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Last Updated: Thursday, 19 January 2006, 08:39 GMT
Syrians ponder country's future
By Kim Ghattas
BBC News, Damascus

Syrians walk past a poster of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus
Syria is isolated from changes taking place elsewhere in the region
Every morning, Nahid Badawiya, an engineer, and her husband Salama, a writer, enjoy a quiet start to the day.

In their modest Damascus apartment, they look like an ordinary couple, but they are part of what is left of Syria's secular opposition.

Over their morning coffee, they talk democracy and freedom of expression - radical subjects in this often repressive country.

Nahid still remembers the day 15 security agents picked her up from her parents' home in 1987.

Still a university student, she spent four years behind bars for being a communist under Baath party rule.

Three months after she was released, Salama was thrown in jail for eight years.

After he was freed, it was too late for them to start a family.

'Disappointed'

Despite everything they went through, they decided to continue focusing on their political work.

I will continue to try to bring about change if only to set an example for the younger generation
Nahid Badawiya

"If the regime had allowed others to participate in the decision-making process, Syria wouldn't be here today," Nahid says.

"I feel that we're going back to the 1980s, when the masses were mobilised around the state and repression was at its worst."

"I don't think that what I and my colleagues do has much of an impact, but I will continue to try to bring about change, if only to set an example for the younger generation."

Nahid says many Syrians are disappointed by President Bashar al-Assad's failure to deliver on his promises five years ago to bring reform to the country.

External challenge

To make things worse, the government could now face sanctions if it does not co-operate fully with a UN investigation into the murder of Lebanon's former prime minister, Rafik Hariri.

Abdul Halim Khaddam
Abdul Halim Khaddam has called for the overthrow of President Assad

A report based on the findings of the investigation has already implicated top Syrian and Lebanese officials, but Damascus denies any role.

For the first time, the Syrian leadership now also faces a challenge of some sort to its grip on power.

Syria's former vice president, Abdul Halim Khaddam, recently announced he was planning to form a government in exile as he launched a scathing attack against the Syrian president.

Today, for millions of Syrians like Nahid and Salama, life is made up of daily frustrations, fear and uncertainty about the future.

They feel their fate is the hands of the rich and the powerful, who have had a four-decade-long monopoly on power.

Reform

Across town from the Badawiya household, Firas Tlas comes home to his wife and five children after a day running his business empire.

While the ruling elite worries about losing out if change does occur, the secular opposition and the conservative Muslims are hoping to be the beneficiaries of that change

He is the son of a former minister of defence, who held his post for 32 years and was a close aide of Mr Assad and his father, Hafez.

Mr Tlas insists he is not part of the ruling elite but acknowledges he has had a sheltered life.

"It's true to say that I had opportunities as the son of Mustafa Tlas. People helped me but I didn't take advantage of the name," he said.

Mr Tlas believes reform is needed in Syria but maintains it can be done from within, even with people who have been power for decades.

"Mahathir Mohamed was in Malaysia for 25 years and he made reform. What you need is a good time," he added.

"Maybe some Syrians see me as part of the problem; maybe others see me as part of the solution."

Islamism

Many ordinary Syrians do wonder how much real change people like Mr Tlas could bring to the country, and they doubt that any pillar of the Syrian leadership, past or present, really wants to implement reform.

Damascenes pray at the Umayyad Mosque
A growing number of Syrians are going to the mosque

Still, a challenge to the government could come from within, as shown by Mr Khaddam's moves.

During this time of transition for Syria, one voice is rising above all the others.

For decades, the Syrian government ruthlessly crushed Islamist movements.

But today, let down by the state, unemployed, increasingly poor and living in a country under intense international pressure, many Syrians feel religion is the answer.

"When you have a good relation with Allah you will feel very comfortable. I am not afraid of the future. Allah helps us at this time of pressure," Layla Sharaf al-Din says, as she helps young girls memorise the Koran in a Damascus mosque.

Change

While the move towards religion is widespread across the region, in Syria it is a phenomenon to be watched closely.

A growing number of people are going to the mosque, more and more women wear the veil, and the conservative Islamic dress that has women completely covered - including their faces and hands - is also spreading in certain circles.

It is all a sign that things are in changing in a country that is meant to be socialist and secular.

The various segments of this very diverse society are now all looking ahead, wondering how they will fit into Syria's future.

While the ruling elite worries about losing out if change does occur, the secular opposition and the conservative Muslims are hoping to be the beneficiaries of that change.

Meanwhile, President Assad is working hard to weather the storm and stay on top.



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