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Tuesday, 22 August, 2000, 19:12 GMT 20:12 UK
Syria's youth look to Bashar
Potraits of Bashar
The modern leader wants his public portraits removed

By Barbara Plett

The music is pounding as upscale Damascenes in lycra shorts and baggy sweatpants burn up the floor in a punishing aerobics routine.

Across the room, 17-year-old Omar Ghraowi is working up a sweat lifting weights.

Like many privileged young people who visit this trendy health club, he plans to go abroad for university and possibly to work.

Omar Ghraowi and Nora Sanadiki
Omar Ghraowi and Nora Sanadiki have hope
Opportunities are better overseas. But Omar and his friends think conditions might improve now, under the new president.

Bashar al-Assad is one of the youngest rulers in the Middle East. He is seen as a moderniser and possible force for change.

He certainly reflects the times: The majority of Syria's population is even younger than he is, and his peers are accepting him with a mixture of hope and uncertainty.

Hope in Bashar

"We feel more in contact with him," says Omar.

Jobless youth on street
Unemployment stands at 20%`
"He has a Western education, he's intervened a lot with the people - we have high hopes."

But isn't he too young and inexperienced to reform a failing economy plagued with corruption, to confront the vested interests of the older generation used to running the country their way?

"The thing is, we know it's not going to be overnight," says 18-year-old Nora Sanadiki.

"It's going to take such a long time for people to get used to it and for everyone to change, but we're still hopeful."

'Normal and modest'

It's a strange new world: Most Syrians are too young to have known anyone but Bashar's father as leader.

Imad Eldin Al-Dakr
Imad Eldin Al-Dakr
The son appears to be a bit of a different breed when it comes to Middle Eastern rulers - an unassuming man who wants to be treated like an ordinary guy.

"He's very normal, very modest," says Imad Eldin Al-Dakr, manager of the Gemini restaurant, where Bashar al-Assad was a frequent customer before his new post.

"He used to always shake hands with us, look us in the eyes, say hello, ask how's business."

Unemployment

Business is good for some, but most Syrian youth struggle to make a living.

Children sell cigarettes on the street; teenage labourers gather in the mornings hoping to pick up a day job; unemployment is believed to be 20%.

A street vendor sells cigarettes
A street vendor sells cigarettes
Many educated young people are forced to take the jobs they can find rather than the ones they want.

Mohammed Wanly has a university degree in English. He'd like to be a translator, but works as a sales clerk in an electronics shop instead.

"The problem that me and my friends have is not finding the right job for our qualifications," he says.

"We'll do anything that's offered to us, only to keep living."

Like most youth here what Mohammed wants from the new president is a good job and a better life.

Scepticism

Some have hope for the future, others are sceptical.

"[Bashar al-Assad] talks a lot but I don't know whether he'll find the way to do what he wants," says Rana, a 30-something linguist.

Syrian youth
The majority of Syrian's population is younger than Bashar
"He has no particular experience in politics."

Rana says young people are also waiting to find out whether the new president can loosen up the rigid political system.

"People are used to keeping quiet," she says. "They don't have the courage to show what they feel.

"It will take a while before we really see whether there's going to be a change."

In keeping with his more modern approach Bashar al-Assad has ordered that public portraits of himself all over the country be gradually removed.

Young people are waiting to see if his new style translates into new policies. Whatever their misgivings, they hope the untested young leader succeeds.

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See also:

12 Aug 00 | Media reports
Syrian media court glasnost
29 Jul 00 | From Our Own Correspondent
Syria's changing face
17 Jul 00 | Media reports
Bashar's first policy speech: Excerpts
17 Jul 00 | Middle East
Analysis: Cautious start for Bashar
13 Jun 00 | Middle East
Analysis: Bashar's challenges
11 Jun 00 | Middle East
Bashar al-Assad: Eyeing the future
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