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Tuesday, 13 June, 2000, 05:18 GMT 06:18 UK
Syria: The forces of change
Damascus billboards
Advertising billboards are very new to Damascus
By BBC News Online's Tarik Kafala

The death of President Hafez al-Assad comes at a time when Syria is desperately trying to catch up economically and technologically with the rest of the world.

Politically, Syria is still dominated by the president, the military and the all-pervasive security services, leaving little room for a civil society that has no role in politics.

The late president was a harsh dictator who eliminated or imprisoned opponents for many years and left Syrians paranoid and secretive.

So afraid has the government been of change that it took several years and several futile crackdowns before accepting the private ownership of satellite dishes.

The cyber revolution only began to touch Syria after Bashar al-Assad, the president's son and likely successor, became the head of the body introducing computers to the country.

Economic reform

For much of Mr Assad's 30 years in power, Syria was run as a centralised command economy on a socialist model. A severe recession at the end of the 1980s drove the government to pass a law in 1991 to encourage foreign and Syrian expatriate investment.
Bashar al-Assad
Bashar al-Assad is expected to represent continuity and stability
Tax relief for investors and freedom from Syria's mysterious foreign exchange laws immediately boosted the economy.

This resulted in a dramatic increase in the standard of living of most Syrians, who for the first time had wide access to western consumer products such as cars and televisions.

Within five years, the proportion of the economy in private hands rose from 35% to 70%.

Towards the end of the 1990s, this progress all but ground to a halt. Analysts blame the fact that the banking sector was never reformed or privatised.

The government was also deeply anxious about the political difficulties experienced by neighbours pursuing liberalisation programmes - Jordanians have repeatedly rioted at the lifting of price controls.

Anti-corruption campaign

Also jeopardising economic reform has been Syria's endemic corruption. A government newspaper reported recently that government corruption was costing the treasury at least $50,000 a day.

Significantly, Bashar was also put at the head of the anti-corruption drive. Some prominent figures have been disgraced, including long-serving prime minister Mahmoud Zohbi who has committed suicide.

The government is also fighting deeply rooted vested interests within the ruling elite - the fact remains that to be a successful in business in Syria you need to be related or well connected to a senior figure in the army or government.

An Alawite dynasty

Even President Assad's most vehement detractors concede that his great achievement was to maintain stability in Syria's ethnically and religiously fragmented society - the example of Lebanon is a constant reminder.

This is one of the main reasons why Syrians are likely to go along with the founding of a dynasty of Alawites - a Muslim religious sect to which 10% of Syrians, including the Assads, belong.

It may also suit the powerful figures from the Alawite elite, who control many key posts in the army and intelligence services, to have Bashar as a figurehead, while they maintain their grip on power behind the scenes and carry on with business as usual.

See also:

10 Jun 00 | Middle East
11 Jun 00 | Middle East
10 Jun 00 | Middle East
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