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Tuesday, 17 July, 2001, 00:33 GMT 01:33 UK
Bashar: A year of cautious reform
By Caroline Hawley in Damascus
The Marmar bar in central Damascus is one of several newly-opened hang-outs for young Syrians of Bashar al-Assad's generation.
Their hopes soared when the 35-year-old former eye doctor became president a year ago, promising to transform the country and foster greater openness.
One year on, they have mixed feelings about what has been achieved.
"It's not good enough, I think," one customer said. "There is now a small space for liberties, it wasn't enough in the past. I see that one year is not enough period to judge if he can make the progress we were hoping for."
Most people say the biggest change is that Bashar al-Assad has cracked the hard wall of fear that existed under his father, Hafez al-Assad.
Since he came to power he has released hundreds of political prisoners and allowed the first independent newspaper for more than three decades to begin publishing.
For a while, the authorities also allowed a group of intellectuals pressing for democratic reforms to hold political meetings.
Riad Seif, an outspoken MP, was one of the leading lights of the new movement.
Although he was extremely disappointed when the order came in February to close the meetings down, he says Syrians have now woken up to the idea that, after decades of one-party rule, change is possible.
"Syrians now they start asking for their human rights, their economical rights, and thinking for their future," he said.
Bashar al-Assad - or Dr Bashar as he is known in Syria - has made clear his priority is economic rather than political reform.
Syria's once-closed economy is creaking slowly open. There are plans for private banks for the first time in decades.
Many Syrians still complain of rampant corruption. But Naji Shawi, a prominent businessman with interests ranging from pharmaceuticals to cheese, says the business climate is now much more promising.
"There is much more transparency. We are talking about today for instance a new banking system that is badly needed for the country. We have now much better telecommunications," he said.
In another symbol of the new openness, there are now two government-run internet cafes in Damascus.
But there are still controls on what sites Syrians can access.
Jamal Khadr, who works for one of the country's internet service providers, runs through the problem areas for Syrian surfers.
"This is an Israel site. So it's blocked, because it's an enemy site. Some sexual sites are blocked because we are Islamic country, and of course the sites which talk about us in a wrong way, we have many sites like that".
Bashar al-Assad was the driving force in bringing the internet to Syria.
But the way he has done so indicates his cautious approach to reform.
Some people believe an old guard with entrenched interests may be holding back the young leader. But no-one knows what is really happening behind the scenes.
Imad Shueibi, a political analyst and professor at Damascus university, says Bashar al-Assad is firmly in the driving seat, but that he is moving slowly in order to keep official institutions behind him and to try to ensure stability, particularly at a time of regional tension with Israel.
"He is a serious reformer but he is a statesman. He wants to keep this regime but to develop it," Imad Shueib said. This is frustrating for those who wanted much quicker and bolder change.
But opposition MP Riad Seif believes further reforms are inevitable.
"We are still waiting for the real change which did not come yet. We were expecting much more. But the good thing is that we still have the hope," he said.
Riad Seif plans to resume his political meetings later in the summer. He is also helping launch a new independent human rights group. That would have been unthinkable under Bashar's father.
The late president's portrait still hangs over government buildings, and the ruling Bath party remains in firm control.
Bashar al-Assad has made tentative reforms. But a year on there is still uncertainty over how far down that path he will take the country.
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