Young Syrians seek prosperity

At his father's funeral on June 13, Bashar al-Assad finds support for his reform-oriented policies.

The top priority for Syria's designated president, the youthful Bashar al-Assad, was made manifest at the June 13 public funeral of his father, Hafez.

As the cortge rolled through the streets of Damascus, multitudes of Syrians dressed in black crammed into the important crossroads. But those most overcome with emotion were the youths, who collapsed in the heat in their frenzy, and kept orange-vested emergency workers busy reviving them.

While paying homage to the departed leader, the tens of thousands of young people who flooded Syria's capital were also giving an exuberant vote of confidence to a partly Western-educated son who has promised change.

For Syria's youth, who make up for more than half of its population and have known no other leader, the reason is simple: They expect a revolution of sorts, the kind that will break Syria out of a 30-year time warp. They want modern instruments, such as mobile phones and the Internet that are rare in Syria, but have spread rapidly across the region with the exception of Iraq.

While the West may view Syria through the prism of the Mideast peace process, the words on the lips of these constituents are of domestic concerns, and mirror the American aphorism, "It's the economy, stupid."

"Syrians want to live [better], especially the young ones," says Hassan, a recently graduated chemical engineer who traveled 70 miles from his village to pay his last respects to President Assad - and to "vote" for Bashar.

The new leader's first move should be to hasten economic reform, he says, and break the shackles of one of the few remaining state-dominated economies in the world. Bashar, trained as an eye doctor, has begun an anticorruption drive, is computer savvy, and so appeals most to Syria's youth.

"We want to move forward, but these older leaders have not allowed us to progress," Hassan says. "Now we are setting out on the right path, but when you start from zero, it takes time. The system has to change."

That system is what has fallen apart in recent years, leaving Syria increasingly isolated.

"Every Syrian must have two jobs to get by," says Fayez, a young Ukrainian-trained engineer, who also traveled from his home village to "vote" for Bashar. "The pay is so small, so Bashar must start with the economy."

To that end, Bashar has been steadily mobilizing his own team. In a March Cabinet shake-up, reportedly influenced by Bashar, Mohamed Mustafa Miro, who is said to be "clean" in terms of corruption, was appointed prime minister.

His brief is to help prepare Syria for the modern age: "The changes are more necessary than ever in every sector: The economy, information ... and technology," he recently told the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper.

"Dr. Bashar understands how far behind Syria is, and he has begun to change that," Hassan says, echoing a common theme. "The truth is that people around Assad took this country down the wrong path."

Government offices are mostly dingy, soulless affairs, however - and by one count one-quarter of the workforce are government employees. Agriculture remains a mainstay of the economy, along with oil - which accounts for 60 percent of exchange earnings and exports.

But the economy has been hit in recent years by drought and, until very recently, rock-bottom oil prices. Heavy military spending for years, too, drained the government coffers.

There have been some improvements. The Internet was introduced to Syria in 1998 - thanks to Bashar's role as head of the Syrian Computer Society - though it is still limited to some government ministries, the state library, and a few private accounts.

"As a point of principle, I would like everybody to be able to see everything," Bashar said in an April interview with two American reporters. "The more you see, the more you improve ... Knowledge is limitless."

The cost of mobile phone lines have dropped, but so far just a few are available. Distributors investing in Syria expect this business to skyrocket, as it has almost everywhere else in the Mideast.

In recent months, investment incentives have been introduced and exchange controls have been relaxed - even illegal currency dealers are no longer prosecuted.

Still, much needs to be done. There is no private banking in Syria. Lebanon - just next door to Syria - has a sophisticated banking system. And Syria's GDP of $15.6 billion is similar to that of Lebanon, which has only one-fifth of Syria's population. Neighboring Jordan is trying to streamline its bureaucracy and open its economy in ways Damascus has barely considered. Real Mideast commercial havens, such as Dubai, permit almost unregulated commerce.

Rich Syrians often maintain bank accounts in Lebanon or invest there, a point one Western analyst says has turned Lebanon into Syria's "iron lung."

By Syrian standards, Bashar's anti-corruption drive has been exceptional and catalytic. That young Syrian professionals at the funeral spoke of their "optimism" - while others wound themselves up until they physically collapsed - underscores the faith being placed in Bashar.

"Are the youth important?" asks a Western diplomat. "They are the ones in the streets."

But how far does Syria have to go? A cable company worker called Said was asked on a street corner, if he used the Internet at his office.

"What is the Internet?" he asked.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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