mr Al-Assad was very popular when he succeeded his father at the age of 34, promising a more democratic system.

But after a brief period of openness, the authorities clamped down. They remain in full control of the economy and the media, and the security services keep a watchful eye over Syria's people.

Those who speak up risk being jailed.

Outside Damascus University, I met a young student who explained to me how he and others were detained earlier this year when they tried to organise an anti-government protest.

Men read newspapers in Damascus
Dissent is still not tolerated in Damascus
"About 20 security police surrounded us, we were bundled into a van and handcuffed.

"They forced our heads between our knees. Anyone who looked up was beaten.

"I think they're really worried about the prospect of student activism, because students have brought down governments around the world".

More than half of Syria's 18 million people are teenagers. The economy, still largely controlled by the state, cannot create enough jobs to absorb rapid population growth.

There's a widespread belief that the current system benefits a small group of entrepreneurs with close links to the authorities.

The status quo cannot be maintained. There must be a solution soon
Dr Samir al-Taqi
The middle-aged owner of a telecom company told me why he believes reforms have failed to materialise.

He says that if you're enjoying some benefits from the current system it's very hard to give them up, just for the sake of modernising the economy.

The people who run businesses, he adds, are related in one way or another to the government, and the government controls business here.

'National unity'

But the government brushes aside criticism.

Buthaina Shaaban is a minister who rose to prominence four years ago within the young Al-Assad government.

Syrian police guard the site of a gun attack on a UN building in Damascus
Security forces are to be feared in Syria
"We don't arrest people who demonstrate peacefully. There are other reasons for the arrests. But we don't compromise on our national unity," she told me.

"Any party that tries to promote a division of our national unity, which is vital for our survival as a country - that's against our law."

Syrians who want more freedom say this argument is an excuse to postpone reform indefinitely.

Dr Samir al-Taqi is a prominent Syrian intellectual. He believes vested interests within the government block any attempts at reform.

"There is a system of interest which is built on the status quo and any movement towards any real reform, either economic or political, would harm these systems of interest," he said.

"I predict that the status quo cannot be maintained. There must be a solution soon, I think."

If that does not happen, he warned, "then I think the soft solution will be more and more difficult and we could expect something that's not very soft - some dramatic happening".

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